Tripti Nath/New Delhi
Former Deputy NSA Pankaj Saran is sceptical about NATO’s assessment on Russia’s miscalculation in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. He also said that a solution can be found on the negotiating table not on the battle-field.
“To make clear cut statements that Russia is losing or Ukraine is winning is not so simple,’’ Saran said.
The former Indian Ambassador to Russia said that NATO’s assessment that Russia is losing and is on the backfoot might not actually be the case. "Information coming out of the battlefield and the ground is actually not very much. We are relying a lot on western media reports about what is happening,” said Ambassador Saran during a 32- minute discussion on his fortnightly show ‘Around the world with Pankaj Saran' on Awaz The Voice. He was replying to a question on NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg’s observation that President Putin’s speech demonstrates that the war is not going according to his plan and the emerging belief that the war is tilting in favour of Ukraine.
Asked about Putin’s message indicating possible use of nuclear weapons, the former diplomat said that the way we are moving forward is very disturbing. “This is a conflict taking place between nuclear powers – between countries which possess the most mighty militaries in the world. How do we contribute to reduction of tensions. Obviously, any use of nuclear weapons is going to be a disaster. That is quite clear Even the threat of use of nuclear weapons is an extremely disturbing aspect.
He said that India is averse to nuclear rhetoric and recalled that only two years ago, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan was talking about nuclear weapons. “ Further escalation must be halted.’’
Offering his insight into the conflict, Saran said, “ We are going to see escalation of the current conflict which is very unfortunate. The conflict is in a very delicately poised situation. Ukrainian President Zelensky is leading the country from the front. He obviously enjoys very strong political support from the rest of Europe, from United States and U.K. They are also giving him very sophisticated weapons and there is a huge package that has been approved by the U.S. Congress to supply Ukraine with the latest weaponry to fight the Russians.’’
Saran said that while the support from the United Nations, other diplomatic fora and on the ground is raising Zelensky’s spirits, the reality is that the Ukrainian forces are under extreme stress, losing people and military infrastructure is being destroyed.“It is difficult to say in one point of time which side is winning.’’
He said that the Ukrainians are getting supplies from the west and they are getting deployed. “ I don’t frankly see a situation where there is an outright victor or an outright vanquished.
Asked if India can be a peacemaker in a limited way, Saran said that he would like to think that India can play the role of a peacemaker. He also said that mediation between such powerful forces is not easy. The seasoned diplomat drew attention to the fact that the conflict involves the most powerful and the richest countries in the world. “They are all members of the Security Council and are nuclear armed. All one can do is to be the moral voice of reason and appeal to the parties to de-escalate which is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main message to Putin, Ukrainians and the international community was.''
He said that security interests of all sides must be addressed to ensure sustainable peace. The solution has to be diplomatic and on the negotiating table. No real solution is possible on the battlefield.
Saran said that the Indian position has been appreciated all around including the wider international community. “Basically, what we are saying is find a solution.Meanwhile, India’s relationship with U.S. and Europe is going forward at a fairly fast pace and will be very important in future for our technological and economic security.’’
He said that the fact is that Russia is not going anywhere. It is a huge country in the Eurasian continent. “India needs to have a friend in the Eurasian continent.”
Replying to a question, Saran said that President Putin’s announcement on mobilisation is very closely linked to the decision to have the referendum. The Russian President fears that the Ukrainian side with the help of western weapons and assets might try to attack those parts of Donbas which are now going to become part of Russia.Saran explained that the history of Russia actually is a history of very strong authoritarian central leadership. They have officially announced moibilisation of 300,000 reservists. The actual deployment is going to be different from mobilization.
He pointed out that there is a big Russian community in the Donbas region. “So, this ethnic fight between the Ukrainians and the Russians in Ukraine is something which actually lies also at the heart of the conflict. There is no uniform opinion within Ukraine about Russia. Every second Russian family has a Ukrainian connection. They are like almost blood brothers. That is actually also adding to the high level of emotion and strong sentiments on both sides,’’ he said.
Asked about the fate of 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine who are back home and are facing an uncertain future, Saran said, “ It is very tragic. They actually had to be evacuated. They belonged to all States of India. The Prime Minister thanked President Putin for his help recently and also thanked Ukraine. Both countries helped us bring them back. I don’t think there is any immediate prospect for them to go back. We still have a large number of Indian students studying in different parts of Russia. We have to address their needs in such a way that we look after them. For the moment, these Indian students will have to continue their education in India.’’
He said that India’s most recent initiative with Russia is to expand cooperation with Russian far-east which is two times the size of India. The Russian far-east cannot be ignored. It is huge territory. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked of how Indian semi-skilled and skilled labour can participate in the development of Russian far-east. He mentioned that India has 15 billion dollars of investments in oil and gas sectors in the far-east.
On the state of Russian economy, Saran said, “It does not seem as if Russia is going to shut down as an economy but the sanctions will have an impact because they are quite serious.’’
To a question about Putin escalating the conflict to a full-fledged war, Saran said, “I don’t think anybody wants to join a war effort but Russia has a military tradition. What he is invoking is Russian pride. He is trying to raise the level of patriotism to mobilise enthusiasm but it is not going to be easy.’’
Talking of the way India’s relations with Russia has evolved in the last 20 years, Saran said, “India’s relationship with Russia has moved a lot. When President Putin came to power in 2000, he restored the India Russia relationship. Sixty per cent of India’s military supplies now are from Russia. Tourist travel is growing and so are soft power exchanges.’’
Saran said that this is a defining moment for European security. “In the midst of all this complexity, for India, the primary strategic challenge is the rise of China.’’
Talking about the recently concluded SCO summit in Samarkand, the former envoy said, “It is important for India to be present at SCO because we have friends and adversaries there. India will be hosting the SCO summit next year.’’