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Stay neutral in Russia’s war. India’s caution follows principle of international relations

Friends can help sharpen the sword but to expect them to fight for us is unrealistic. War in Ukraine speaks loudly of such reality. India must take the cue.

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The fear generated by the global rampages of the Covid-19 pandemic looks set to be substituted by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, it holds the potential to deepen ongoing global geopolitical confrontation between the United States and its allies on one side and the China-Russia combine on the other. The reverberations of the invasion and the reaction to them — though largely confined to economic sanctions at present — will have global ramifications and India cannot remain unaffected.

India’s actions and statement during the discussion on United Nations Security Council Resolution, which sought to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, indicate that New Delhi still sees it as an issue between NATO and Russia that should be resolved through dialogue. It abstained from the vote saying, “It is a matter of regret that diplomacy was given up. For these reasons, India has chosen to abstain from the resolution.”

Considering that the invasion blatantly violates international laws, India’s neutrality can also be viewed as a tilt towards Russia. Prior to the vote, President Vladimir Putin had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US officials had also reached out to India. To be coveted for support by both sides is what India should take note of because it provides a glimpse of both opportunities and challenges, and could help shape India’s foreign policy postures to deal with the geopolitical turbulence that lies ahead.

Also read: ‘Just short of nuclear’– Financial sanctions against Russia can collapse its economy

Towards a cooperative relationship 

The preference to deal with military aggression through economic sanctions may provide limited relief regarding the possibilities of a future war between NATO and Russia. However, India cannot evade the economic impact of rise in prices of oil and several other commodities including agricultural products like refined oil. India has held back from hiking fuel prices despite global rise in the price of oil mainly due to the ongoing assembly elections. It will have to brace itself for further inflation and the struggling economy can be expected to face additional headwinds.

India’s dependence on Russia and the US for strengthening its military preparations can be expected to be leveraged by both Moscow and Washington  to pressurise New Delhi in terms of alignments on issues contested between them. Currently, both are open to providing arms and military equipment but retain the option in different degrees to withhold spares and maintenance support. This strategic vulnerability is not easy to tackle in the short term and will play an inevitable role in adoption of India‘s foreign policies on issues at stake and more importantly in shaping its national security strategy.

Building cooperative relationships based on common interests will continue to provide the sinews of crafting India’s  strategy. In a world that is increasingly slipping into coalition building mode, accompanied by an unbridled arms race, India has to deal with cross-cutting relations and the contradictions that arise from it. India, therefore, finds itself in varied political machinations that involve  nations on either side of the global political divide. The recently renewed interest in India-Australia-US-Japan Quad indicated a shift in New Delhi’s policy towards a cooperative relationship with Washington and its allies. This keeps an uneasy balance with India’s membership in the BRICS, SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and RIC.

In terms of grand strategy, India’s interests are better served if it does not get involved in what are essentially the fights between various nations. India ought not to view the contemporary global churn as an ideological confrontation between liberalism and authoritarianism. Instead, as long as the international system is based on Westphalian sovereignty, any attempts that seek domination to undermine India’s sovereignty must be the central concern. The contemporary worsening of relations with China are currently besieged by Beijing’s attempt to dominate political and geographic spaces that are perceived in India as violation of the principle of sovereignty.

Also read: What is Wagner Group — shadowy Russian mercenaries ‘in Kyiv to assassinate Volodymyr Zelensky’

Walking a tightrope

The possibility that the US, Russia and China are mindful of India’s alignment on various international issues may be indicative of India’s relative weight on the global geopolitical scales. It is perhaps derived from the endowments of India’s geography, size, population, economic and strategic wherewithal that include its nuclear weapons.

The worsening of US-Russian relations and the growing proximity between Russia and China has a major impact on India’s external strategy. While calls for joining or moving closer to the US-led bloc are probably gaining traction in India’s foreign policy discourse, there is the need for caution to go down that path.

The caution emerges from the first principle of international relations that there are no permanent friends nor enemies. This principle, if embraced, supports the notion that India’s preference for strategic partnerships is better suited than getting into any alliance relationship. In an alliance, a nation is committed to fight others’ battles and weakens its ability to maintain strategic autonomy. On the other hand, the cornerstone of a strategic partnership is based on context. Therefore, India can team up with China on climate change, with the US on nuclear proliferation, and remain neutral on Ukraine. India’s multi-alignments as a strategy involving tightrope walking can perhaps be better described as one of being a bachelor/spinster leading a politically promiscuous existence.

The situation in Ukraine is still unfolding and Russia has surprisingly put its nuclear forces on alert. For India, it provides enough signals that when it comes to war, assistance from friends and partners are at best in forms that cannot provide succour to confront the power of military force where violence can kill, destroy or maim. Shaping and strengthening India’s military power must, therefore, be independent of political calls to eschew violence and diplomatic attempts to maintain peace. Such calls can fall on deaf ears and diplomacy can fail.

For India, an effective military as the sword of the political leadership is an imperative and not a choice that can depend on foreign policy initiatives or the goodwill of others. Friends can help sharpen the sword but to expect them to fight for us is unrealistic. War in Ukraine speaks loudly of such reality. India must take the cue.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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