'If the Russian forces do capture Kyiv and set up some sort of provisional government, they might run into an insurgency, for which the geography is just right, it could prove costly for them.
'In that event, the whole exercise could turn out to be counter-productive -- and costly in both foreign policy and domestic terms.'
"A sentiment that I frequently encountered over the years was that the only major country from which Russia was confident of never facing a threat was India," says Prabhat Prakash Shukla who served in missions in Moscow thrice and was India's ambassador to Russia between 2007-2011.
Ambassador Shukla served the Indian Foreign Service for 37 years and has the distinction of opening India's embassy in Ukraine in 1992.
"Indo-Russian relations are good, and there is a clear understanding on both sides that each will follow a diversified foreign policy.
"The important caveat to this is that we shall do nothing in this process to hurt the other country's security interests. Russia has been scrupulous in observing this as far as the triangle India-Russia-China is concerned. Where it is beginning to wobble is with respect to Pakistan and the Taliban, and this is troubling," Ambassador Shukla tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih in an e-mail interview.
Many Indians were surprised by India's abstentions in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly during the votes on Ukraine -- to them, it almost appeared a tacit endorsement of the Russian actions in Ukraine.
How do you see the Indian response so far to the Ukraine crisis? What has pleased you? What has disappointed you?
I believe we did the right thing in abstaining. That is not tantamount to an endorsement of Russian actions. Read with our explanation of vote, one gets a clearer sense of Indian thinking.
We did express regret that not enough time was given for diplomacy to play itself out, and we have endorsed the principle of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.
I would imagine that there is also a fairly active but quiet diplomacy being undertaken by our government, and that is the more effective approach.
The government also deserves credit for the way our citizens, mainly students, are being evacuated from the war zones.
Did the National Interest -- given Russia's consistent support for India and its positions -- ultimately triumph over the seeming impropriety of appearing to support a nation's transgressing another nation's sovereignty?
Do you believe we didn't have a choice but to abstain on the votes? There is also the view that there was nothing wrong in the Indian abstentions given the fact that Ukraine has consistently taken anti-India positions in world fora, including on Kashmir?
Your question contains its own answer; Ukraine has been consistently unhelpful -- putting it mildly -- in regard to our security concern.
To that, we should add that national interest is paramount, and the 'seeming impropriety' must take second place.
We need to remember that the West has done much the same in the Balkans through the 1990s, after the Cold War ended. A country that was friendly to India -- Yugoslavia -- was wiped off the map, despite UN Resolutions endorsing its territorial integrity. This is just the way great powers conduct themselves.
That said, I believe Russia has set itself an almost impossible political objective in seeking to de-Nazify, demilitarise, and neutralise Ukraine.
As someone who served three terms at our mission in Moscow, how do you assess the current state of India-Russian relations?
Has it withstood India's seeming lurch towards the United States that began around the time you took charge as India's ambassador in Russia?
Would you describe it as strong and resolute as it was in the later Brezhnev era?
Or has realpolitik crept into the relationship with President Putin forming associations with India's adversaries like China and Pakistan?
Does India have anything to be worried about Russia's China and Pakistan links, especially in the defence sphere?
I should also remind you that I opened our embassy in independent Ukraine -- I take pride in the fact that the first Indian diplomatic footprint in Kiev in 1992 is mine. Of course, I also visited Ukraine several times when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
Indo-Russian relations are good, and there is a clear understanding on both sides that each will follow a diversified foreign policy.
The important caveat to this is that we shall do nothing in this process to hurt the other country's security interests. Russia has been scrupulous in observing this as far as the triangle India-Russia-China is concerned. Where it is beginning to wobble is with respect to Pakistan and the Taliban, and this is troubling.
At my farewell call on Foreign Minister Lavrov, I mentioned to him that former Soviet Premier Kosygin had also tried to establish active ties with Pakistan in the 1960s, but he had been careful to keep us informed at each stage, and to seek our acquiescence, at the very least, in what he was doing.
I did also point out that the situation had changed by the 21st century -- we were not the India of the 1960s, nor was Pakistan, which was close to being a failing State, and, indeed, the Soviet Union was no more.
I should clarify that we have not 'lurched' towards the West: As a person who was involved with the setting up of the strategic partnerships with both the US and Russia, I can affirm that there was serious assessment behind our moves.
During your tenure, did you encounter Russian puzzlement over New Delhi's proximity to Washington?
Despite this, India-Russia relationship continued on an even keel, elevating the Strategic Partnership to the level of a Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership, which transformed the association after the decline during the Yeltsin years.
What are your insights on how this was achieved and what was the impetus for it -- beyond keeping a trustworthy ally engaged -- as India embarked on a different diplomatic road?
You are right that the relationship suffered some setbacks during the Yeltsin years, but there were influential policy-makers even then in Moscow who themselves understood that this was the wrong approach to India.
