GVS: How is the Russia-Ukraine crisis affecting India’s foreign policy?
Sanjay Kapoor: I think India’s foreign policy is under enormous pressure primarily because we took a stand in favor of Russia, not really favor, but you know, if you don’t take sides, you seem to be favoring one against the other. We abstained thrice in United Nations Resolutions, which were supposed to pin Russia down. We have even responded positively to Russia’s offer to buy $3.5 billion worth of oil from them, which they are giving us at a considerable price discount.
All this is deeply resented by the US and the Western Allies, who are putting enormous pressure on India to take a stand to criticize Russia. But we haven’t done that because we have old ties with Russia and its physical precursor Soviet Union. The Soviet Union time and again came to our rescue whenever there was a crisis pertaining to Kashmir or even when we had a scrap with our ‘not-so-friendly neighbor,’ Pakistan. The fact of the matter is that we hold the Soviet Union in very high esteem. It supported us even when it came to the war against Pakistan in 1971, especially when it came to Bangladesh, USSR vetoed the United States of America’s effort to stop us from going in, so those memories haven’t faded.
We think now, at a time when India is at a point where it can help Russia, we don’t want to be abandoning a friend. This point of view is not in any way seen very kindly by the US. However, some of the US officials recognize this and say that India has a complicated relationship with the West. Overall, we know that India is undoubtedly way moving towards the West.
GVS: Is this point of view – abandoning a friend – shared by the whole of India?
Sanjay Kapoor: There hasn’t been a referendum on this, but the fact of the matter is that Russians are liked because they have helped us in building power plants, steel plants, etc., so name it. I mean, since 1947, the Russians or Soviet Union had been involved in India’s growth; it slipped a bit when the Soviet Union cracked up, and Russia became a legatee of the Soviet Union, and also I think there was a certain resentment, which was building up in the Russian government towards how India was looking more towards West than they were looking towards Russia. But it was pretty logical because, in a certain way, Russia had diminished quite a bit; it no longer is a paramount power as it was in the early days. So, it was logical that India moved in the other direction, but in the last few years, our relationship has become far more comprehensive.
Russia is our very privileged strategic partner. In 2010, we chose to upgrade that relationship, and we are buying equipment from them. We purchased an S-400, which is something that rankles the United States of America. The US asked India to cancel that deal. We have, I think, delayed a few things here and there, but we persist on S-400, which we believe to be very important to take on China with whom we are having a very troubled relationship at the border.
GVS: You have mentioned that India has been receiving enormous pressure from the West concerning India’s position on Russia-Ukraine. What form of pressure has that been? Has it been verbal or more?
Sanjay Kapoor: I will give you an example. Over the last few days, there have been too many visits that are happening. These were supposed to happen, but Covid had brought in restrictions, however, some of them came up without much fanfare. You had the Japanese Prime Minister coming in [March 19] seemingly on a yearly summit, but, as the Global Times of China describes him, he was a lobbyist for the US pressuring India to fall in line when it came to the position held by other members of the QUAD, a construct that came to take on China and the Indo-Pacific. So nothing came out. India stood her ground.
Now we have learned that the Israeli Prime Minister wants to come, and surprises of all surprises, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Bennett, has been on social media saying that he is coming to meet his brother, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there has been no reciprocation so far, more than 20 hours have elapsed since he very merrily sounded wrote that tweet, I am coming. But nobody was willing to say that okay; he is coming; let’s talk about it, except for some very excited TV channels.
Read more: Russia loses 7 generals in Ukraine
GVS: So you think there might not be big bear hugs with the Israeli prime minister this time?
Sanjay Kapoor: I am not very sure whether he is coming, but the fact is that he is pushing very hard. So if he is not welcome, will he come? And why is he not welcomed? Surprising, because the BJP is so fond of Israel. They love that country, and they feel that India’s situation is very similar to that of Israel. They think that as Israel is surrounded by all the Muslim countries, India is surrounded by hostile neighbors, and one of them is a Muslim country. So they think that they have a solution for each other that they can learn from each other. Maybe some haze [about his visit] is going to clear after a while [India finally acknowledged Israeli PM visit, and he is expected to arrive April 2].
Then you have Victoria Nuland, the deputy secretary of state from the US who wants to come, and she is no pushover if you remember; Victoria Nuland was the one who actually brought down a pro-Russian government in Ukraine in 2014 when Yanukovych was there, and his government was pulled down. She was distributing cakes in Kyiv. So she’s coming [March 21]. I wonder why! They could have sent other heads, other Deputy Secretary of State’s who could have come, but she has been dispatched.
