Russia-Ukraine Conflict

by Dr. Asma Shakir Khawaja

Russia-Ukraine conflict catapulted India into a foreign policy crisis. With time-tested strategic ties with Russia, the growing relations with the west, the space to maneuver in the divisive geostrategic environment leaves India with fewer policy options.

Since its independence, India is following a policy of non-alignment to pretend as a neutral state actor. Historically, this policy augured well in favor of India as it was able to fetch aid and support from both blocs (USA and Soviet Union) to become the optimum beneficiary of Cold War politics. However, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has forged a complex scenario not only for India but for international security as well. Once again a clear divide between likeminded states has emerged, primarily between the West and Russia. For a change, both blocs want their friendly states to stand by them instead of playing the neutrality card. This makes it difficult for India to follow its traditional course of foreign policy. 
India’s Minister for External Affairs, Mr. Jaishakar, while addressing the Indian Parliament stated that India’s position on Ukraine crisis is based on six principles: cessation of violence, dialogue and diplomacy, respect for territorial integrity and status quo of global order, access to humanitarian assistance, India providing humanitarian assistance, and remaining in touch with Russian and Ukrainian leadership. Furthermore, India encouraged both parties to resolve the conflict through bilateral dialogue. This advice is contradictory to India’s strategic behaviour in South Asia and approach towards peaceful conflict resolution with neighboring states, especially with Pakistan. 
As soon as Russia-Ukraine conflict escalated, India tried to maintain balanced relations with all actors involved, such as Russia, Ukraine, and the West. The immediate interest of India was the safe return of Indian citizens from Ukraine without compromising the restrained and neutral policy line. Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, made several calls to Russian president since the war began. Their first call was made right after a few hours of the eruption of hostilities. Modi urged the Russian president to cease violence while emphasizing on diplomacy and dialogue to resolve differences with Ukraine. Indian premier made a similar call to Ukrainian president as well and expressed his concerns over the loss of civilian lives. Most importantly, Modi did not criticize Russia during these conversations. Not only this, in order to assert its neutrality, India chose to abstain during United Nations resolutions on Russia-Ukraine war. 
India-Russia Bilateral Ties  
India and Russia have a compatible relationship for several decades based on common interests and a common world view. They made this convergence of interests official in 1971 with the signing of Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation. It is noteworthy that since then “balancing China” has been a common interest for both states, especially after India fought a war with China in 1962. Indian strategic culture indicates that if a state is weaker than its enemy, it should forge alliances to balance the power and pool resources to achieve greater strength. This mindset led India to seek and strengthen its alliance with Russia to counter the perceived Chinese threat. 

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia’s share of India’s defense imports is 46% and India received 28% of Russia’s defense exports. 

Now, Russia and India are tied together in complex interdependence, making their relationship mutually beneficial. For example, Russia is India’s biggest defense supplier and resultantly India is the world’s largest buyer of Russian weapons. To date, Indian strategists consider defense cooperation with Russia as fundamental to counter Chinese threat and restrain its rise. Russia is the source of around 50 per cent of the weapons used by the Indian armed forces. Indian military’s reliance on Russia has been measured and evaluated by various defense surveys across the globe. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia’s share of India’s defense imports is 46% and India received 28% of Russia’s defense exports. Both states have also signed a deal worth USD 5.43 billion for the S-400 air defense system. India imported goods worth $6.9 billion from Russia in 2021, mainly mineral oils, fertiliser, precious stones, and nuclear technology. Its exports to Russia stood at $3.33 billion, ranging from pharmaceutical products to tea and coffee. It is noteworthy that Russia’s share has dropped to 49% from 70% due to India’s decision to diversify its portfolio and boost domestic defense manufacturing.
Similarly, India has cordial and cooperative relations with Ukraine as well. Ukraine is an important partner of India for cooperation in the realm of technology. Indian naval warships are dependent upon Ukrainian gas turbine. During this recent crisis, India provided 90 tons of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Indians comprise 24% of total international students studying in Ukraine. With the help of Ukrainian government, India evacuated its 2250 citizens from the country after the war started. 

Mr. Daleep Singh, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics U.S., made it clear to Indian officials that it’s not in India’s interest to accelerate or increase imports of Russian energy and other commodities. 