Just as we value Russia as a trusted partner, they also see us as the same. A sentiment that I frequently encountered over the years was that the only major country from which Russia was confident of never facing a threat was India.
They also acknowledged that India played a significant role in saving their defence industry, by keeping up orders, when Russia itself was financially constrained, and could not afford large-scale acquisitions. That is also the reason our defence cooperation and technology sharing has been as active as it is and something that has no parallel with any other country.
One could say the same about our energy cooperation with Russia, not just in hydrocarbons, but nuclear energy too. These are important aspects of our energy security.
How do you interpret the Moscow-Beijing entente?
You first served in Moscow when Sino-Soviet relations were hostile and uncertain. Were you taken aback by the Putin-Xi bonhomie?
Is the presence of a common adversary -- the United States -- the only explanation for what has brought China and Russia together?
Can this association withstand the geographical -- China has long coveted Russia's far east -- and strategic challenges?
Can it withstand the fact that Moscow is a junior partner and must defer to China's economic might? Will it survive the Putin-Xi era?
True, I have seen the ups and downs in the Moscow-Beijing relations. In my judgement, the current closeness is indeed driven by American hostility towards Russia.
The honest truth is that the Russian policy makers would much rather maintain close ties with the West, especially with Europe; in fact, several of their analysts had lately begun talking about Russia adopting non-alignment in the face of the growing US-China tensions. But even now, I am not convinced that Russia-China ties are all they are cracked up to be.
Much was made of their joint statement this February, but even then, Russian press commentary pointed out that China did not endorse the Russian position on Ukraine [as distinct from its position on NATO expansion], and Russia did not support China's claims in the South China Sea.
Equally, when the CSTO forces intervened in Kazakhstan this January, the official Chinese support was distinctly muted. And now we are seeing how, over the current fighting in Ukraine, China has been essentially neutral.
As to a post-Putin-Xi era, a lot will depend on how their tenures end. In the event of a discontinuity in either country, and more adroit American policies, the relationship between Russia and China will change.
Were you surprised by the Ukraine invasion? His critics say Ukraine is a serious mistake. What do you think Mr Putin expects to achieve beyond installing a Moscow-friendly government in Kyiv and drawing a laxman rekha around Russia's area of influence that NATO will no longer cross?
In your opinion, what could be Mr Putin's objectives with this Ukrainian invasion. Is it a miscalculation that will cost him power?
All through 2021, the West, and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, were targeting the Crimea. There was Defender Europe 2021 NATO Exercise along the borders of Ukraine, the largest all-arms exercise in decades.
Then there was the Exercise Sea Breeze 2021 in the Black Sea, an otherwise annual event, but this time on a larger scale than ever before. The aim was to practise amphibious operations and maritime interdiction [India was also invited, but declined; Pakistan participated].
And finally, Ukraine set up a new body called the Crimea Platform (external link) with the declared aim of addressing the 'ongoing occupation of Crimea' and of increasing international pressure on the Kremlin. Over 30 countries took part, including all the G7 members, and almost all European countries.
This was a threat to the Russian position in the Black Sea, a vital interest. So, no, I was not surprised by the Russian response as far as the Donbass was concerned: Russia intends to complete the land link to the Crimea. But I was unprepared for the very broad political aims of the operation, and I am not convinced that that was either wise, or indeed, feasible.
If the Russian forces do capture Kyiv and set up some sort of provisional government, they might run into an insurgency, for which the geography is just right, it could prove costly for them.
In that event, the whole exercise could turn out to be counter-productive -- and costly in both foreign policy and domestic terms. We can already see the economic effects -- the virtual collapse of the rouble and of the stock exchange -- this latter has been closed for the past few days, after falling 30 percent.
If he succeeds, how will it change equations in the world? Will the power of the United States be seriously undermined, provoking lesser players to take on Washington?
Could China be empowered to similarly assimilate Taiwan, or maybe be more aggressive on India's borders?
China's developing attitude is, for us, the central concern. They could try and probe our readiness on the border, but I believe our response in Galwan in June 2020, has given them pause.
The PLA is in a very aggressive frame of mind, and this is a pivotal year for President Xi, as he seeks a third term as party and state leader.
We would be looking to our defences, I don't doubt. As for Taiwan, the Chinese have clarified their position that their support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine does not apply to Taiwan, since the latter is not a separate country.
The US military leadership has confirmed that the developments over Ukraine are not distracting them from the China threat. But it would be wise to provide adequate arms to Taiwan in advance, before any putative shooting war starts. And it would be good for the US to shed its strategic ambiguity with regard to Taiwan's security, and take steps to commit to defending its sovereignty.
As for the US, they have achieved one important objective: They have united Europe against Russia and will progressively seek to reduce the dependence of the former on the latter for natural resources.
In the first place, this means hydrocarbons, but it extends to foodgrains and edible oils, and we can expect higher prices for all of these.
The US will also be searching for alternative sources of natural gas for Europe and that is where Iran and Qatar will come into play, with all the attendant consequences.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com