PS Raghavan, Saeed Naqvi, and Sam Pitroda are more than distinguished figures in the fields of diplomacy, journalism, and commerce. They are also Russian propagandists. Or so claims the government of Ukraine, which has blacklisted them alongside dozens of foreign luminaries for their services to Russian agitprop. Ukraine has every reason to feel bitterly disappointed by India—a post-colonial state that has nothing at all to say about Russian imperialism.
Still, I was sufficiently startled by this list to ask Mikhailo Podolyak, Ukraine’s chief negotiator and one of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ablest and most trusted aides, to explain the rationale behind it. He answered forcefully and without hesitation.
“The inclusion of certain people, including representatives of foreign states, in the ‘military lustration lists’ is absolutely justified because information is an extremely important part of the war as a whole,” Podolyak told me. “Information can either stimulate or demoralise the population. The information may be true, or it may be part of propaganda, the purpose of which is to justify the killings [of Ukrainians] or reduce aid to Ukraine. Of course, any justification of the war in favour of Russia, any mention that Russia had the right to attack another country, the denial of Russian war crimes and the spread of disinformation, is an indirect form of participation in a hybrid war and support for the massacres of Ukrainians. Ukraine constantly monitors which public figures in the world are spreading Russia’s cannibalistic narratives. Recording such facts, we consider these people to be unconditional agents of Russian influence. Even if they don’t understand it themselves. This means that we officially respond to this with sanctions both within the country and seek sanctions against them in other countries of the civilised world. I will repeat once again because it’s important: These people consciously or unconsciously disseminate Russian propaganda theses and thus deliberately participate in the information war against the free world, against the ideals of freedom, indirectly support the massacres in Ukraine, and therefore they themselves are a kind of instrument of war. And of course, Ukraine is obliged to limit the influence of such people.”
Obnoxious views don’t amount to propaganda
I have not consulted the proscribed Indian triune, and I have my disagreements with their views and their work—Pitroda, in particular, has done enormous harm in my opinion to Indian democracy by helping to sustain the Gandhi dynasty’s despotic grip on the Congress Party—but I am willing to wager that none of them is a Kremlin stooge, and none seeks the subjugation or death of Ukrainians. The arguments they have advanced since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are animated by the orthodoxies of India’s foreign policy establishment.
Raghavan, the most learned of the three, retired as a career diplomat after serving as New Delhi’s ambassador to Russia from 2014 to 2016 and now sits on the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). He appears to have angered the Ukrainians by condemning the “repudiation” of ordinary Russians by the West for their unrepresentative government’s “violation of international law”.
Naqvi, a nostalgist for the moral simplicity of non-aligned India, decried the West for peddling falsehoods of its own while interviewing a Moscow mover and shaker on his little-watched YouTube show. And Pitroda, who has an unreadable book to hawk, urged the world to press Ukraine and Russia to talk in a slumberous speech to a German think tank tainted by antisemitism.
These views may seem objectionable and even obnoxious to those exposed to the roughest edges of Russian power. But they are, especially in the context of India and most of the post-colonial world, pedestrian—not propagandistic. And it is self-wounding of Ukraine to expend resources on castigating figures who command respect, wield influence, and help shape opinion in their own countries—countries whose support Ukraine needs and should be doing all it can to secure.
Targeting allies is imprudent
Identifying ‘disinformation’, in any event, is an exercise streaked with biases and errors; by targeting what is often legitimate dissent, it gives rise to unintended consequences. Consider Glenn Greenwald, John Mearsheimer, and Edward Luttwak, who number among the Americans blacklisted by Ukraine. Greenwald, for instance, has done more to rescue democracy in Brazil than any contemporary journalist. And having exposed Washington’s abuses at home and chronicled its destruction abroad, he refuses to take its representatives at their word.
Mearsheimer—who has consistently faulted NATO’s expansion and the United States’s fixation on Russia and urged a resolute focus on China—is perhaps the world’s most esteemed exponent of ‘realism’ in international relations. Luttwak, a revered strategist and untiring supporter of such forgotten causes as Tibet, has actually been a vocal advocate for arming Ukraine.
One may disagree with them. And Ukraine certainly is entitled to despise them and ban them from its territory. But none of them is shilling for Vladimir Putin, and no ‘civilised’ country will sanction them. Rather than punish or silence them, lists such as this risk hardening the growing weariness of foreign populations—particularly in developing countries beset by out-of-control inflation, skyrocketing food prices, and debilitating fuel shortages—into a resentful backlash against Ukraine. How can people who are being asked to make sacrifices for Ukraine’s sovereignty by their governing elites not bridle when their fellow citizens are harried on the instructions of a foreign government?
Ukraine, supported by sympathetic outsiders and a big portion of the Western press and governments, has so far waged a hugely successful information campaign. (Disclosure: I helped to craft, and find a prominent home for, the Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska’s poignant Mother’s Day message.) Ukraine has dominated the imaginations of distant nations, rallied Europe, compelled reluctant leaders to denounce, isolate and distance themselves from Russia, raised money, attracted foreign fighters—including several from India—and acquired an arsenal of sophisticated weapons.
But just as Russia is effecting maximum damage on the battlefield and the image of Ukraine as an invincible underdog is dissolving, Kyiv is beginning to falter. This shoddy blacklist is one example. Another is the most recent issue of Vogue, which features the Ukrainian First Lady on its cover and is replete inside with photographs—choreographed and shot by Annie Liebovitz—of her and President Zelenskyy. These pictures have opened a chink in the armour of the first couple: for the first time, they have generated authentic scepticism in the minds of people who have so far beatified them as a self-sacrificing pair. The criticism of their choice to pose for the bible of high fashion in the midst of death and misery is mounting. The Zelenskyys will weather this moment, but it will come back to haunt them if and when they fall out of favour with the West.
Ukraine mustn’t solely rely on the West
As a forthcoming book by his former spokeswoman, Iullia Mendel, shows, Zelenskyy, though far from perfect, is shrewd, decent, honourable, and courageous. With his all his manifest flaws, he inspired a generation of Ukrainians with his candidacy. But the West upon which he has made himself dependent since Russia punched into his country is, for all its proclamations of unity and resolve, volatile at home and fickle abroad. Washington’s moods and beliefs and priorities tend to change suddenly, and there is an industry of intellectuals willing to burnish whatever it does with retrospective justification—as we have seen, they can rationalise its invasion of Afghanistan as a noble act in one breath and defend its squalid exit as a visionary deed in the next.
Distant conflicts and crises in which Washington participates seldom end well for the natives, and the saints and heroes created by the West—from Aung San Suu Kyi to generations of Kurdish leaders to Amrullah Saleh—are in the end damned, discarded, or stabbed in the spine. Zelenskyy’s choices today could become an exhibit in the denunciation of him if and when his Western backers, overwhelmed by their own voters’ deepening grievances, decide to desert him.
Should that happen, Zelenskyy’s fault will not be that he led an heroic war effort to preserve his country’s sovereignty. It will be that he got carried away by the West’s rhetoric and assurances. Westerners who make pledges and pilgrimages to Ukraine are for the most part people at play. Sir VS Naipaul—the greatest diagnostician of societies disfigured by Western adventurers and dropouts who seek jouissance in other people’s tragedies—warned us long ago about the perils of falling for those who “reduce other men to a cause,” who “substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern, the revolutionaries who visit centres of revolution with return air tickets,” “who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own,” and “who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security.”
Raghavan, Naqvi, Pitroda—and Greenwald, Mearsheimer, and Luttwak—are the least of Ukraine’s problems.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. He tweets @kapskom. Views are personal.