West should not ignore the fact that Russia and India are strategic partners, just like U.S. and India. Both countries have a similar orientation towards the international politics, such as they support multipolar balance of power. West cannot ignore the fact that according to international institutions, India is sliding down on the democratic index and has become an electoral autocracy.  India has evolved as a radical and socially polarized society on the basis of religion and ethnicity. Therefore, liberal democracy in Ukraine doesn’t concern India. Famous strategist Chanakya Kautilya wrote that friends close to one’s borders are better than distant friends. Over the years, both countries have transformed their geographical proximity into strategic proximity. That is why policy preferences are appreciated by Russia when during a meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia and India in Delhi, Russian foreign minister praised India for not viewing the conflict in Ukraine in a “one-sided way.”
Despite international sanctions, India chose to continue imports of Russian oil, rather with the rise in oil prices, it increased its energy trade with Russia on subsidized rates. As the result, Mr. Daleep Singh, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics U.S., made it clear to Indian officials that it’s not in India’s interest to accelerate or increase imports of Russian energy and other commodities. Moreover, after the supplies of edible sunflower oil halted from Ukraine, India chose to buy it from Russia to address the shortfall of sunflower oil in the domestic market. Not only this but India bought edible sunflower oil on a record high price as per Indian newspapers. 
India’s massive dependence on Russia does not allow India to pursue an independent foreign policy.  Historical trends indicate that “India’s Neutral Foreign Policy” means tilt towards Russia. However, India is still reluctant to explicitly support Russia unlike China. China termed Russian stance as “legitimate” while supporting Russia. Till now, India manages to remain more neutral than China. But this scenario raises more questions, such as what would be the future of India-Russia strategic partnership, with China coming closer to Russia. Where would India stand if its close ally Russia befriends India’s competitor China? Or will India allow Russia to tilt strategic balance in favor of China? And to restrain Russia-China partnership, would India put its strategic with the West on stake? There is no doubt that any such development would have a strategic impact on the international security calculus. 
India and the West
Indian foreign policy behavior towards the Russia-Ukraine conflict is not sitting well with the West. The West does not want India to ally with the Russia-China camp. Due to its economic interests, India cannot brush aside the Western concerns and demands. The bilateral trade between India and the U.S. is $150 billions, compared to $8 billions between India and Russia. These trade statistics indicate their mutual financial interdependence. The probability of these states keeping their difference below the boiling point is higher than them indulging in any spat on Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

India’s military cooperation with Russia, strategic partnership with the USA, QUAD membership, trade ties with the west and threat perception from Pakistan and China, have constructed a complex paradigm for Indian policymakers.

