Narrative Builders Try To Drag India Into The Ukraine Conflict

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Mar 3, 2022 05:50 PM +05:30 IST
Narrative Builders Try To Drag India Into The Ukraine ConflictSmoke billows from military airport near Kharkiv in Ukraine.
Snapshot
  • The effort to drag India into the conflict has two facets — foreign and domestic, and both revolve around India’s refusal to formally condemn Russia as the sole perpetrator of the ongoing war.

The proxy conflict between Russia and the West, presently being prosecuted by Russia in Ukraine, is the first major one of the social media age. It began in 2013 as a ‘colour revolution’ on Twitter and Facebook. This led to the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests in Kiev. That swiftly led in turn to a flagrant regime change in Ukraine, from pro-Russian to pro-West. And those wheels set in motion during the Barack Obama administration have, today, culminated in Russia invading Ukraine.

The world took a while to understand just how effectively digital platforms could be used, to not just shut politicians and ideologies out of this vital space, or to pressurise governments into making radical policy changes, but to bring them down as well.

A resultant characteristic, of the dramatic global transformation in how information can be selectively filtered, or modified, or banned, is the emergence of multiple story lines every time a crisis erupts, or is concocted. We call this narrative building, or information warfare, and it is meant to fashion or sway public opinion.

In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, for example, there are multiple narratives being built and disseminated. One is that the Ukrainians are valiantly defending their land from the ‘evil Russian bear’. They are not, because Russian troops reached the outskirts of Kiev within two days of starting military operations.

To put it in perspective, and as some senior Indian military experts have pointed out, saying that the Ukrainians are winning, when Russian troops are already in Kiev, is a bit like Pakistan claiming victory after Indian tanks enter Islamabad.

This truth is countered by another narrative, that the Russians are bogged down, and that they are making slow progress because of utter ineptitude, and fierce opposition from the Ukrainians. Again, how can anyone gauge pace of progress with nil access to both Russian battle plans and political objectives?

A third narrative is that the West, and the world, stands resolutely with Ukraine. A fourth is the moral binary, that the West is right, the Russians are wrong, and that anyone not accepting this narrative is working to undermine Ukraine’s freedom. A fifth is that this crisis is entirely Russia’s fault.

A sixth is how mainstream media (both in the West and, regrettably, in India too) highlights the human cost of Russian bombardments, while blanking out the horrific effects of Ukrainian shelling in ethnic-Russian-majority provinces.

It’s a long list. But by far the most curious attempt at building a narrative has been the multi-pronged effort to drag India into the ongoing conflict. This has two facets — foreign and domestic. Both revolve around India’s decision to abstain from voting against Russia at the United Nations, and our refusal to formally condemn Russia as the sole perpetrator of the ongoing war.

The home team was skippered by a former foreign secretary of the Congress-UPA era. In a series of anguished tweets, she fretted that the global order was being upended by Putin, and questioned both India’s silence and neutrality by wondering how we might explain Russia’s aggression.

Then came a cryptic sermon, about needing to choose friends wisely, since we were apparently at a crossroads today; those choices would determine our standing in our hemisphere, and make ‘all the difference to our national interest’.

Such wisdom might have been welcome in another space-time dimension, but here, and now, the counter question is: exactly which, and who’s global order, is Putin upending? Surely not the one which has allowed multiple, grave threats to fester for so long in the subcontinent, by rarely paying heed to India’s grave security concerns.

As countless incensed Indians social media warriors pointed out, if only a fraction of the sanctions being levied on Russia had been enforced on the Taliban, Pakistan, China, or North Korea, the world would have been a better place.

Why should India pass adverse judgement on Russia, and earn Moscow’s ire on a matter of zero political concern to us? The answer is simple: advice like this is the latest in a long, continuous effort ongoing since the India-US nuclear deal was conceived in 2005, to somehow get India to pick a side, while blithely compromising on our core concerns, aims and strengths.

This is the problem with such supercilious advice: it willfully seeks to force India’s hand against our interests, by supplicating to someone else’s global order, constructed for the benefit of countries other than India, in precisely that self-defeating mai-baap manner which was the bane of our foreign affairs for six decades.

Readers may recollect that this is the same crowd which wanted to unilaterally demilitarise the Siachen Glacier, formally recognise the Line of Control (LoC) as an international boundary, ensured that our border infrastructure remained nonexistent, and allowed our trade deficit with China to reach staggering proportions.

Thankfully, India has changed too much in the past few years for these efforts to matter in any material sense. Today, such sanctimony only earns instant public derision, rather than any official heed. In fact, it is counterproductive, and actually makes it all the more difficult for that unnamed ‘global order’ to drag India into their camp. It also shows the usual suspects up for whom their hearts really beat.

