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Could India help broker peace in Ukraine?

In July, when a critical deal was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to free up millions of pounds of desperately needed Ukrainian grain, India played an important behind-the-scenes role in helping sell the plan to Russia, which had been blockading the grain ships.

Two months later, when Russian forces were shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine, leaving the world anxious about a nuclear catastrophe, India stepped in again and asked Russia to back off.

Throughout the Ukraine war, India has quietly assisted during a few pivotal moments such as these. This week, India's foreign minister is traveling to Moscow for meetings with Russian officials on economic and political issues. Diplomats and foreign-policy experts are watching closely to see if India can use its unique leverage as one of the world's largest countries that is a friend to both East and West to press Russia to end its war in Ukraine.

Officials within the Indian government have already been discussing what role India might play in peacemaking efforts, when the time is right.

Russia and Ukraine are far from negotiating with each other; Ukraine feels it has momentum on the battlefield and is in no mood to talk, and Russia is hardly relenting either. But the widespread belief is that if the fighting reaches a stalemate, and the energy crisis makes life really miserable in Ukraine and across Europe this winter, the prospect of a negotiated settlement or at least a cease-fire may possibly arise. That could open up a role for an enterprising neutral country or some small group of them to try to broker peace.

Earlier this year, President Emmanuel Macron of France floated the idea of hosting peace talks along with India's leader, Narendra Modi, according to two Indian officials. The Franco-Indian effort never materialized. But it showed that India is increasingly viewed as a potential peacemaker with access to both sides.

"Were Russia and Ukraine to express interest in having a neutral third party mediate," said Jeff M. Smith, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington research institute, "India would be a strong candidate with credibility on both sides."

India has long tried to balance its ties to Russia and the West. During the 1950s and '60s, it was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, a loose alliance of the world's poorest and smallest nations that tried to navigate a path through the Cold War without joining one side or the other.

Even as India has grown - it's now the second most populous country after China and the world's fifth largest economy - it is still trying to squeeze itself through a geopolitical needle. It has cultivated closer relations with the United States but Moscow remains a trusted partner, a key energy supplier and the source of much of the Indian military's weaponry.

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