In recent weeks, the Ukraine crisis has brought trial times to the delicate balance that India seeks to strike in its ties with great powers.
The opposition between Russia and US-led Western powers – triggered by Russia’s move to deploy about 10,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders – constitutes diplomatic riddles for even distant regional powers such as India. By balancing its efforts, India has tried to go on a tightrope by abstaining from the US-convened UN Security Council meeting on the Ukraine crisis. India also declined to comment on the issue at the Melbourne Quad meeting last week.
India’s response shows elements of realistic pragmatism, although some analysts have also seen it as an exercise in fencing while engaging on both sides of the fence. However, the nature of India’s position and the factors that influence it are as synchronized with its positioning over many decades as they are shaped by the immediate matrix of global power play – especially its Eastern European and Eurasian theaters.
The requirements for taking a stand are clear. India seeks to safeguard its seven-decade-old ties with Russia, the successor to the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, while further cementing and diversifying its ties with the United States, a partnership it worked on for the past three decades. Cold War phase. However, this balancing act also has a third element that must increasingly be taken into account: how it will play along with the large, resilient presence of the Chinese power in India’s northern neighborhood.
More often than not, India has navigated out of major power struggles where it does not have much at stake. In the Cold War phase, India’s declared position of independence, although having an obvious inclination towards the Soviet Union, was diplomatically geared to avoid alienating any great power far enough to seek substantial reciprocity of ties. In recent years, the many expedient detours from the moralist-sounding alliance were more realistically reformulated as India’s strategic autonomy.
In a more immediate scenario, India, even with stagnant ties to Russia and a changed view of its relationship with Western powers, has enough reasons not to ruffle Moscow’s feathers. By March 2014, India had kept a low profile in the Ukraine issue on the international stage. At the time, the UPA government, led by Dr. Manmohan Singh refused to join Western powers in condemning Russia’s intervention in Crimea. India’s decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian parliament for its objective assessment of Moscow’s role in Ukraine. The then National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had further elaborated that the Ukraine issue was related to “legitimate Russian and other interests” that require discussion and resolution.
In addition to diplomatic factors, India’s stance on the Russian move was also understood as an assessment of Russian insecurity in relation to the country’s lost fringe, which is now a cluster of neighbors in Eastern Europe – either part of or on the verge of joining the North. Atlantic Treaty Organization, the leading military alliance. Putin’s position on “defensive aggression,” to borrow historian Stephen Kotkin’s statement, was understandable from New Delhi’s strategic perch. The same was the view on the Russian demand to ensure a sphere of influence.
India, however, has been cautious about distancing itself from Russian measures to use the referendum to provide legitimate coverage for the annexation of Crimea.
This explains why India has been aware of the scenario where its attitude towards the territorial “unity and integrity” of sovereign states would make it difficult to follow Russia’s efforts to recognize the regions claiming secession from eastern Ukraine. In fact, India, in addition to its statement on Ukraine almost eight years ago, had reiterated its adherence to the principle of “unity and integrity” of sovereign nations. This was an explanatory feature, as a separatist group in Kashmir had drawn equivalence, albeit false, with the Crimean situation.
Six years later, however, India was determined not to make Russia believe it was willing to buy the demands of the Ukrainian government in an international forum. In November 2020, India voted against the Ukraine-sponsored resolution of the UN General Assembly, which made allegations of human rights violations in Crimea.
But in its latest response to the UN Security Council, India’s statement was careful to cover other stakeholders in the crisis. India fought for a diplomatic solution that takes into account “the legitimate security interests of all countries and aims to ensure long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond”. India seems to be mindful of understanding the limits of “defensive aggression” in international behavior, to a greater extent with the great powers.
However, this caution should not allow India to lose sight of the continuing relevance of close ties with Russia. India has strong and pragmatic reasons not to lose an old ally, especially in a challenging phase of New Delhi’s security needs.
Russia remains India’s largest military supplier, and based on various estimates of the supply share, Russia supplies 60 to 70 percent of India’s defense equipment. Despite India’s diversification of its defense procurement from other suppliers, the Russian presence threatens greatly. In recent years, India has even ignored US objections to its decision to buy S-400 defense missile systems from Russia. The sword of possible US sanctions still hangs over India’s head over the S-400 deal, something India is willing to risk.
In short, a stable defense supply system, led by Russia, is important as India addresses the security challenges posed by the Chinese military adventure in the north and the continued hostility from Pakistan. In all likelihood, India would not want irritants like the Ukraine crisis to get in the way of defense supplies with Russia.
Amidst these factors at play, India would still prefer a diplomatic way out of the Ukraine crisis.
First, as C Raja Mohan has pointed out in his in Foreign policy, a military escalation on the border with Ukraine would mean chaos in the global gas and oil markets, in which Russian companies play a very influential role. That’s why recovering economies in other parts of the world do not want to put much pressure on Russia. In India, as the government seeks a resurgence of economic growth and limits inflation to manageable limits, the threat of oil price fluctuations may be bad news for the current political dispensation.
Second, the escalation in Ukraine could make Europe the geopolitical focus of the United States – an option that India does not want at a time when it wants Chinese hegemonic designs in Asia to find an effective counterpart from the Western allies. Even with the emergence of the new bond between Russia and China on some issues of geopolitical interest, India is aware of the fact that the two great powers cannot determine each other’s agenda on a wide range of issues. If convergence problems exist, there are enough reasons to see why the Russians would diverge with China on a number of other geopolitical concerns. Russia, for example, has demonstrated neutrality in relation to China’s movements in the South China Sea.
In the time of the Ukraine crisis, India has done well in seeking strategic autonomy through a tight migration. The changing sands of geopolitics call for a pragmatic inventory, a process that has defined India’s decision to avoid alienating Russia. But like many recovering economies around the world, India will still hope that a de-escalation saves it from a potential disruption in global energy supply. To add to that, New Delhi would like Moscow not to distract Western powers from focusing their attention solely on Beijing’s designs.