Russia’s indefensible attempt at invading Ukraine has placed India in a bind that appears to elicit three sets of responses.
First, there are those who seem to be somewhat sanguine about the effects of Russia’s belligerence. “We were there in 2014, and managed the pressures,” argues a former Indian envoy to Russia. Following Russia’s recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk on 22 February, another – recently retired – ambassador to Russia states that while “Russia has not covered itself in glory,” there is “no reason to doubt the merits of our longstanding relations with it.” This, of course, was a view put across prior to the actual invasion of Ukraine.
Second, the media or the fourth estate has a different perspective. An increasing number of editorials in India’s national dailies have not hesitated to call out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tragic gamble. “Russia has crossed a red line,” “Unjustifiable incursion,” “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is deplorable,” are commonplace sentences in editorials in Indian broadsheets. This war is being covered by Indian media anchors – including those who have parachuted into Ukraine and its bordering states. The catastrophic human effects are broadcast across the country. The unfolding calamity is clear for all to see. There is only one villain in this tragedy: Russia.
Third, the Indian government is clearly more-than-irate by Russia’s unclothed belligerence. India may have abstained from the vote at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) “that deplores” the “aggression” against Ukraine, vetoed by Russia – but the Explanation of Vote (EoV) did not mask the Narendra Modi government’s frustration with this strategic partnership. It called for the “immediate cessation of violence” and underlined the need to respect the “territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states.” This explanation will not convince many about India taking a forceful enough or principled stand against a traditional partner, but there is no way in which India can afford an outright vote against Russia.
For now, the EoV is as stark a position that India can consider. At the current levels of dependence on Russian military hardware coupled with Moscow’s munificent political choices with regard to India, any other course would be simply imprudent. Yet, it is noteworthy that at Ukraine’s request, India has announced that it will send medical provisions and aid. It can only be hoped that India will do so effectively and urgently.
Will Russia be neutral to India?
The views of the ‘street’ will no doubt evolve as the crisis prolongs – possibly to the detriment of Russia’s place in India’s public imagination. The Modi government’s position will conceivably need to continue to consider the measured, challenging, and painfully emotionless equation of balancing its relations between the West and Russia. The length of the war and the manner in which Russia conducts its military operations may shake up India’s calculus in the near future.
At the same time, the assumptions around sanguinity—if one can call it that—requires a modest dose of challenge.
The merits of this relationship will need to be re-thought. It cannot and should not be left as an over-determined computation that can be taken for granted. It is too early to definitively punt about the future, but the following set of conditions will perhaps need to be taken into account as grandmasters and strategists sit down to canvas India’s impending prospects in times of war and peace. Two points are moot.
First, there is almost no doubt that Russia’s dependence on China will increase. As British historian Adam Tooze puts it, while the effects of the sanctions are yet to be seen, as far as Russia’s “economy is concerned, the chaos is just about to get started.” Mitigating the risks of a whole-hearted Western-led and determined effort to economically isolate Russia will require a different and deeper form of partnership with China. China’s recent decisions to lift restrictions on wheat imports and enter long-term energy contracts with Russia is telling.
Given this, the crucial question for India is: Will Russia be able to play the role of an honest broker if and when another military skirmish or even a limited conflict takes place on the India-China border? Whichever way the axe falls on this question, Russia’s role cannot be estimated using a pre-Ukraine invasion calculus. At the very least, the more sanguine assumptions about Russia’s role needs to be re-studied. What is to say that Russia won’t return to the pre-1962 neutrality in its approach to the challenges between India and China?
The game has changed
Second, for argument’s sake, if one were to reach the conclusion that India’s reliance on Russia ought to be re-thought – that is, continuing to de-risk its defence dependence and being cooler about Russia’s political value to India – it is only logical to do even more with the United States and the West more broadly. Yet, what is increasingly clear is that the pack of nations determined till recently to invest long-term capabilities – economic and military – in the Indo-Pacific will need to re-think their advance. This includes the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the European Union as a whole.
There just is not enough capabilities to be split between the security of Europe and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Choices will need to be made. Germany’s decision to break with its post-Second World War norm of anti-militarism, increasing its defence budget, and its commitment to supply arms to Ukraine is indicative of the centrality of Europe to Europe. This is a new reality for India. It is increasingly unlikely that the Indo-Pacific will continue to be treated as the only principal theatre of strategic interest. To be sure, Russia’s decision to rupture relations with the West has changed the terms in which interests and values will be read and exercised.
If one thought of strategy like an insurer thought of ships sailing into choppy waters, the only possible alternative would be to offer an olive branch to China. This is of course strategically undesirable, politically intolerable – especially keeping an eye on the 2024 Indian elections, and (possibly) publicly unacceptable. The questions then are these: If Russia drifts into neutrality in its ties with China and India, and if any diplomatic parley with China is inconceivable—as it ought to be for the moment—what can Western powers continue to offer India given that the game has structurally changed? Equally, if India’s dependence on the West increases even further, what will be the costs of a partnership crafted more out of necessity than choice? For one thing is sure, as Russia chose to invade Ukraine, in one fell-sweep, it has fundamentally undermined the strategic choices once available to India.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. He tweets @Rudra_81. Views are personal.