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Why India’s media must not misread Russia-China ties, underestimate Moscow’s strategic autonomy

The western narrative is endorsed that with Finland and Sweden joining Nato, Putin has achieved the opposite of what he intended in invading Ukraine, that is, to stop Nato’s expansion

It is ironic that while the press in US and major European countries serves the interests and preferences of their establishments by generating pressure on India on domestic issues as well as foreign policy choices, our own press serves these very establishments in endorsing or amplifying such pressures.

We see this in the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The coverage of the conflict has been pronouncedly pro-Ukrainian on our TV channels, while the government is maintaining a neutral position, as it believes that choosing sides is not required and doing so will do lasting damage to our national interest. There is a clear gap between the position of the government and the stance of our media. Reports on the conflict in our media are based on feeds by western news agencies or articles appearing in the US or UK press. That we do not have media representatives stationed in the conflict area and hence have to rely on western agency feeds may be a reason, but how to explain that even the editorials in our major English language newspapers project the western perspectives on the conflict.

Articles by foreign ambassadors stationed in Delhi denouncing Russia on the Ukraine conflict appear regularly in our English language press. The intention is to directly address public opinion in India in order to generate, beyond official representations, as much pressure as possible on government policy. It is against diplomatic propriety for foreign ambassadors to attack a country in the local media with which the host country has friendly ties, but the porousness of our media to approaches by foreign embassies encourages this.

The irony is that the press in western countries will not publish articles by our ambassadors stationed there even to explain our case on issues on which we have differences with third countries, much less attack them. Can you imagine an Indian ambassador lashing out against Pakistan or China on terrorism, sovereignty claims, military aggression and such like issues in the columns of the mainstream western press?

Our press should have greater self-respect and not allow itself to be used as a tool of foreign propaganda on our own soil against our own interests. Our journalists seek interviews with visiting foreign dignitaries particularly from the West, which the western press does not do with visiting Indian leaders. Our leaders in fact get very little press coverage when they visit western countries. This, in a way, reflects our continuing complexes towards the West and our susceptibility to western opinion. Worse, the visiting leaders are asked to comment on issues of democracy and human rights in India, our stand on the Ukraine issue etc., which gives them the opening they need to comment on our internal affairs as well as our position on the Ukraine conflict.

Our press, in fact, does the PR job for them by offering them a platform to give their opinion on matters on which, unasked, they would not be able to comment publicly so easily. Our press blames Russia primarily for the Ukraine conflict. It makes the usual arguments about the violation of the sovereignty of an independent country and breaching the UN Charter etc., which in principle is right, but this is done without any critical examination of the extent to which the past policies of the West led to this unacceptable situation.

The role of the West in prolonging the conflict by supplying several billion dollars’ worth of weaponry and financial assistance to Ukraine is reported without any adverse comment. The strengthening of the transatlantic alliance is not examined by our press, as it should be, from India’s perspective, and that of the non-western world in general. The western narrative is endorsed that with Finland and Sweden joining Nato, Putin has achieved the opposite of what he intended in invading Ukraine, that is, to stop Nato’s expansion. There is no evaluation of what Nato’s expansion means for European peace and, equally, its global impact, especially as the Nato Secretary General advocates a role for Nato in the Indo-Pacific, as does the UK.

No thought is given in our press columns on the implications of this for the emergence of a more multi-polar world, an objective that India has long embraced. What impact this can have on our role in the Quad and our increasing support for the Indo-Pacific concept is also left unexamined, as is the question about how Nato acquiring a profile in the Indo-Pacific area would affect opinion in the ASEAN countries, on their centrality in forging an Asian security architecture, not to mention complicating the Quad Plus strategy of linking countries like Indonesia to the Quad architecture.

It is instructive that our press gives a lot of space to articles that raise the question of the negative political impact of the Ukraine intervention on our ties with Russia, ignoring the fact that military interventions by the West in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan did not lead India to question the value of its ties with US, UK or the EU. Questions are raised about the future of our military ties with Russia, the future reliability of Russia as a source of defence equipment, as the country would be busy replenishing its stocks heavily depleted by the Ukraine conflict, which echoes the views expressed in the West. While the concerns about disruption of supplies are legitimate and are giving a fillip to Atmanirbharta in defence manufacturing, the extent of space given to such articles in our press suggests that an agenda is being pushed.

The negative perspectives on the Russian economy under sanctions and its decline as a power are projected as reasons for re-examining our relations with Russia. It is interesting to note that many questioning the future of our ties with Russia are international relations experts in private universities in India or those of Indian origin in some western universities.

The strengthening of Russia-China strategic ties is being projected as a threat to India’s security, with Russia becoming a vassal state of China, and thus liable to be pressured by it to deny India defence support should there be an India-China border conflict. As a corollary, the impact of this on our membership of BRICS and the SCO is raised. The fears of Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a powerful nuclear weapon state, possessing massive natural resources, self-sufficient in energy and food, becoming a vassal state of China are highly exaggerated. It is pertinent that President Putin in a recent foreign policy directive has singled out China and India as its major partners. This could be read as Russia signalling that its relations with India have an importance independent of its strengthening ties with China.

India has become much closer to the US strategically, militarily and economically in recent years. Have we become a vassal state of the US as a result? If India despite our greater vulnerabilities as compared to Russia’s many strengths can retain our strategic autonomy in pursuing our national interest by maintaining the rhythm of our ties with Russia, refusing to condemn Russia on Ukraine, and indeed, expanding our economic ties with that country, and this despite western pressures, why are we assuming that Russia will sacrifice its ties with India at China’s bidding? China needs Russia as a buffer between it and the US, and Russia needs India more than in the past to balance China and also keep India anchored in the structures of a developing multipolar world like the BRICS and the SCO.

(Kanwal Sibal is India’s former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Russia. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

Also Read: Why India should take the Russia-China summit in its stride