Then you have the Australian Prime Minister with whom we will have a virtual Summit [March 21]. There’s been an avalanche of foreign visits and phone calls over this. Surely, the top of the agenda is Ukraine, followed by all kinds of promises, such as the $42 billion that Japan is willing to offer. I don’t know whether they will give or whether it will be absorbed. I am not really sure because they have made similar promises in the past. Last time they were offering $20 billion. I don’t know how many billions actually came. Similarly, the Australians are bringing some INR 1500 crores, and it is supposed to be the biggest deal that they have signed with anybody, but the idea is to get India on board on Ukraine when it comes to the West.
Read more: Russia to limit Ukraine war?
GVS: You see this all due to India adopting an independent foreign policy?
Sanjay Kapoor: I think that is a reason. I mean, what has really happened is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite his dislike for the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, is going back to the non-aligned days, where he is supporting strategic autonomy. Now, it is called strategic autonomy earlier, it was called a multi-alliance, but it is supporting a certain kind of independence in terms of choosing your path. We in India have been quite happy about the way Pakistan Prime Minister praised India’s independent foreign policy, in a public meeting, when he said that India has done something which is remarkable and is following an independent policy and he wondered whether European Union envoys had the courage to pressurize India as they have done Pakistan.
So, there is appreciation all around for the kind of stand India is taking, but I am sure it is not going down well, with President Biden, as well as many of the allies who have shown the kind of aggression [towards Russia] which was unexpected. During this Russia-Ukraine war, they want to put Russia in a corner. The manner in which they have brought in sanctions will destroy the interconnectedness of the globalization that has taken place over the last 20 years.
There is fear in many countries about how it is all going to play out because it’s still early days. This isn’t even a month since the war broke out on February 24. There are fears, I think, in India, as there are in other countries also, like in Germany, or Western Europe, for that matter. They still use a lot of Russian oil and gas and have no sanctions against them. So India, if it is buying oil from Russia, is raising this point: if the Europeans can buy oil, why can’t a country like India, which is cash strapped and energy strapped, purchase oil from somebody who’s giving a good discount?
GVS: There is also talk that India may start doing some Rupee-Ruble trade as well. What is the likelihood of this happening? And do you think there could be any potential ramifications from this?
Sanjay Kapoor: India and the Soviet Union used to have a Rupee-Ruble arrangement earlier as well because the Soviet Union’s Ruble was not allowed to integrate into the global currency market; they used to swap currencies. What would happen is that the Russians would have an account in an Indian bank, and Indians would have an account in the foreign bank, and then there would be a transaction based on a notional amount of value. So, they probably link it to $1, or maybe euro or whatever, and then the transaction will take place. So something like this could happen because the Russians have been removed from the SWIFT; usually, to go through global banking, you could transact on that. So, once a SWIFT has gone away, you have a situation where India, if it trades with Russia, has to buy oil, or even S-400, will have to make payments in rupees.
The same thing is happening between the Chinese and the Russians; you have the yuan arrangement which is taking place. So, we might see the beginning of the de-dollarization of the world economy. Suppose you have two or three large economies suddenly waking up and saying, look here, we don’t need dollars as an intermediary currency or reserve currency. In that case, we will manage on our own, so that could happen in a short while.
India was also trading with Iran; because of restrictions brought in by the US, we had a riyal-rupee swap arrangement where we would exchange currencies through which oil was paid. The trade had gone up to almost $11 billion before the Americans decided enough was enough, and it should be dissolved, and we came under pressure that time.
Read more: Ukraine: Did nuclear deterrence breakdown?
GVS: How does India view the potentially closer relationship of the Russian and the Chinese? At the beginning of February, during the Winter Olympics, when Putin went there, they said there’s no limit to this friendship, and of course, now that Russia is under sanctions, there is the belief that China will help it out. How is India viewing this relationship?
Sanjay Kapoor: This is a very technical question for a lot of Indians. India doesn’t want to get pressured by the US to take sides or to antagonize China, for that matter. So even when we became members of the QUAD, at the insistence of the US, as part of a grand design that, you know, the Indo-Pacific is in place, and the big enemy is China. There should be an attempt to serve as a countervailing force, as a counterpoint to the Chinese expansion. India had this reservation; they said they didn’t want the QUAD to militarize, and it was seen as more as a coming together for three or four powers to take on disasters and climate change.
For a brief while, when President Trump was in power and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, they made it very clear that it’s a military construct that made India very uneasy. In 2020, just when the elections were taking place in the US, there was a scrap between India and China, primarily because I think there were misgivings on what exactly was happening with India and our journey towards becoming part of a military alliance [QUAD]. Despite the fact India denied that they had anything to do with the US when it came to military alliances, China wasn’t convinced.
So, I think there is a problem. There is a border that is shared between India and China, as it sits on 3500 kilometers, and that complete border is almost unmarked, so there is a lot of salami slicing, which is taking place. Chinese have been accused of taking in India’s proper territory. Similarly, India has also claimed that they have never been holding themselves back, but that is a scrap that has not been sorted out. India has used the presence of Russia in certain ways for sorting out or as a hedge against China. Russia is also keen that the India-China relationship remains cool, and they don’t really flare up because Russia is of the belief that if there are differences between India and China, the biggest gainer would be the West, and Russia wants that kind of thing to stop. They believe that the Atlantic Alliance in a certain way controls the world narrative, and they are the ones who are trying to stop the Asian and Eurasian powers from doing pretty much what they want in trying to pull them back.
So, there are many things that are playing out during this Ukraine crisis, and India, Russia, China, the RIC countries, as they are just called, are trying to see whether they can work together. Foreign Minister Mr. Wang Yi is coming on the 24th to Delhi, which is a very significant visit in my reckoning, primarily because the Chinese have no love lost in India. Similarly, in India, you will have TV channels, you have media, you have all kinds of experts who are spewing venom all the time against China, and that is not going to be of India’s interest primarily, because if you decide to take on the West, or if you take an independent line on West, you will need help you need support and China is offering that whether we like it or not. So, it’s a moment of major reckoning; it is a time when we can’t afford to be neutral. So if we decide to go in RIC (Russia, India, China) kind of arrangement, which is a breakaway of the BRIC that was formed some years ago, then there will be repercussions. India is in a very unenviable position.
GVS: Given, as you mentioned, the long history that India has with Russia, and in 2010, they signed the special strategic cooperative partnership with each other, how does India’s increasing role in QUAD fit into that relationship?
Sanjay Kapoor: I don’t think Russia and China are comfortable with India becoming a QUAD member. They have made it amply clear that they are very uncomfortable. However, Russia doesn’t buy the construct, which has emanated from China, that QUAD is like an Asian NATO, and this membership could have a response, very similar to how it has responded to Ukraine. But it is a threat in a certain way; it is a threat of how the Chinese are interpreting QUAD. This is despite the fact that Mr. Jaishankar, the Indian Foreign Minister, has made it amply clear that it is not a military relationship, no military alliance, etc., but the Chinese are not convinced.
They think that the US is driving it; the US is, all the time, in their reckoning, a country that cannot be taken for granted. They have their agendas. Mr. Le Yucheng, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, has commented on the more granular formulation or small groupings that have been built in the Indo-Pacific, which can put China under pressure, and he thinks that everything that had been created in the Pacific is meant to reign in China. So how do you disabuse Beijing’s view on QUAD? How do you disabuse Beijing’s entire perception about why it has been formed? That will be a challenge for India, and if Mr. Wang is coming to India to figure out whether there is a possibility of having a deepening relationship because they think that we are at the point where we can depart from the US-controlled alliance at the moment. If that happens, then you have interesting world order taking shape.
GVS: One thing being mentioned is the fact that India’s relationship with Russia is necessary because it still imports 50-60 percent of its military equipment from Russia and is hugely dependent on Russia for the maintenance of old arms, which are 80 to 85% of the army equipment. If it did not have this dependence, India could more easily move towards the West. If India was part of the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) strategic defense relationship that recently started, would its dependence on Russia decrease?
Sanjay Kapoor: India’s entire weaponry, about 85 percent, comes from Russia. Although our dependence is now reduced quite a bit, having said that, we still require all kinds of support. If we have a two-front war, if we do not have a supply of weapons from Russia, I can assure you that things would be very bad for India, and nobody would be coming to our rescue.
So we are aware of that, and I have been reading some of the parliamentary committees, especially on defense. One committee said that if spare parts for SU-30, which is a Russian aircraft, don’t come in quickly, almost 25-30 aircraft, which are on the ground, will remain there, and it will cause a certain vulnerability in our strategic response. So it is imperative that the spare parts are brought in, and things are put in shape. So in a certain way, Russia is very important, at least in the transition for the next 5-10 years, and that is why India never decided to be part of AUKUS. I mean, AUKUS, in a certain way, bailed out India.
GVS: Were you even offered a position in the AUKUS?
Sanjay Kapoor: We were not, but the fact of the matter is that this formation took us by surprise. We thought that we were the chosen one, although we were most ambivalent about it. I think the US also recognizes that India cannot, in a certain way, deliver what they want because they are the only country that shares a 3500-kilometer border with China, and we had major issues with them, and we are not in a position to take on China. China is a different world; it’s a world power. It is a $17 trillion economy, and we are struggling to reach three trillion. So let’s be realistic; although we do a lot of chest-thumping and all that, there is a big gap between them. China is growing in terms of technology, equipment, and even reordering the army at an unimaginable speed. Their surveillance technology is phenomenal, and they are trying to give the US a run for its money. Washington wants to take on the Chinese in the coming days, but India can’t, despite the fact that we had historically competed with each other, but you know, it’s now a different league altogether.
