“Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.”
— James Russell Lowell, 1845
As the war between Russia and Ukraine grinds on, rocket and artillery barrage after barrage, Russian battalion after battalion, atrocity after atrocity, the civilized world wonders when it will end — and how.
Right now, there may be only two people in the world with enough potential influence over Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, to end the war: President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Both countries have deliberately refrained from condemnation of Russia’s invasion, and both are opportunistically buying Russian oil at discounts of up to $40 per barrel. China and India represent markets of extraordinary value for the Kremlin.
India may use its status as a longstanding friend and client state of Russia to mediate or apply diplomatic pressure to the Kremlin.
In February, Russia and China declared a limitless friendship. China values its partnership with Russia, formed to end the so-called unipolar world and the rules-based order that has governed trade and investment since the end of World War II. India has valued Russia as a constant partner since it achieved independence in 1947: unlike the U.S., Russia has been unconcerned with India’s nuclear development, it has not alleged human rights violations, and it has not sponsored Pakistan. And as I have written in The American Spectator, “since 2010 India has been Russia’s number one arms purchaser,” and, in the last five years, 46 percent of its arms imports were of Russian origin.
Narendra Modi could be positioned with an historical opportunity — one rarely visited upon one man. Modi has access and credibility with Putin that he may use, if he wishes, to attempt to seek a diplomatic solution to the Russia–Ukraine war that has devastated Ukraine, shocked oil and commodities markets, disrupted global supply chains, and contributed to the now rampant inflation.
India’s potential influence with the Kremlin is derived from a platform of moral authority, as well as India’s status as the world’s second largest wheat producer. India’s moral authority was demonstrated by the nonviolence movement called ahimsa and led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, otherwise known as the Mahatma, a Hindi term (महात्मा) that means “great soul.” The passive resistance and civil disobedience that Gandhi sponsored ultimately led to the collapse of the British Raj — the British engagement with India that started in 1600 with the formation of the East India Company. Indian independence was a catalyst for others to soon or eventually throw off British colonial rule, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya.
India is an authority on world food markets, with nearly half its workforce employed in agriculture. Besides being number two in wheat production, it is the second largest producer of sugar and rice in the world. With Ukrainian ports blockaded by the Russian navy, the United Nations has cited Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Afghanistan to be at risk of famine — 20 million tons of grain are reported to be blocked, almost as much as the entire Australian annual wheat production. And because of severe drought, India has announced that it is retaining wheat for domestic consumption and is unable at this time to assist countries facing potential famine. This decision has made worse the international food security problems created by Russia, as India cannot now be an exporter of wheat. Indeed, in the fiscal year 2022, India agricultural exports hit a record of over $50 billion, and many countries relied on India for wheat and other food grains. So, who, better than Modi, could ask Putin to end the blockade and assist in demining the waters?
No doubt India’s moral authority and status in world agriculture are descriptive or optical factors — but so is the nature of diplomacy itself, where form is also substance. Modi now has a strategic moment to decide, as in the poem of James Russell Lowell that became an Anglican hymn known as “Ebenezer.” India may continue to maintain a very limited role while the U.S. and NATO bear the diplomatic brunt of a future solution, or it may use its status as a longstanding friend and client state of Russia to mediate or apply diplomatic pressure to the Kremlin.
There are definite risks should Modi attempt to influence the Kremlin. First, being rebuffed would be humiliating, although the diplomatic approach could be through unobserved back channels. Second, while unproven by accessible data, there is some support for Russia by the Indian public. Third, NATO and the U.S. might not like India inserting itself into the arena where they thus far have failed both with diplomacy and with sanctions.
Modi’s approval rating, based on a very recent estimate reported by the Times of India, is 67 percent. Not since Jawaharlal Nehru has an India prime minister been so exceptionally popular — so Modi has domestic political capital that he could use with Putin as a confidant, mediator, and client. For the period of ten years ending in 2021, Russia’s export of arms to India reached nearly $23 billion. While Russia will need to rebuild its badly depleted military assets, it will still need to export weapons for influence and money.
Mediation by Modi may be a long shot — but so was overthrowing the British Raj.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.