However, if domestic efforts to guilt-trip India into condemning Russia openly were tepid and futile, the foreign facet of this narrative was atrociously counterproductive, because it resulted in the stunting of sympathy for Ukraine which might otherwise have taken root in India.

Here’s what happened: speaking in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) last week, the Ukrainian permanent representative plaintively appealed to India to vote for a resolution condemning Russia. To force his case, the Ukrainian asked India to think of the safety of thousands of Indian students studying in Ukraine.

It was a diplomatic blunder of Himalayan proportions, because by his phrasing, it seemed as if the Ukrainian representative was threatening us, and using the safety of our citizens there as a bargaining chip, to force a vote in Ukraine’s favour. For a moment, it was conveniently forgotten that the safety of foreign nationals is a sovereign nation’s solemn duty.

Overnight, the popular image being crafted in India, of Ukraine as an innocent, helpless, beleaguered nation, was replaced with a painful memory from decades before — of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, smiling benevolently to Western hostages he’d taken in the run up to the first Gulf War, in 1990. Was this to be the fate of Indian citizens in Ukraine?

That one episode cost Saddam his morality, and eventually, his regime and his life. Now, one might have been inclined to pass the Ukrainian representative’s egregious remark off as a language error, but believe it or not, he repeated it at an emergency session of the UN General Assembly a few days later.

We can safely assume that our UN representative, the venerable T S Tirumurti, would have given his Ukrainian counterpart a severe ticking off in private, but in public, all we did was to abstain once again, and refuse to condemn Russia unilaterally.

To make matters worse for the Ukrainians’ image-building process, multiple media reports soon emerged, of Indians being treated badly by Ukrainian border guards while trying to pass into neighbouring countries. And then, tragically, an Indian medical student was killed in Kharkiv on 1 March. Pound to a penny, there will be those who spin this as proof of Russian mendacity and imperial overreach.

This is how desperate the west has become, in trying to generate unanimous support in forcing their narrative through. They need India to back them openly against Russia if their grand plans to isolate Moscow have any hopes of succeeding.

The problem, though, is that such levels of desperation are forcing them to make knee-jerk, amateurish moves, because in the real world, there is no way a seasoned diplomat would have ever let an appeal for help end up sounding like an offer you can’t refuse. Yet, that’s precisely what the Ukrainian permanent representative did. Trying to position his country as the injured party, he only succeeded in sounding like a character from a Mario Puzo novel.

On the other hand, quiet, patient diplomacy resulted in the Russians opening a window in Kharkiv on 2 March, to let Indian citizens leave before the final assault on the city. At the same time, four Indian ministers of the Union cabinet flew to countries neighbouring Ukraine, to manage the return of our citizens, while C-17 Globemasters of the Indian Air Force were deployed to expedite the evacuation. The significance of these moves goes a lot deeper than is popularly understood (to be addressed in a forthcoming piece).

The irony was that while Indian diplomacy and relief operations were on in full swing, anchor Rahul Shivshankar of Times Now had to endure a fairy choleric Ukrainian guest of the Left-Liberal persuasion. Bohdan Nahaylo, chief editor of the Kyiv Post, openly adopted an absolutist, Sith stance, to allege that India’s position on the crisis is defined by its dependence on Russian armaments. (It is a segment worth watching, for those who want to understand the European liberal mindset. Its parallels with our Khan Market jamaat are quite enlightening)

Maybe, but the concluding point is that if this is true, then why bother trying so hard to recruit India’s support? The answer is that the narratives under construction will not hold together unless they have India on board (China doesn’t play this game so it doesn’t count). And if we don’t come on board, then we shall be vilified to the ends of the earth.

This is how shallow and churlishly binary the West’s Russia-Ukraine narrative is, and it will not last the summer. Already, rational, conservative voices are growing in North America and Europe, openly asking if the present crisis is a modified version of ‘WMDs in Iraq’ (The second Gulf War was made possible by a fictitious intelligence report which said that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons).

Very soon, sanity will breach the media barrier to make this senseless provocation of Russia an electoral issue, and the impact of that will be amplified when the sanctions imposed on Russia start to hurt the wallets of those countries’ citizens. Only then will there be widespread acceptance of a deeper truth, that Ukraine was used as a prop, or as a patsy, to facilitate further expansion of NATO, and that the country was rent asunder because this move had no moral basis.

After all, where is that objective commentary from progressive circles, which admits that the genesis of the current crisis lies with the Obama administration, and, that reckless Occidental intransigence has wrecked Ukraine? The Left-Liberal slip is showing, and it is not a pretty sight.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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