Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Ukraine’s ambassador to India Igor Polikha invoked India’s “history of diplomacy” by referring to Kautilya and the Mahabharata, to garner New Delhi’s support.
While it is encouraging to see the legacy of Kautilyan statecraft in (international) public perception shift away from Machiavellianism to ‘use of diplomacy’, the current Russia-Ukraine conflict alludes to Kautilyan tenets in other, more pertinent ways.
Russia – the Vijigishu
Russia is clearly the vijigishu (conqueror) who lies at the heart of its rajamandala (concentric circle of states). Her immediate ari (enemy) is Ukraine, which she believes is moving away from being a bhrityabhavin (vassal state/buffer) to aribhavin (hostile state) influenced by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries who have propped up a puppet government in Kyiv. Enjoined by the task of attaining yogakshema (security and prosperity of its people), Russia invaded Ukraine to ‘secure’ its buffer from NATO’s eastward expansion into its backyard, the “red line” that Russia had for years cautioned the West about.
The two-fold reason for the invasion, arguably, interweaves the rational with the normative, akin to Kautilyan raison d’état: security threat posed by Western military infrastructure close to Russian borders and, as Putin put it, protection of the people from the “humiliation and genocide” perpetrated by the Kiev regime.
This is reflected in Putin’s three conditions for peaceful settlement of the conflict – demilitarisation of Ukraine, West’s recognition of Russian sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula, and legally binding guarantee of no further expansion of NATO. In a similar vein, the Mahabharata talks about affecting regime change on grounds of both ethics and political rationality, as was the case with Krishna ousting King Jarasandha of Magadha.
But is the timing and the use of force prudent, especially in the wake of appreciable Ukrainian resistance and the humanitarian impact of the crisis in Ukraine and beyond? Kautilya suggests policies of conciliation (sama), compensation (dana), dissension (bheda) and force (danda) to be used either singularly or in combination as the context demands. But he is clear about the use of force only as the last resort because of losses (kshaya), expenses (vyaya) and demoralisation of the army in a long haul (pravasa).
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Ukraine – the Buffer
Ukraine evidently is the weak neighbour of Russia offering itself as the “buffer zone” between the Russian Federation and NATO/EU (European Union) structures. For Kautilya, the stronger would promise non-aggression to the weaker in two circumstances: subservience of the weaker state and equal gains in peace and war. However, events such as NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, where it welcomed aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to become a member of NATO; the Orange revolution; and the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 have belied Russian hopes of a pliant Ukraine.
The Ukrainians, on their part, are stuck between a rock and a hard place – the Russians who are willing to militarily intervene and securitise national minorities to pursue her political objectives, and the West whose offer of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the Eastern Partnership (EP) fall short of the security guarantees of a military alliance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent withdrawal of his bid for NATO membership highlights the gap between Ukrainian expectations and the West’s willingness to back it. This brings to light a key Kautilyan dictum on “seeking shelter” – a weak king should approach for shelter from a king to whom he may be dear rather than one who is dear to him. Clearly, Ukraine is a vital strategic interest for Russia and not for the United States, which has pivoted to the Asia-Pacific to address its core interest.
But the example of Ukraine and its remarkable resistance to Russian aggression brings to light an important factor in waging wars in the context of the Arthashastra. The justness of the king and the degree of domestic political legitimacy that he enjoys is important in deciding targets of attack, and therefore, internal security is an innate part of inter-state conduct. Zelenskyy’s landslide victory in 2019 and his surging approval ratings post Russian invasion is testimony to the fact that the Ukrainians have whole-heartedly backed his actions.
Continuation of Russia’s earlier attempts of sama (conciliation) through the Minsk Agreement, dana (compensation) through Russia’s $15 billion Ukraine bailout, and sustained efforts at bheda (dissension) in the Donbas region may have served Russia’s purpose better.
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India sits on the periphery of this mandala, though not unconcerned. Both Russia and Ukraine are important Indian partners and the ensuing conflict is bound to have economic and military impact – for one, India buys Russian stealth frigates fitted with Ukrainian gas turbine engines. India’s abstention from the vote to condemn Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution and at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has ruffled many feathers in the international community, and disappointed its close partners and the Quad.
India’s response is justified from the perspective of its own political end goal (yogakshema) – security and welfare of its people. The severest security threat to India in its own rajamandala is posed by China, and Putin’s “no limits” friendship with Xi Xinping potentially allows India some leverage vis-à-vis China. India’s abstention, arguably, wins Russia’s neutrality at worst and mediation at best, in the wake of a worsening India-China relations. Russia is a neighbour’s neighbour.
Additionally, India can ill afford a delink from Russia because of its military dependence on Russian supplies of military equipment, spares and refurbishments, and sensitive military technology. The seething India-China border dispute only magnifies India’s vulnerability. What’s also traditionally dear to India is the ‘middle way’, as it were. For India’s former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, writes Sanjaya Baru in his book 1991, “The Middle Way was meant to be a constant reminder that no assertion or its opposite can be the full and complete truth. It meant that we looked for truth in the interstices of dogmas.”
India’s tightrope walking between the US on one hand and Russia on the other may get strained, especially if the conflict continues, but has to be done. India needs them both for diverse continental and maritime needs. The criticality of India in America’s grand strategy and the growing strategic convergences will, perhaps, keep the two wedded for now. Though the purpose of the recent Quad leader’s virtual meeting was to discuss implications of Russia’s invasion for the region, India was clear in pointing out that Quad must “remain focussed” on “core objectives” in the Indo-Pacific.
The language of the statement on the explanation of India’s vote in UNGA is noteworthy. By prioritising safe passage for all Indian nationals, showing deep concern over the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, reiterating commitment to the UN Charter and principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and appealing to resort to dialogue and diplomacy without naming or blaming Russia, India deftly sits astride prudence and morality.
Values vs interests
On the question of interests and values, a Kautilyan state’s end goal interweaves the rational with the normative. But how a state chooses to pursue its goals is a function of sound intelligence and good counsel. It is to these fundamental principles that Russia and Ukraine must turn their attention to and, hopefully, find common ground in dialogue and diplomacy.
Dr Kajari Kamal is Adjunct Faculty Fellow at Takshashila Institution. She tweets @Kajari1. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)