GVS: Switching topics, I would like to ask you about the ‘accidental misfiring’ of the missile that came into Pakistan. What is Indian media asking the government? Are they saying why did this happen? How did this happen between two nuclear-armed nations? What kind of questions are being asked by the media from the government?
Sanjay Kapoor: Surprisingly, not really hard questions. People aren’t talking about it. There was certain bewilderment in people who don’t understand this kind of thing, but everybody accepted the government’s point of view, that it was misfiring. Even global response was in line with what India has been saying. The US agreed with our point of view, and so did many others. Questions are being raised by Pakistan, which has every right to do it and not even China. I have been following Global Times, and in the passing days, they raised the questions pertaining to misfiring, but it has been somewhat muted.
GVS: I think China has supported Pakistan’s view that there should be a joint probe.
Sanjay Kapoor: But they were not scandalized. There was no outrage as to how this could happen because nothing had happened like this before. In India, there hasn’t been enough analysis. There has not been real discussion on this, but having said that, it is bewildering, although cases of misfiring have been reported historically. I was reading an article by Christopher Clary in the War on the Rocks, and this is not the first incident of misfiring; similar things have happened.
GVS: Do you not think the Indian population is worried about this event?
Sanjay Kapoor: Worry is that Pakistan has a second-strike capability and if the assurance had not gone to them or their investigation didn’t prove that it was actually a botched-up affair, and they had pressed a button, and they would have flown in India’s direction. We don’t know the kind of human tragedy would have unfolded, but the enormity of that accident has not registered. People have not even begun to understand that we have just escaped a major catastrophe.
GVS: We were lucky that there weren’t tensions in the air. Do you know of any accountability within the government or the army structure that has taken place? Has anybody been fired? Has anybody had to resign as a result of this?
Sanjay Kapoor: There has been nothing as yet. I think the government has announced a court of inquiry, and once a report of the court inquiry is submitted, maybe something will happen, but as of now, nothing, and we have to wait. I mean, the fact of the matter is that India and Pakistan remained safe from a tragedy. The government is saying this was an accident, and accidents do happen; we were saved from a major tragedy. So God has been kind.
GVS; I would like us to move towards Kashmiri files. It’s a movie that’s recently been released in India, and it’s creating a lot of controversy within India and Pakistan about how Kashmiri pundits’ killings have been portrayed. Many have described it as basically a manipulative propaganda vehicle whose aim was to rouse motions against Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has praised this movie and criticized the critics for not understanding it, but the movie has said that 4,000 Kashmiri pundits were killed during the 1989 to 1990 period, whereas the government’s figures say around 200. So what do you think the purpose of this movie was? Is it to drive a particular agenda?
Sanjay Kapoor: The truth is that there has been a very competing point of view on Kashmir. You have the supporter, the BJP, who thinks that a major tragedy occurred; actually, any war or conflict that drives people from their homes is a tragedy. We are seeing one unfold in Ukraine; something similar happened not of that dimension, but surely but there is certain history that the film has blocked out, but the film makes it very clear that it’s a work of fiction. But having said that, it has got the endorsement from the party in power, the prime minister himself has led in backing it, it has made 100 crores in a very short time. It might make much more as many state governments are waiving entertainment tax, and a lot of people have been praising it. There is a generational issue; the new generation doesn’t know what happened in Kashmir. So they will take everything that the government is providing at face value.
GVS: As you mentioned, the new generation has no clue because, of course, they were born after that, but the movie. While it’s a fiction movie, it doesn’t talk about the mass graves that Muslims were killed. The hundreds of thousands have disappeared in Kashmir on the Muslim side. So there seems to be a certain agenda that it wants to drive forward. The reaction you have seen to this movie, videos are flying around in social media, where Hindu right wing men had said, we need to go into Kashmir and marry these women. We will, within less than a generation, change the demographics of Kashmir. So that is the reaction we have had to the movie, so the film is significant whether it was fiction or not.
Sanjay Kapoor: I entirely agree with you. In normal circumstances, a film like this would not have been allowed by the sensor board if it is provocative or something that will cause turmoil in society. But having said that, we now live in a different world where there is no space for morality, there is no space for the other point of view, and there’s only one point that has been hammered. However, the Chief Minister of the state of Chhattisgarh has been very critical. He says that he went to see the movie but came back, saying that the facts have been distorted, and others also saying the same thing, but the truth is that it has the endorsement of the government, and whoever is in power is controlling the truth.