Kuleba visits New Delhi: Can India help bring peace to Ukraine?

Washington — Ukrainian officials are cultivating closer ties with India, pursuing mutual economic benefits while hoping to nudge the Asian giant away from its historic close ties with Kyiv’s war enemy, Russia.

Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba visited India on March 28-29, the first visit of a top Ukrainian diplomat to the country in seven years. Days before that, the countries’ presidents spoke by phone.

The primary task for Kuleba`s visit — Ukrainian Ambassador to India Oleksandr Polishchuk said in an interview with VOA — was to restore high-level political cooperation.

The parties agreed that a high-ranking Indian official will participate in a Global Peace Summit set for this summer in Switzerland with the goal of supporting Ukraine.

India will also work on a possible visit to Ukraine by its external affairs minister and organize other top-level mutual visits, he said. The parties also agreed to resume the work of the India-Ukraine Inter-Governmental Commission, inactive since 2018.

The two countries “agreed to restore the level of cooperation between our countries that existed prior to the full-scale war launched by Russia,” Kuleba wrote on X.

“Our immediate goal is to get trade back to earlier levels,” wrote his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

In an interview with the Financial Times (FT), Kuleba said that India could greatly benefit from expanding trade and technological ties with Ukraine and participate in post-war reconstruction.

Kuleba noted that India’s close ties with Russia are based on a “Soviet legacy” that is “evaporating.” One such legacy is India’s imports of Russian weapons, the share of which dropped from 76% in 2009-13 to 36% in 2019-2023, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Polishchuk said that since Russia cannot fulfill all of its obligations to supply new equipment and spare parts, India is trying to establish its own military production based on Western standards.

“Ukraine can partially meet the needs of the Indian armed forces, particularly the navy, since many warships use gas turbine engines produced in Ukraine,” said the ambassador.

In an interview with The Times of India newspaper, Kuleba also softened Ukraine’s position toward India’s import of Russian oil, saying that Ukraine doesn’t object to it because the deal was structured in a way that Russia can’t invest the profit “in the production of tanks, missiles, and weapons.”

Paradoxes of India-Ukraine relations

Mridula Ghosh, a lecturer at the Ukraine National University of Kyiv-Mohyla and a native of India, pointed to two paradoxes in the relations between the two countries.

First, she told VOA, that ties between India and Ukraine are strengthening while the U.S. Congress is unable to approve aid to Ukraine and the U.S. and some European countries use the assistance to Ukraine as a bargaining chip in electoral politics. In India, she said, foreign policy is not part of the electoral debates because it is of little interest to the voters.

Second, the warming of relations between the two countries on the highest level happened while Russia increased its propaganda and influence on Indian society.

“When the full-scale war began, society was ready to condemn this aggression. The authorities, on the contrary, reacted restrainedly. Now, many people in power and intellectual circles clearly and correctly understand what is happening in Ukraine. But the media began actively disseminating Russian propaganda,” Ghosh explained.

Mediator between Russia and Ukraine?

In New Delhi, Kuleba called on India to play a more active role in the peace process.

“With India’s more active involvement in this process, we expect that the number of countries looking at India and its role in this process will also grow,” Polishchuk said.

However, observers doubt that India could mediate between Ukraine and Russia or influence Moscow to end the war.

While India leaned closer to the U.S. and the West in recent years, it “will not undertake steps that would significantly affect Russia strategically, just as Russia would not take an adverse position to affect India strategically in favor of China or Pakistan,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation to the South China Morning Post.

Former U.S. Consul General to India Katherine Hadda doubts that India would act as a mediator in a peace process where one of the parties is absent — Russia does not participate in summits based on the peace formula proposed by Ukraine.

“India has stressed that it will serve as a mediator [only] at both sides’ request,” said Hadda in the same article.

In a column for the Indian NDTV news outlet, Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, writes that achieving peace in Eurasia is not India’s job.

“New Delhi would like to see a resolution to the Russia-Ukraine war soon. But ultimately, it is for the main protagonists in this conflict — Russia, Ukraine, and the West — to decide what kind of Eurasian security architecture they can live with.”

Since the beginning of the full-scale aggression, India has not condemned Russia’s actions, gas abstained from voting for Ukrainian initiatives at the U.N. and has not joined the sanctions against Russia. Still, Ghosh believes India is moving away from Moscow.

“The Indian elephant is slow but steady in reacting. At the beginning of the full-scale war, it was reluctant to make strong positional statements, but now it is reviewing many things. There is a decoupling from Russia.”  

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