The Russia-Ukraine crisis has obvious implications for Indian foreign and security policies because it will deepen the confrontation between Russia and China on the one hand and the US on the other. Indian policymakers will have to face up to three implications. First, this is a fundamental divide between Moscow and New Delhi that will not be repaired any time soon. Second, Indian interests are clearly opposed to anything that strengthens China or weakens the US — a fundamental contradiction with Russian interests. Finally, New Delhi has to be mindful of the vulnerabilities that it faces in this situation and work to mitigate them.
The alignment between Russia and China has been deepening for almost a decade, and its outlines and implications were visible long before this crisis. An alignment does not have to be a military alliance for it to be deep and durable — just think of China and Pakistan.
It is tempting to assign blame for this on American policy, but such an understanding would be both wrong and more importantly, irrelevant. It is wrong because it assumes that great powers can easily reach mutual accommodation on security, which is actually quite rare.
A particularly foolish notion is that the US should allow Russia a sphere of influence over Eastern Europe. Note that those seeking to grant Russia such concessions—oddly, almost always American ‘realists’—want to also grant such privilege to China too. This is foolish because great powers don’t willingly make such concessions to other great powers.
It is usually the recognition of an existing reality than a strategy for avoiding conflict. America’s Monroe Doctrine was not ‘granted’ by other great powers but accepted because they could do nothing to challenge it, especially considering the relative peripherality of Latin America to great power interests and the global economy. Europe is hardly the same — it still represents a very large, allied economic zone, and the US has long had a significant presence there to protect its interests.
Also read: Ukraine-Russia first shots have already been fired — in cyberspace
Europe in tatters, US asserting pressure
It might appear pragmatic to suggest that the US should reduce its commitments to Europe so that Washington can concentrate on Asia. After all, the European Union is about 10 times richer than Russia, surely, it can manage its own security. Ideally, this is true, but Europe has not been able to get its act together in decades. Even in the current crisis, with a large-scale conventional war staring at them in the face, getting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to coordinate resembles herding cats. Washington is unlikely to risk strengthening Russia by leaving it to the dysfunctional Europeans to handle the challenge alone.
Additionally, Russian insecurity is focused on the US, and Moscow is unlikely to stop countering its power even if the US reduces its commitment to Europe. In any case, Washington will not gamble with such radical propositions when the consequences could potentially be dire if it fails. Indian policy has to be based on what the US is likely to do, not what it would like them to do. To expect that the US would just withdraw is the opposite of being realistic.
Great powers and ‘wishful thinking’ don’t mix
Indeed, as wishful thinking goes, why not wish that Russia becomes more considerate to its neighbours so they do not seek protection from the US? That again would be a misunderstanding of the expansive way in which great powers think of their security. The endless debate over who made what commitments to whom when the Cold War ended is reminiscent of the even longer debate about who was to blame for the First World War or the Cold War.
Such origin debates are also irrelevant for Indian policy. It can only play the cards it is dealt with. It is possible that a compromise—much to be hoped for—will be reached. But that will not end the deeper conflict between the US and Russia. The reality that has to be faced is that irrespective of how this crisis plays out, Russia is likely to end up even more insecure than it is today. If Russia completes a successful military operation in Ukraine, it is likely to lead to greater European and American insecurity, thereby resulting in a more united and determined NATO.
Sweden and Finland, traditionally neutral, may consider NATO membership, bringing the alliance to Russia’s borders. If the operation fails or gets curtailed or cancelled, Moscow’s sense of injury and insecurity will only get worse. Either way, the consequence will be an even tighter China-Russian alignment, which is set to last for the foreseeable future.
Also read: US-led alliance expansion is over. Russia wants an iron-clad deal to stop NATO
What India needs to rethink
The primary objective of the China-Russia alignment is and will be undermining American power. This may be a perfectly understandable objective for Moscow and Beijing, but weakening American power is not in India’s interest. The US is essential to anchor any effort to balance China. Without this anchor, there is little hope that China’s domination over Asia can be countered.
The other regional powers are, even in concert, no match for the power and the wealth that China can muster. The China-US equation is zero-sum for India — anything that diminishes the US strengthens China and vice-versa. Russian interests are thus directly contradictory to India’s because the weakening of the American power that Russia desires will strengthen China, much to India’s detriment. Russia hasn’t been shy about this, including vocal opposition to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a direct attack on Indian interests. It is naive not to recognise this clear conflict of interest between India and Russia.
Although it is difficult to know with certainty whether the China-Russia partnership is dangerous for India, prudence suggests that New Delhi take measures. The most important measure is reducing India’s military dependence on Russian arms, which continues to be high, a recent analysis showed. This can’t be done overnight, but it should be a serious concern. New Delhi has recognised, in a limited and haphazard manner, the contradiction with Russian interests. It has, for instance, rejected Russian criticism that India was being drawn into an anti-China coalition and slowly built up its relations with the Quad.
Also read: America stands with India against Chinese intimidation, US says
India should cease inconsistency, pick better
The Indian position on the Ukraine crisis itself shows some changes since 2014. At least, it is not (yet) making excuses for Russian behaviour, as both the outgoing UPA government and the newly-elected Modi govt were back then. On the other hand, the formal diplomatic positions have not shown much difference. Even on the Quad, India still appears the laggard — it refused to even name Quad in public until after the 2020 Galwan clash. A senior official appears to have told the Indian press at the Quad summit that there is no military or security dimension to the group, an odd statement, considering ‘security’ is in its name itself.
Such inconsistency is a problem. The argument that India’s strategic autonomy requires it to maintain high levels of political and defence relations with Russia is particularly thoughtless. Strategic autonomy is an objective of foreign policy, not a doctrine. As an objective, the question to ask is — which policy helps increase India’s strategic autonomy? In a complex international environment, for a relatively weak power, the answer requires picking among bad, unappetising choices.
A China-dominated Asian order, which will be the consequence of Moscow’s efforts to undermine the US, can hardly be conducive to India’s strategic autonomy. Refusing to deal with the deepening chasm in India-Russia relations will not make it go away, it will only make the fall that much harder.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)