New Delhi’s response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine appears to have been shaped by harsh geopolitical circumstances, that it is in the middle of, than its normative beliefs or preferences. Late last week, India abstained from a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution which called for condemning the Russian military action against Ukraine, but it went on to note its uneasiness of the Russian action in writing (a first).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the war broke out, called for an “immediate cessation of violence” and has so far refused to pay heed to Ukrainian Ambassador to India Igor Polikha’s impassioned pleas urging Mr. Modi to mediate with Mr. Putin to halt Russian military advances. With the UNSC deadlocked, friends with both the United States/West and Russia, and passionately urged by Ukraine, New Delhi is uniquely placed to undertake some much-needed mediation between the rival sides. But it has chosen to stay on the margins and do no more than the unavoidable minimum. New Delhi just wants this to be over with.
Also read | India is engaged with all parties on Ukraine: Foreign Secretary
Let us call it what it really is: New Delhi has taken a subtle pro-Moscow position on the question of Russian attacks against Ukraine. This pro-Russia tilt is not just the position of the Indian government, but is something, somewhat surprisingly, shared by much of the Indian strategic community as well. More notably, one is increasingly hearing subtle, though indirect, justifications of the Russian military actions from the doyens of the Indian strategic community. India’s Russia tilt should be seen not just as a product of its time-tested friendship with Moscow but also as a geopolitical necessity.
The Russia tilt
There are four potential options India can/could choose from: Condemn Russian aggression, support Russian aggression, stay silent on Russian aggression, or express displeasure (short of condemning) and call for diplomacy. The first option will pit India against Russia, the second will pit it against the U.S. and its allies, the third option will be read as pro-Russia, and the fourth option — which it has taken — is the least harmful. And yet, a position that does not condemn Russian aggression and one that abstains from voting on a UNSC resolution calling for “condemning Russian aggression and withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine” is indeed a pro-Russia position.
There are understandable reasons for India’s (subtle) pro-Russia position. Let me put it this way: an aggressive Russia is a problem for the U.S. and the West, not for India. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion is Russia’s problem, not India’s. India’s problem is China, and it needs both the U.S./the West and Russia to deal with the “China problem”. I would view India’s response to the crisis in Ukraine in the light of this rather simple logic.
Also read | India faces more tough choices at UNSC, UNGA over Ukraine
Let us look at the big picture first. There is today a sobering recognition in New Delhi about the weakening of the U.S.-led global order and the rise of China as a counter-pole, geographically located right next to India. U.S. withdrawal from the region and its decline as the principal system shaper has complicated India’s place in regional geopolitics. Neighbouring China as the rising superpower and Russia as its strategic ally challenging the U.S.-led global order at a time when China has time and again acted on its aggressive intentions vis-à-vis India, and when India is closest to the U.S. than ever before in its history, throws up a unique and unprecedented challenge for India. Therefore, having Russia on its side is crucial for India, more than ever. Moscow may or may not be able to moderate Chinese antagonism towards New Delhi, but an India-Russia strategic partnership may be able to temper New Delhi’s growing isolation in a rather friendless region.
Second, there is an emerging dualism in contemporary Indian strategic Weltanschauung: the predicament of a continental space that is reeling under immense pressure from China, Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan adding to its strategic claustrophobia; and, the emergence of a maritime sphere which presents an opportunity to break out of the same.
Herein lies the dilemma for India. New Delhi needs Moscow’s assistance to manage its continental difficulties be it through defence supplies, helping it ‘return’ to central Asia, working together at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or exploring opportunities for collaboration in Afghanistan. Russia, to put it rather bluntly, is perhaps India’s only partner of consequence in the entire Asian continental stretch.
Also read | ‘Disturbed’ India abstains from vote against Russia at UNSC
On the other hand, when it comes to the vast maritime sphere, the Indo-Pacific to be precise, Russia is not of great consequence to India. That is where its American and western partners come into play. India is simply not in a position to address the China challenge in the maritime space without the active support of American and western navies and, of course, the Quad. This unavoidable dualism in the contemporary Indian strategic landscape necessitates that India balances the two sides, but doing so without a subtle Russia tilt may not be feasible at this point of time.
That said, the war on Ukraine could have major implications for India’s strategic calculus. For one, Russian action in Ukraine dismissing the concerns of the rest of the international community including the U.S. will no doubt embolden China and its territorial ambitions. Second, the new sanctions regime may have implications for India’s defence cooperation with Moscow. Third, the longer the standoff lasts, the closer China and Russia could become, which certainly does not help India. Finally, the more severe the U.S.-Russia rivalry becomes, the less focus there would be on the Indo-Pacific and China, which is where India’s interests lie.
Impact on foreign policy
India’s responses to the Russian aggression on Ukraine underline the fact that India is operating from a position of geopolitical vulnerability. While the Indian stand does reek of realpolitik, it reeks more of strategic weakness. Here is a country located in a hostile neighbourhood trying to make the best of a terrible situation it finds itself in. This then means that, going forward, India’s ability to be a “swing state”, “major power” or a “leading power” stands diminished. So we must expect more middle-of-the-road behaviour from New Delhi rather than resolute positions on global strategic developments.
Also read | Dissatisfied with Indian response: Ukraine envoy
India’s position also shows the unmistakable indication that when it comes to geopolitics, New Delhi will choose interests over principles. This is nothing new: New Delhi has chosen interests over principles even in the past — for instance, India has violated the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of neighbours. The difference this time may be that India is choosing interests over principles even though the issue at hand is not directly pertaining to India. And yet, a careful reading of India’s statements and positions taken over the past few days also demonstrates a certain amount of discomfort in having to choose interests over principles. There is perhaps a realisation in New Delhi that a dog-eat-dog world, where rules and good behaviour do not matter, does not help India in the long run either.
Going forward, if tensions between Russia and the West persist, balancing extremes will be a key feature of Indian diplomacy. India is perhaps already mastering the art. Consider India’s “explanation of vote” during the recent vote on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: even though New Delhi abstained from voting on it (thereby siding with Moscow), it made its unhappiness about the Russian action clear in the written note.
Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Ukraine crisis: can India keep walking the balance?
On strategic autonomy
Finally, what does this mean for India’s ‘strategic autonomy’? For sure, India’s strategic autonomy has been under a lot of stress for some time now. However, New Delhi’s response to the recent crisis, especially its “explanation of vote” at the UNSC indicates a careful recourse to the principle of strategic autonomy: India will make caveated statements and will not be pressured by either party. In that sense, India’s indirect support to the Russian position is not a product of Russian pressure but the result of a desire to safeguard its own interests. Therefore, while we may witness a steady erosion of India’s strategic autonomy in the longer term — primarily as a function of the need to balance against China — we will continue to witness instances where Indian diplomacy will take recourse to the principle of strategic autonomy.
Happymon Jacob teaches India’s Foreign Policy at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
- New Delhi’s response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine appears to have been shaped by harsh geopolitical circumstances
- There are four potential options India can/could choose from: Condemn Russian aggression, support Russian aggression, stay silent on Russian aggression, or express displeasure (short of condemning) and call for diplomacy.
- India’s position shows the unmistakable indication that when it comes to geopolitics, New Delhi will choose interests over principles.
- Going forward, if tensions between Russia and the West persist, balancing extremes will be a key feature of Indian diplomacy. India is perhaps already mastering the art.