In the week since Putin unleashed his assault on Ukraine, one closely watched geopolitical subplot has been the enduring relationship between Russia and India, which has repeatedly abstained from criticizing Russia at the United Nations despite mounting American pressure.
Now, statements by Russian officials suggest that India’s diplomatic position has paid dividends for its citizens in Ukraine, who appear to be receiving unusual treatment even as the Russian invasion has uprooted nearly 1 million people in its first week, according to the United Nations, and threatens to devolve into the most devastating war in Europe in decades.
In an announcement on social media Wednesday, the Indian Foreign Ministry, citing “input” it had received from Russia, urged the roughly 4,000 Indian students stranded in central Kharkiv to flee to three towns to the south and west of the war-torn city before 6 pm local time – on foot if necessary.
Hours after the Indian announcement, the Kremlin released a statement saying Putin had called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the second time in a week and discussed the students’ situation. Putin said he had ordered Russian troops to make “all possible efforts” to ensure the Indian students’ safe evacuation, including through a “humanitarian corridor” to the Russian border.
Analysts say there are no indications that Russia divulged sensitive intelligence to India or paused its aerial onslaught to accommodate fleeing Indians. One Indian student who fled Kharkiv by foot Wednesday told The Washington Post there was no respite Wednesday afternoon from the week-long shelling. And in a group chat on a messaging app with thousands of Indian students in Ukraine, no one said they had used or heard details about a Russian humanitarian corridor as of late Thursday.
Still, the statements by Russian officials underscored a striking effort to woo a country that is seen by Moscow as a crucial diplomatic ballast against the rising tide of Western condemnation and sanctions. In the past week, India has abstained three times during votes at the United Nations to condemn the Russian attack; it abstained twice in the Security Council, alongside China and the United Arab Emirates, and once Wednesday in the General Assembly. India has backed Russia in smaller but tangible ways: While many international carriers have been forced to cut long-haul routes because they fly over Russian airspace, Air India flights have continued.
At the outbreak of the conflict, there were nearly 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine, or almost one-quarter of all foreign students in a country known as a popular destination for study. While students from Ghana to Nigeria have pleaded for help – and an Algerian and an Indian were killed in fighting in Kharkiv in the past week – few of their governments have had India’s level of communication with Russia.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi told reporters Wednesday that about 1,000 students fled to the town of Pisochyn late Wednesday after the Indian government advisory went out.
Russia had offered “specific inputs that this is a route that’s available, this is where Indian citizens should go, at this time,” Bagchi said. “Extrapolating that to say someone is holding off bombing, or we are coordinating, is absolutely inaccurate. Because then it could be extrapolated to say, ‘Well, India will know when Russia resumes bombing.’ And that’s getting ahead of ourselves. ”
Pankaj Saran, an Indian deputy national security adviser until last month, said it was unclear whether Russian forces ceased firing Wednesday.
“But the public optics is that there was safe passage,” said Saran, the Indian ambassador to Moscow from 2016 to 2018. “The Russians are using any opportunity they can get to make a political gesture to India that the relationship, for them, is important. ”
The idea of Russia taking a more active role in evacuating Indians was aired first on Wednesday by Russia’s envoy to New Delhi, Denis Alipov, who said a humanitarian corridor would be opened in the “very near future.” Alipov praised India, a “strategic ally,” for its position at the United Nations. On Wednesday, Mizintsev, head of the Russian National Defense Control Center, told the government-owned Tass news agency that Russia had prepared buses to evacuate “Indian students and other foreigners” and had readied food and medical aid.
Animesh Mishra, a 22-year-old medical student from New Delhi, said he had spent much of the past week hunkered down in a bomb shelter below his apartment building in east Kharkiv’s Heroiv Pratsi neighborhood, sometimes spending six hours at a time underground whenever Russian bombing began.
Prompted by the advice from the Indian Embassy, Mishra and his Indian classmates began the 10-mile walk along a highway to Pisochyn. Less than halfway there, an explosion went off 150 yards away, sending everyone diving to the ground in fear, he said.
“I can not explain in words how scary that was,” he said. “I do not know if there was a deal or not to stop firing, but there was continuous shelling.”
After he arrived in Pisochyn, Indian placement agencies bused him to a nearby hostel, said Mishra, who was trying to book a flight home.
As the Biden administration has sought over the past week to rally allies and partners to condemn and impose sanctions on Russia, it has encountered steep resistance from India. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, the top State Department official overseeing South and Central Asia said US diplomats were “working every day” to “urge India to take a clear position, a position opposed to Russia’s actions.”
Indian officials have defended their position by reasoning that there are 18,000 Indians still in Ukraine and they need Russian assistance to evacuate them, said Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu.
In India, the handling of the students’ evacuation has given Modi a political boost just as India reaches the climax of a hard-fought election season. This week, several ministers from his cabinet made highly publicized visits to Europe to oversee “Operation Ganga,” the mission to repatriate students. The Organizer Weekly magazine, the official mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the influential right-wing group allied with Modi, claimed Wednesday that the prime minister had scored an unlikely feat on the world stage: pausing hostilities in Ukraine.
“India today managed to stop THE WAR for 6 hours in #Kharkiv to let rescue Indian students. Power of Indian Diplomacy, ”the Organizer said in a tweet.
Anant Gupta and Niha Masih contributed to this report.