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“Dancing on a Tightrope”

India’s strategic interests and the Russo-Ukrainian War

20 November 2022

More than a month has elapsed since Russia began its special operation in Ukraine. As Ukrainian cities get shelled by Russia’s heavy artillery, many states around the world voted at the United Nations General Assembly to demand that Russia stop its military operation and withdraw all troops. Among the 35 abstentions was India, whose position on the crisis this far seems supportive of Russia, however indirectly India may have reproached the operation. As India tries to navigate its delicate relation with Russia, several observations could be made about India’s alleged support of Russia’s operation in Ukraine.


Non–Alignment Strategy

During the first years of its independence, India’s foreign policy was shaped by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. At a time when global politics were being shaped by the Cold War, Nehru pioneered a policy of non-alignment and non-aggression that set India and the Third World apart from major power blocs rivalry. His vision was supported by the likes of Egypt’s Naser, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Joseph Broz Tito of Yugoslavia.


The vision may have been ideal, but in reality, India was a fledgling state on the international stage. Its institutions and vital infrastructure were still being built from the ground up. India was slowly establishing new relations in trade and defence with other states. During the 70’s, increased US relations with China, facilitated by Pakistan, posed grave concerns to India’s strategic interests and national security. These reasons, among other external as well and internal factors, led India to sign the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which captured key mutual strategic interests. The treaty was a significate departure from India’s previous non-alignment policy during the Cold War. One key provision in the treaty was the mutual security assurances by both countries in case of attacks or threats. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the treaty was renewed with Russia, but with the removal of the security assurance provisions. The new Indian-Russian relation in trade and defence grew rapidly. At its peak, nearly 70% of India’s defence imports were supplied by Russia.


At the same time, India managed successfully to grow its bilateral relations with the US and its allies, including the Gulf states, Israel, and many countries in southeast Asia. This balance-act however is being tested by the Ukrainian crisis.


Pragmatic Approach

The reasons behind Russia’s radical intervention in Ukraine have been analysed extensively, but perhaps Ukraine’s intentions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the key driver of the crisis. The West’s reaction led by the US has been uncompromising, pressing other countries to condemn Russia’s operation. Resolutions against the military intervention have received overwhelming majority support, yet India has managed to keep a sort of even-handedness, urging both sides to de-escalate, and to return to diplomatic dialogue to resolve their dispute.


There may be a few considerations that influence India’s ‘neutral’ approach to the Russo-Ukrainian war: First, as mentioned above, Indo-Russian relations have passed the test of time. Their bilateral relation is built on mutual respect and friendship. Second, despite a slight drop in recent years, imports from Russia make up nearly 50% of India’s total defence imports, situating Russia as key strategic partner.


Third, for India the quality of arms matters over quantity. India has been importing high-tech defence weapons, such as the surface-to-air missile system S-400. These systems play an important role in India’s defence strategy, being situated between China and Pakistan. The US has imposed economic sanctions on countries buying these missiles, but India went ahead regardless, signing purchase deals with Russia since 2018.


Fourth, there were nearly 20 thousand Indian students in Ukraine when Russia launched its operation in Ukraine. During the first weeks of the war, ensuring the safe return of students put pressure on India to avoid challenging Russia directly. The death of an Indian student in Kharkiv complicated the issue further, and India had to negotiate with both Ukraine and Russia for the creation of a safe passage for Indian students out of Ukraine.


Fifth, India cannot afford jeopardising its strong ties with Russia, who might find in Pakistan an alternative ally. By avoiding a direct opposition to Russia’s operation in Ukraine, India avoids the risk of souring its relationship with China, a strategic partner and supporter of both Russia and Pakistan. Another key interest is Russia’s support to India on the issue of Kashmir: challenging Russia may well mean losing a veto ally at the UN which India could not afford


Finally, being the world’s third-largest consumer of oil, unprecedented global prices put immense pressure on India’s economy. By keeping Russia warm, India may be able to elevate the toll of rising inflation felt by its population.


Accommodating the West

India’s seemingly neutral stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war has not gone without criticism. US President Joe Biden recently had called India “somewhat shaky” over Russia ahead of a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. British officials also demanded a more robust position by India against Russia, having cancelled a meeting at the last minute with their Indian counterparts.


India’s approach so far does not necessarily mean it is fully supportive of Russia. Indian officials on several occasions (albeit later) stressed the importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty, the inviolability of its borders, and have demanded immediate humanitarian aid and the safe evacuation of civilians from affected regions. Regardless, the West seem to be dissatisfied by India’s refusal to clearly distance itself from Russia.


Mindful of this growing rift with the West, the Indian government has convened at high level to discuss its strategy. Meetings between Prime Minister Modi and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar have took place to assess these tensions. Shashi Tharoor, a well-known Indian politician, has noted that his country’s position has been “a bit of dancing on a tightrope”, though he noted it may have evolved, especially after having successfully brought back its students from Ukraine.


More importantly, India cannot maintain its tensions with the West for long. Over the past two decades, India has been building strategic relations with key partners in the West, culminating in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QDS), which purpose is to balance China’s presence in South China Sea. Such strategic security alliance remains important, and India does not want to compromise its long-term relations with its Western allies.


Non-Alignment put to the Test

India’s position over the Russo-Ukrainian crisis has been largely influenced by the need to balancing its strategic interests with both Russia and the West. Economic, trade, and defence dynamics play key role in India’s weight in the region. India has asserted on various occasions that it would not be a Western instrument in the region, and that it is forging its own path to becoming a global power.


While may be understanding of India’s strategic implications, the West is growing impatient of India sitting on the fence. Although India has been able to manage the tension to some degree, the viability of its approach will be greatly tested if Russia escalates its operation in Ukraine.


In summary, India remains to the West an influential power in the face of a growing Chinese presence in South Asia. India is one of the largest markets as well, holding a big bargaining chip, allowing it pursue its independent policy on the war in Ukraine. India surely hopes for a diplomatic resolution to be reached in Ukraine, avoiding a crisis which ramification will be felt across the globe.