Regional Game Of Thorns Behind India’s Strategic Middle Ground On Ukraine

Though a status quo in relations with Russia has disappointed the US, New Delhi is steadfast in addressing security risks from China and Pakistan than supporting a proxy war.

All’s fair in love and war. Ukraine learned it the hard way when the self-anointed saviors from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) floundered around, not doing “everything in their power” to stop the invading Russians. The emphatic declarations of the yesterdays turned out to be reveries for its 44-million population, the empty rhetoric of the present day mere publicity stunts. The NATO game plan of sanctions rather than direct actions might have saved the world from a bigger catastrophe for now, but it has shaken the foundations of Western credibility, with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky lamenting in the initial days of the war on how his country was abandoned at a crucial point.

Consistent or not, geopolitical trends have changed the way nations perceive wars. India’s refusal to openly condemn Russian actions and its decision to abstain from a United Nations Security Council vote on February 25 and UN General Assembly vote on March 2 can only be seen in this light. At the same time, New Delhi has shown its strategic empathy towards Ukraine by urging for dialogue, while reminding that no solution can ever be reached at the cost of human lives.  

So why is India shirking its responsibility to condemn Russia’s blatant attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity? A straight answer would be India does not have territorial tensions with Russia or Ukraine, unlike, say NATO member Turkey, which has sided with Ukraine in the hope of weakening Russia’s increasing hold over the strategically important Black Sea. Similarly, New Delhi is not under any cultural or moral obligation, unlike Israel, which has to step in to save Ukrainian Jews – Zelensky also belongs to the tribe – from war horrors. Even Israel was initially reluctant to embrace its brethren, being wary of losing Russian help to facilitate airstrikes in next-door Syria to keep its borders free of Iranian proxies. 

National interests trump emotions in today’s imperfect world. Like Ukraine, India also has dodgy neighbors and disputed borders that demand top-class surveillance and the use of cutting-edge technologies. Russian equipment is India’s bulwark against any looming territorial aggression. A Stimson Center paper said 86% of equipment in the Indian arsenal were from Russia. Additionally, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report said exports from Russia stood at US$ 9.3 billion since 2014, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious ‘Make in India’ initiative bringing down Russian imports by 33% between 2011-15 and 2016-20. The American contribution was a distant US$ 2.3 billion since 2014. 

Russia’s T-72M1 and T-90S are at the core of the Indian Army’s Main Battle Tank force. The Navy’s only active aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is a refurbished Soviet-era ship. The IAF’s combat aircraft Su-30MKI fighter and MiG-29 are of Russian origin. BrahMos, the country’s only nuclear-capable supersonic cruise missile, is produced by a joint venture with Russia. Add to this, the multifarious agreements on defense, trade, and diplomatic cooperation, besides technical expertise that keeps critical ventures such as nuclear reactors operational, and Moscow seems to be irreplaceable in our scheme of things. 

The uninitiated observers think Ukraine deserves a tit-for-tat response for supplying arms to Pakistan when the reality is that Kyiv has supplied equipment to India too. Ukraine’s push for UN intervention on Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 has also piqued many. However, statecraft does not necessarily involve such counterstrokes. For example, India has voted against Israel on resolutions regarding the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people and Israeli settlements in the past, but ties with Israel have been far from affected, with both countries marking 30 years of full diplomatic relations just a month ago. The same applies to NATO, particularly the US, as a few abstentions at the UN on the Ukraine issue are not going to jeopardize India’s bilateral relations with Washington.

The naysayers are particularly vocal about how Ukraine voted against India at the UN for holding Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998. The tragic irony is that Kyiv now bears the brunt of its shortsighted decision to relinquish its nuclear stockpile in 1994, based on the security guarantees given by Russia, Europe, and the US regarding its sovereignty. Had Kyiv preserved its nuclear arsenal, would Moscow have thought of unleashing a mindless military offensive? The Russian somersault shows why countries should stay grounded and tread prudently on the issue of national security.

War veterans would fondly remember how Soviet submarines and battleships saved India from a possible nuclear attack by US 7th Fleet during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Others point to how Soviet Russia used its veto power to block the UN moves against India ranging from the Kashmir issue and Goa liberation to border ceasefire and refugee crisis. Its steadfast support for India was once again demonstrated in 2019 when Moscow termed scrapping of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir as purely an internal matter. 

India is one of those few countries that can presently claim good relations with both Russia and the US. However, it is in New Delhi’s best interests to be frequently reminded that there are no permanent friends or foes in geopolitics. The US wants India to condemn the Russian blitzkrieg because it is wary of Moscow’s continued dominance in the country’s arms trade. If the US could break that time-tested alliance, the US companies would be in a position to tap India’s large markets in an unprecedented fashion and make it a money-minting machine. 

Further, no one can easily forget how the US deserted Afghanistan, despite knowing fully well that Kabul would fall into the Taliban’s hands after its troops withdrew. The present bonhomie with New Delhi is more focused on tackling Beijing, which is posing a threat to the US’s expansionist regime. However, India knows very well that the US lip service, as has happened with Ukraine, won’t save it in the event of a Chinese incursion. Moscow being friends with Beijing, it is in accordance with New Delhi’s security goals that it nurtures Russian ties. The same applies to Pakistan too, as Russia has recently bolstered its diplomatic efforts to revive ties with Islamabad. In any case, the US is not the best bet for brokering peace if a murky situation develops in the future.

Though Indian posturing may also have its roots in the famed Non-Aligned Movement, most South Asian countries have reacted tepidly to the war. Only Nepal has openly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of force against a sovereign country, something that should be read along with its own sensitive positioning as a geographical buffer between big players India and China. 

With the Russian rouble collapsing to record lows due to the West’s economic sanctions, and curbs on trade and travel set to hike petrol, diesel, and gas prices, the resilience of countries that deal with Moscow would be put to test. India, however, is far better placed than during the 1998 US sanctions following Pokhran-II, with its foreign exchange reserves clocking at a whopping $631.95 early last month. 

But high crude oil prices will directly impact the prices of vegetables, fruits, pulses, and oils, especially edible oils imported from Russia. India’s main imports from Russia include fuels, mineral oils, natural and cultured pearls, precious stones, nuclear reactors and its parts, and electrical machinery. Payments to Russia may not be affected as they are made in the Indian rupee. However, New Delhi will have to tweak its payment options, as has been done for Iranian oil.  

The inconveniences don’t end there. Like the sword of Damocles, US sanctions for purchasing the S-400 missile defense system from Russia have been hanging over India for a while. New Delhi’s tiptoeing on Ukraine may spur US President Joe Biden into action under Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which authorizes Washington to impose sanctions on countries that purchase major defense hardware from Russia as retaliation to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Probably, Ukraine’s biggest mistake was that it did not learn a lesson from NATO’s meek response to the annexation of Crimea in a relatively bloodless coup d’etat and seizure of the port of Sevastopol, thereby tipping the balance of military power in the Black Sea in its favor. Kyiv is now caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and no temporary ceasefire can reverse the damage done.  
Nearly 20,000 Indian nationals study medicine in Ukraine, and Moscow has so far been sympathetic to New Delhi’s evacuation mission. Once the majority of its nationals are back to the safety of their homeland, will New Delhi tweak its stand to stay ethically correct? Not unless a nuclear war erupts. Though Putin’s order to put nuclear forces on high alert may be an indomitable war strategy, India cannot shrug off its responsibility to condemn it in the strongest possible language in the event of a nuclear strike. For now, India must walk the fine line between projecting a just and principled humanitarian outlook and upholding its strategic ties. The biggest lesson India has learned from this war is that overdependence sucks.

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