It is pertinent to understand the Indian perception of the West. India perceives West to be more of a trading partner than a geopolitical or geostrategic partner. Ho significance of being a trading partner is not any less than being a geopolitical and strategic partner. 
The USA termed India’s position at the United Nations over the crisis in Ukraine as “unsatisfactory” but was also “unsurprising” given the historical trend of their cordial relationship. According to the Director of the White House National Economic Council, Brian Deese, the Biden administration has warned India against aligning itself with Russia. He expressed that U.S. officials have been “disappointed” with some of India’s reaction to Ukraine’s invasion. Moreover, he confirmed that the U.S. has informed India regarding the “significant and long-term,” consequences of a “more explicit strategic alignment” with Russia. Apparently, while following the stick and carrot approach, Western powers are trying their best to convince India to refrain from any act to directly or indirectly support Russia during the war. However, they are unable to prevent India’s diplomatic neutrality, which interestingly favors Russia. 
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, visited Delhi and met Indian Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar, and a few senior officials. After her meeting, she pointed out “an evolution of thinking in India.” However, she did not quote any empirical evidence to substantiate her claim. In order to satisfy India’s security anxieties, Ms. Nuland expressed the willingness of the U.S. and Europe to become strong “defense and security partners” of India. In an effort to provide an opportunity for military cooperation, she extended U.S. help to wean India off its dependence on Russian defense supplies. She even termed Russia-Ukraine conflict as “autocratic-democratic struggle,” and requested for Indian support. Here a question arises how India can rely on U.S.’ offer for defense and security, while the promises on civilian nuclear deal with India were never fulfilled. It is noteworthy to see how India would stretch her economic muscles to fulfil the financial requirements to become the defense and security partner of the U.S.? 
India has strengthened its security cooperation with the U.S. through bilateral agreements such as the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement in 2018 and the second U.S.-India Defense Framework Agreement in 2015. The latter agreement sets out plans for the intensification of security cooperation between the two countries until 2025, including military exercises, particularly those in the maritime domain, such as the annual Malabar Exercise. India’s multilateral engagement with the West, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which comprises the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia, have helped them to evolve as strategic partners. India is the only QUAD state which is still trying to maintain balance instead of supporting the QUAD countries on Russia-Ukraine conflict. Diplomatically, India has resisted entreaties from the U.S. and Australia to scale back its relationship with Russia, under the pretext that Russian weapons are pertinent to counter both Pakistan and China and that alternatives are too expensive. If history is any guide, India always tried to seek maximum benefits from both blocs and now with this chain of statements, it is evident that India would aim at strengthening its military might. 
If we go through the statements of the U.S. and EU officials, it appears that they intend to seek more help from India to apply economic pressure on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, owing to immense economic cooperation between Russia and India. EU’s response to India’s Russia policy is somewhat toned down than that of the USA. UK’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, said that she respected India’s decision to continue to buy oil but also urged “like-minded nations” to cooperate more closely on defense, trade, and energy and food security.” Despite terming India “somewhat shaky on Ukraine,” President Biden offered Mr. Modi help to diversify India’s oil imports. The West does not believe that increase in energy imports from Russia would serve Indian interests. In a strong response to criticism of India’s purchase of Russian oil, Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, highlighted that India’s total purchase of Russian oil for one month was less than what Europe does in one afternoon. 
Outfall of Ukraine Crisis on India
India’s military cooperation with Russia, strategic partnership with the USA, QUAD membership, trade ties with the West and threat perception from Pakistan and China, have constructed a complex paradigm for Indian policymakers. Clarity of thought, rational assessment of policy priorities and vision to foresee the future of existing security calculus can be a problem solving approach. 
As we know, economy provides flexibility and affordability to materialize the strategic designs. Russia-Ukraine War can potentially inflict energy crisis on dependent countries and energy starved India is one of them. Two energy rich regional states, Iran and Russia, are under UN sanctions without providing the consumer states any cost effective option. Indian economists would be dreading this situation as Indian economy is already coping with the effects of COVID-19, therefore, non availability of energy or any spike in energy prices would be another blow to Indian economic development. 
A swift and immediate end of war between Russia and Ukraine best serves Indian interests. Indian strategists fear that a prolonged war would consume a large share of Russian resources. It would increase the probability of diversion of Russian arms export to Ukraine War instead of India. The UN sanctions on Russia can also result in a halt in Russia-India defense cooperation, such as export of S-400 missiles, Akula submarines, manufacturing of A-203 rifles, and exports of BrahMos missile, etc. These sanctions would cause delay in military modernization in India. In either case it would become harder for India to procure Russian equipment to satisfy her military requirements. The Indian dream of balancing China would be compromised if Russia’s military supplies and technology transfers to India are halted and the West does not come up with any cost effective alternatives. A significant increase in the defense cooperation between the USA and India was witnessed during 2017-2021. This made the U.S. the third largest defense supplier to India with 12% of market share. However, complete withdrawal from Russian dependency and promoting diversified dependency are not easy tasks to be achieved in the next couple of years. 
India’s Policy Conundrum
The abovementioned scenario raises questions regarding the feasibility of a balanced foreign policy by India. If India sides with the U.S., it will cost her a time-tested friend, Russia, along with the cost effective defense supplies and energy dependency. What if India’s foreign policy behavior brings China and Russia closer at the cost of Indian dream of being a regional power? As Russia and China already maintain a strategic partnership, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has proved Indian inability to achieve the dream of balancing China. Self reliance, technological sufficiency, economic sustainability, and rational policies are fundamental to emerge as a regional power, which this crisis has proved that India immensely lacks. Former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, termed it as a “nightmare scenario” for India if “the U.S. comes to the conclusion that it confronts a greater threat from Russia, therefore strategic accommodation with China is justified.”  According to Mr. Shyam, this assumption would result into U.S. “conceding Chinese dominance in Asia while safeguarding its European flank.” However, the same crisis has provided more space to India to exaggerate the security anxieties of the USA vis-à-vis China, but to achieve that, India has to stand against Russia. To fetch a large arms deals from the West, India has to come out of the Russian sphere of influence. India is also worried about Russian support for separatist movements in Ukraine as India itself fears international support for indigenous freedom struggles in various Indian regions.
Not only this, Russia is also mending fences with India’s other top adversary, Pakistan. This scenario would trigger security dilemma for India. If India does not want to create any space for her competitors and  supports Russia while preferring a close ally over a distant one, what would be the future of her strategic partnership with the USA and economic cooperation with Europe?  The former Indian diplomat, JN Misra, aptly explained this situation and stated that India “has bad and worse options to pick from.” This sums up the whole scenario. 
An expert of South Asia politics, Mr. Michael Kugelman, is of the opinion that “India can leverage its deep ties to Moscow and cordial relations with Kyiv and try to push both sides to de-escalate.” This assumption can be supported by empirical evidence as India could have emerged as a peace broker due to its close ties with Russia, Ukraine, and Europe and its interests in preserving the regional status quo for the time being. However, it failed to utilize its influence on either of them to forge a peace deal. India’s inability on this part is either her failure on the part of Indian statecraft or substantiates Henry Kissinger’s statement that states have no friends but only common interests. 
Former Indian diplomat, Anil Triguniyat, advised that India has to be strategically neutral as there is no other way. He further added that India should pursue a policy of strategic autonomy, not far removed from non-alignment and initiate a grouping of “nations for strategic unity” to serve their development interests in a “much more severe Cold War 2.0,” that is likely to emerge after the war in Ukraine.
India’s foreign policy behavior has opened a new academic debate between proponents of ethical national interests and national interests. India’s support for Russia will result in the loss of her reputation in the West. As a general norm, democratic governments have a long track record of not condemning other states when it suits them.

The writer is Executive Director at the Center for International Strategic Studies, AJ&K and the author of Shaking Hands with Clenched Fists: The Grand Trunk Road to Confidence Building Measures between Pakistan and India.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Stay Connected

Follow and subscribe

Contact CISS AJK

Center for International Strategic Studies AJK, King Abdullah Campus Chatter kalas Muzaffarabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir