What Were Modi and Putin Really Talking About?

After the apparent success of a Ukrainian counter-offensive, politicians and the media have taken to evoking what they see as a “turning-point.” Doughty warriors such as General David Petraeus, for example, have expressed in the media their counter-intuitive belief that Ukraine can win the war. Earlier this year, in May, Patraeus had already asserted that “Ukraine has won,” so no one should be surprised to learn that he now believes the Ukrainians can win. Turning points are always good for believers.

There are nevertheless three compelling reasons to suppose that a Ukrainian victory is less imminent than the adepts of turning points are inclined to believe. The first is the obvious fact that even after the change of fortune and exceptional pressure on their own resources, Russia still represents a stronger force than Ukraine. That would point to a stalemate rather than a victory for either side. The second is that the decision-makers in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress appear to favor a lasting standoff to a decisive victory. The third is that the apparent triumphs of September may be eclipsed by the imminent bad news developing in Europe, as the cost of electricity and heating begins to skyrocket at the approach of winter.

Without the kind of high-level political solidarity that European governments have demonstrated throughout the spring and summer, a Ukrainian victory is unimaginable. Many European governments will soon find themselves under serious pressure coming from their populations that were not consulted on a commitment to war, especially a prolonged war. The people are less likely than ever over the past seven decades to identify with the idea of following the dictates of Washington and London. They now find themselves trapped in apparently uncontrollable inflation coupled with an ever more likely recession. After the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Europeans are less inclined to believe that the US can be trusted as their ally and protector.

The problem is becoming more severe in the rest of the world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has bravely resisted all the blandishments and subtle pressure of the US to align with the West against Russia. But the West has never given up hope that that might change. Last week, Modi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and made headlines in the West, who applauded Modi for challenging the Russian leader. The headline of an article by Mary Ilyushina in The Washington Post stated, “Modi rebukes Putin over his war in Ukraine.” In the meeting Modi famously said: “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.”

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Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Era of war:

Any moment in history, even those epochs in which people believe that peace is the norm made inevitable by their proclaimed belief in the ideals of democratic harmony, the rule of law and a prosperous globalized economy from which everyone is expected to gain an advantage.

Contextual note

Should this be called a rebuke? Only Western media, desperately seeking to interpret any remark that isn’t praise as condemnation could consider this a reprimand, reproach or rebuke. Business Insider avoids using the word rebuke and instead, more accurately, calls it a “remark.” But using in the same sentence the now obligatory epithet “unprovoked war,” the author conveys a similar meaning and even suggests that it is part of a global trend. “The Russian president’s remarks to his Indian counterpart echoed comments on Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine that he made to Chinese leader Xi Jinping the day prior. ‘We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” Putin said to Xi at the summit in Uzbekistan.’”

Any student of rhetoric should recognize the language of polite, level-headed, realistic and decidedly non-confrontational diplomacy. There is no trace of the kind of moral judgment the notion of rebuke conveys. And yet Ilyushina in The Washington Post described it as a case of Putin being “[c]hallenged bluntly and publicly by Indian Prime Minister Narendra.” In the binary thinking so common in US media, anything short of abject flattery appears to be a “rebuke.”

Here is the first sentence of the article in The India Times: “In some straight talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin, PM Narendra Modi told him Friday that this wasn’t the era of war, while also underlining the significance of democracy, dialogue and diplomacy.” The idea of “straight talk” and “dialogue” evokes less rebuke than frank, constructive exchange.

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The same article offers some instructive and informative insight into the strategy behind Mode’s gambit. “Modi’s remarks, delivered publicly and in his first in-person meeting with Putin since Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine, are expected to assuage the feeling in the West that India has aligned itself with Moscow on the Ukraine issue by not just not condemning Moscow but also by increasing its crude and other imports from Russia.”

Business Insider cites the always anonymous “foreign policy experts and Russia watchers” who “say that the war in Ukraine appears to be driving a major wedge in relations.” That wedge sounds more like wishful thinking than accurate reporting. Because it would weaken their idea of a fatal “wedge,” the Western media avoid one significant quote by Modi cited by The India Times: “I will also get an opportunity to understand your viewpoint.” As John Mearsheimer and others have noted for some time, when it comes to Russia, Western diplomacy long ago gave up the idea of trying to understand its viewpoint.

And just to remove the last trace of ambiguity, The India Times notes, “Modi also said in his opening remarks that the whole world knew and acknowledged there was an unbreakable bond between India and Russia.” Western media usually rely on this kind of language to describe the relationship between the US and Israel, in which, as the song goes, “seldom is heard a discouraging word,” let alone the slightest rebuke.

Historical note

The US media rarely shows any interest in history, but when it does, the facts tend to become confusing. The Washington Post article mentions that during the meeting Putin “accused Ukraine of refusing to negotiate,” adding the non-sequitur, “although Putin ordered the invasion and his troops are still occupying a large swath of Ukrainian territory.” Instead of denying the obvious truth – not only that Ukraine refused to negotiate but that it was instructed by the West to refuse to negotiate – it cites the occupation of Ukrainian territory as apparent proof that Russia does not want to negotiate. Every diplomat knows that a nation in a position of strength has good reason to negotiate.

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The New York Times (NYT) pushes the absurdity further. “Taken together, the distancing from Mr. Putin by the heads of the world’s two most populous countries — both of which have been pivotal to sustaining Russia’s economy in the face of Western sanctions — punctured the Kremlin’s message that Russia was far from a global pariah.” The Washington Post’s “rebuke” becomes NYT’s “distancing” and it is powerful enough to identify Russia as a “pariah,” which just happens to be Joe Biden’s favorite term of insult for any country the US chooses to confront, and especially Russia.

To underline the sense of historical threat now systematically associated with Russia – whether concerning interference in presidential elections or the now discredited (as probably imaginary) “Havana Syndrome” — NYT offers a bit of dramatic tension. “But Mr. Putin’s own next steps remain a mystery, and Western officials believe that he could still drastically escalate the intensity of Russia’s assault if he is confronted with further defeats.”

Modi’s analysis may be correct. After the American withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and the end of the “forever wars” in the Middle East, we should think of this epoch as an era of peace, not of war. The tone that consistently appears in the Western press, nevertheless, demonstrates a manifest taste for framing even visible diplomacy in which dialogue is the central feature as just another brick in an era of permanent war.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.