Ukraine and the anatomy of India’s neutrality

Nehru’s axiom continues to guide New Delhi’s approach to conflicts, especially those involving its partners

April 08, 2022 12:30 am | Updated 08:25 am IST

‘Neutrality is the best stance among bad options’

‘Neutrality is the best stance among bad options’ | Photo Credit: AFP

In 1957, a year after the Soviet intervention in Hungary, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru explained in Parliament why India took a non-condemnatory approach. “There are many things happening in the world from year to year and day to day, which we have disliked intensely. We have not condemned them... because when one is trying to solve a problem, it doesn’t help calling names and condemning.” Nehru’s axiom has continued to guide India’s approach to conflicts, especially those involving its partners. Be it the Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) or Afghanistan (1979), or the American invasion of Iraq (2003), India has more or less followed this line. Its response to Russia’s invasion on Ukraine — condemnation of the civilian killings without any name calling, and abstention from UN votes — is not fundamentally different from this historically cautious neutrality.

Nor is India’s position isolated. South Africa, another major democracy, abstained from the UN votes that sought to condemn Russia. The United Arab Emirates, a close American ally in the Gulf that hosts thousands of U.S. troops, abstained from a vote in the UN Security Council. Israel, the U.S.’s closest ally in West Asia, condemned the Russian attack but refused to join the sanctions regime and said no to sending its defence systems to Ukraine. Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, did the same and is mediating between Ukraine and Russia. But none of these countries has come under the kind of pressure and public criticism from the West that India has. U.S. President Joe Biden said India’s position was “somewhat shaky”. His Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics, Daleep Singh, who was in New Delhi on a visit recently, warned India of “consequences” if it conducts trade with Russia circumventing American sanctions. Why this selective targeting?

Analysing the reasons

There could be three broad reasons — political, economic and strategic. From a political point of view, the West has carefully tried to construct a narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an assault on what U.S. President Joe Biden calls “the free world”. This narrative would look weak if the world’s largest democracy (India) sits out of the West-led bid to punish the Russians. From an economic point of view, sanctions on Russia were imposed largely by western countries. Only three Asian nations have backed the sanctions — Japan, South Korea and Singapore. China, the world’s second largest economy, would not abide by the American sanctions. If India also continues to trade with Russia, working around the payment curbs, that would invariably blunt the effect of the sanctions on the Russian economy.

Strategically, this is the most important global crisis since the end of the Cold War. India has improved its strategic partnership with the U.S., and the West in general, over the last 30 years, while at the same time retaining warm ties with Russia. This balancing was not tested in the recent past. But with the Russian attack on Ukraine and the near-total breakdown in ties between Russia and the West, countries such as India are now faced with a difficult choice of picking a side. Given the transformation of India’s partnership with the U.S., which also sees New Delhi as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region, many expected India to give up its strategic autonomy and take a stand that aligns with that of the West. It did not happen.

How India sees the war

These arguments are valid from a western point of view, but they also overlook India’s position on this conflict. There are serious points of difference. The global order is witnessing rapid changes. If the Georgia war in 2008 and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 were early signs of this shift, then the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the country to the mercy of the Taliban after fighting the Islamists for 20 years, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine mark the sharpest manifestations of the new global disorder. When India looks at the world, it sees three great powers and several middle powers. The U.S. remains the world’s pre-eminent power but with its ability to shape global geopolitical outcomes substantially diminished. China is rising fast and is seeking to, as Rush Doshi argues in The Long Game, blunt America’s existing power and displace the American order at the global level. Russia is a wounded bear with an imperial nostalgia. It is economically weak but in terms of land mass and military might, it remains a superpower. Of these three, sans any moral judgments, two are India’s partners and one is a competitor. The question India (itself a middle power) faces is why it should take a side in a confrontation that is unfolding in Europe between two of its partners, which could eventually leave its competitor stronger. Here, neutrality is the best among the bad options.

Moreover, every country formulates its foreign policy based on its national interests, not merely on moral commitments. The U.S.-led NATO bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days in 1999 when it thought the campaign would serve the interests of American leadership in the post-Cold War world. It invaded Iraq in 2003 because it wanted to reshape West Asia. It destroyed the state of Libya when it decided to do so. The U.S. is now seeking to punish Russia not primarily out of its moral commitments (which at best is selective) but because the crisis in Ukraine has opened opportunities for the U.S. to weaken Russia, its biggest rival in Europe. But India’s national interests are not aligned with this line. Indian interests are not served with a weakened, isolated Russia. On the contrary, India needs Russia not only for defence and energy purchases but also for geopolitical reasons. India is as much a continental power as it is a maritime power. While close ties with the U.S., Japan and Australia are important for India’s maritime security and interests, ties with Russia, Iran and the Central Asian countries are important for its continental security and interests, especially after the U.S.’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Editorial | In the middle: On India’s role in Russia-Ukraine crisis

The tragedy of Ukraine

Lastly, the West is not an innocent bystander in the whole Ukraine crisis. Ukraine was promised NATO membership in 2008 which it never got. The promise itself was enough to shake up Russia’s security calculations and Moscow moved aggressively, annexing Crimea and supporting militancy in Donbas. The U.S. continued to provide money and limited weapons to Kyiv but never took any meaningful measure to bolster Ukraine’s deterrence against Russia. If Mr. Putin’s forces went into Ukraine, it is because he thought that NATO would not be in a position to defend a country that was not a member of the alliance. While Ukrainian pushback has denied Russia its early military objectives in Ukraine, Moscow might succeed in getting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept neutrality and might also end up controlling more Ukrainian territories than it did before February 24. That is the tragedy of Ukraine. So, the West not only failed to deter Mr. Putin, but its limited responses to his war are also pushing Russia deeper into the Chinese embrace. Here, should India accelerate this embrace by toeing the anti-Russian Western line or retain its terms of engagement with Moscow which could allow Russia to diversify its Asian relations? India has opted for the second option.

India is not a client state of any great power (even client states have not joined the sanctions regime). It is not a member of any alliance system — the Quad (India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.) is not an alliance. Like any other country, India also retains the right to take policies based on pragmatic realism and its core national interests. And India thinks that a neutral position anchored in strategic autonomy which keeps channels open with both sides is what serves its interests. It does not mean that India supports the war. It has not. The U.S., India’s most important strategic partner, does not seem to appreciate these nuances. At least the public statements from Washington suggest that.

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