View From India | How does India look at the Ukraine war?

Updated - February 28, 2024 06:20 am IST

Published - February 26, 2024 11:48 am IST

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In April 2022, a few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, this writer wrote a piece in The Hindu’s opinion page arguing why India would stay neutral on the conflict irrespective of the pressure it would face from its Western partners. As a developing country that’s dependent on exports to meet its energy demand and as a strategic partner of both Russia and the West, India wasn’t visibly happy with the war. At the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, India had expressed its concerns about the violence, called for upholding international laws and territorial sovereignty of all members and urged all parties to hold talks to find a settlement to the crisis. But while notionally upholding its commitment for international laws and the idea of territorial sovereignty, India’s actual policy was less sympathetic towards Ukraine. On the other side, it was careful not to upset the sensitivity of Russia, while stopping short of supporting its war. India routinely abstained from votes at the UN, maintained its defence and diplomatic partnership with Moscow, while steadily enhancing energy and economic ties, defying Western sanctions.

The article argued that India’s position was rooted in its realist interpretation of the conflict, which was unfolding in a region far away from its borders. India’s ties with Russia have multi-dimensions. While the energy aspect of this partnership, which flourished after the war, is seen largely opportunistic, the defence side is structural (More than 40% of India’s defence imports, including critical offensive and defensive weapons, come from Russia). India also sees Russia, a Eurasian powerhouse, as an important long-term strategic partner in tackling its continental challenges. But the elephant in the room was China.

After the war, when the Western alliance imposed crippling sanctions on Russia, the latter pivoted to Asia, especially towards the welcoming arms of China. President Vladimir Putin had visited China just days before he ordered his “special military operation” and met President Xi Jinping. Russia’s deepening ties with China triggered different arguments on India’s choices. One section argued that the growing synergy between Russia and China should serve as a wake-up call for India to revisit its Russia policy. Others, including this writer, argued that India would be wary of pushing Russia deeper into China’s embrace by toeing the anti-Russian Western line, and would rather prefer to retain its terms of engagement with Moscow “which could allow Russia to diversify” its Asian pivot.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar explained his line of thinking on this matter at the Raisina Dialogue last week. The world must give Russia more options, rather than “closing doors” on it and pushing it towards a closer embrace with China, Mr. Jaishankar said. The Minister’s comments underscored India’s concerns about a deepening China-Russia partnership, but his policy prescriptions were more nuanced than those who raised concerns about India’s Russia ties. “What’s happened today with Russia is essentially a lot of doors have been shut to Russia in the West,” he said. “We know the reasons why Russia is turning to parts of the world which are not West. Now, I think it makes sense to give Russia multiple options.”

The status of the war

Mr. Jaishankar’s comments came on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When the war began on February 24, 2022, many thought it would be a swift Russian military operation against its smaller neighbour. But the conflict has ever since transformed into the largest land war in Europe since the Second World War. The war has seen its course changing several times over the past two years. Russia made some initial thrust into Ukraine, but then its war machine got stuck and was pushed back from some territories. Ever since Russia made a partial mobilisation and built strong defence fortifications along the frontline. Ukraine launched a much anticipated counteroffensive in June 2023, but it failed to make major breakthrough. Eight months after the counteroffensive began, Russia is now on the offensive and seems to have regained the battlefield momentum. In December, it captured Maryinka, and earlier this month, Ukraine was forced to abandon Avdiivka, a strategically important town – both in Donetsk.

Ukraine, faces with a shortage of men and arms, is at a difficult phase. Internal differences came out to the open earlier this months when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sacked Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces. In many ways, the war is transforming the global order and Russia in particular. It exposed the West’s limits and turned Russia deeper into authoritarianism. This explainer looks into the different aspects of the ongoing war.

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