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India's silence on Crimea won't help Russia or the West

Speech is silver; silence golden. This seems to be the Indian mantra when it comes to talking about the Indian silence on the Russia versus the West in Crimea after Crimea's accession to Russia.
More than 24 hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to discuss the Crimea developments there is no formal Indian response on the subject.
This is both surprising and shocking. But wait! The last word is yet to be written or spoken when it comes to a formal Indian reaction after Putin picked up the phone and chose to dial Singh.
A rally in Crimea on Tuesday. AFP

A rally in Crimea on Tuesday. AFP

It looks like that the much-awaited Indian reaction on the latest developments in Crimea is not coming at all.
The Indian silence over the Crimean/Ukrainian issue connotes that India wants to maintain an ambiguous position on this issue, as is conveyed by the official Indian response after the Putin-Singh telephonic conversation initiated at the behest of the Americans.
This brings us to the vital question: what is India’s stand on Crimea after its accession to Russia?
Putin has already lauded the efforts of China and India in the current political and diplomatic flashpoint in Crimea.This gives promising signals for a Russia-India-China bonhomie and a new world order.
By choosing not to come up with a response, India has given out a discreet signal that it does not want to side with any particular side.
In other words, India is not ready to take on the West in the ongoing Russia-West diplomatic spat and wants to play it safe. Why? Most probable reason is that the UPA government knows that it is in transition and that it is up to the next government to take a call on all major policy decisions, including foreign policy and the Crimea issue.
However, insiders say that the Indian reticence does not mean that India is not supporting Russia in its time of crisis. On the contrary, the Indian silence is a tacit support for Russia. But is tacit support enough?
Forget about the current lame-duck UPA government. India has to take a position on the Crimea developments. India cannot defer its decision till a new government takes over which won’t happen before May end. By then the Crimea issue would have been long decided.
But diplomatic crises do not wait for internal political processes. The UPA government has to take a call on the issue and has to calibrate its stand. Given the fact that diplomacy is a work in progress, it would be highly unlikely that whatever decision the UPA government takes is reversed or substantially changed by the new government in New Delhi.
There are three possible scenarios.
One, India stands firm in its support for Russia. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon has already remarked that Russia has legitimate interests in Crimea/Ukraine. If New Delhi actually does that – and takes an unambiguous stand over the issue – it would be highly improbable that the next Indian government would reverse such a decision. Under the current political situation, this does not seem to be happening and the UPA government is going to let the issue be determined by the next government. This is the most likely scenario.
Two, India supports the West. It is highly unlikely. Menon’s remark, coming as it does from a seasoned career diplomat, conveys the Indian mood and, therefore, sets the agenda for the next government to take a call.
Three, India opts for the middle path and underscores the need for a peaceful resolution of the problem through a constructive dialogue. This is what was implied by the official Indian statement on Tuesday with regard to a telephonic conversation between Putin and Manmohan Singh. This is a likely scenario too, but not good enough.
Indian support for Russia over the Crimea flashpoint may be tacit. There may not be any Indian statement on the issue, after all. But the West should not construe India’s silence as New Delhi’s stamp of approval on the Western strategy of getting after Crimea/Ukraine and imposing sanctions against Russia.
Indian diplomatic czars need not worry about extending support to its tried and tested friend like Russia. China has already formally supported the Russian actions in Crimea. This has exerted pressure on India to follow suit or at least do something as soon as possible.
India needs to calibrate its Crimea strategy very carefully. India is in catch-22 situation. If it supports Russia, it infuriates the West and loses whatever goodwill it has earned over the years.
If India remains non-committal it conveys that India is not yet ready to get sucked into the Russia-versus-the West cesspool.
In both the above scenarios it does not do much credit to India which has ambitions of becoming a superpower in the next two decades.
This is a ticklish diplomatic chessboard that the current Indian government is faced with over the Crimean issue.
The UPA government cannot leave this urgent matter to be decided by a future government in New Delhi. It has to take a call on this “us versus them” kind of scenario as fast-unfolding international developments in Crimea cannot wait until the results of the current Indian political scene are declared.
If India wants to project itself as a mature and responsible power, it will have to state at which side of the fence the grass is greener. Anything short of that would project India in bad light.
The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha