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Home / Opinion / Views /  The internal coherence of India's seemingly contradictory stance on Russia

Hectic buying of Russian crude now makes up 25% of India’s energy imports. Critics have started blaming India for financing Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite criticism from the West, however, India, the world’s third largest oil importer, is not backing down on its buying, and in fact, has made it easier for trade with Russia to be conducted in rupees.

Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has done well to point to the debacle in Afghanistan to counter the critics of New Delhi’s foreign and trade policies. All the same, New Delhi has joined the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) in May, and India made a bold presence as a partner country at the G-7 in Germany last month.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the clearest assessment and articulation of India’s interests has come from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who, writing in The Hindu, called for distance to be maintained with Russia-China, while emphasising that India’s economic future lies in aligning with the US-led western trade and economic order and democratic values. Probably because Jaishankar’s public utterances haven’t been as clearly worded as Singh’s, India’s position can appear confused, even contradictory.

Naturally, the questions swirl: Where does India stand? Can India run with the hare and hunt with the hound?

Let’s unpack the issues.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 merely formalized a shadowy war of proxies on its western flank that started with its invasion of Georgia in 2008. The provocation? The NATO summit that year at Bucharest had declared that one day both Georgia and Ukraine would be NATO members after Ukraine had applied to join NATO. If there was any doubt that Russia would defend its interests militarily it ought to have been laid to rest in 2008. But it wasn’t. In 2014, to prevent Ukraine’s continued westward tilt, Russians sent in proxies and annexed Crimea, with access to Sevastopol, the strategic Black Sea port.

Even before the invasion on February 24, the West, especially the US, which had been arming Ukraine, till Ukraine had been elevated to the position of ‘enhanced opportunity partner,’ had watched as Russia amassed its military on the borders of Ukraine. It was a formal squaring off, and if there were any doubts, Russia issued statements that NATO cease activities in the area. US responded by sending Ukraine additional military assistance and troops to Poland and Romania, NATO members which border Russia. It was not hard to predict what would happen next. Yet, there is no justification for war

With the certainties of the Cold War long fallen, New Delhi, which kept its own counsel both in 2008 and in 2014 finds itself caught in a cleft stick when, as a non-permanent rotating member of the UN Security Council, instead of voting against Russia’s action of invading a sovereign country, India chose to abstain, not once but thrice, when similar motions were taken up in the UN General Assembly and at the Human Rights Council.

There’s the legacy relationship with Russia and the erstwhile Soviet Union, when the US was on the other side, aligned with Pakistan, and New Delhi in the embrace of a special relationship with the Soviets who stressed the Indian line on Kashmir. Most of New Delhi’s defence equipment came from the Soviets: aircraft carriers, naval ships, submarines, helicopters, advanced fighter jets, main battle tanks, space exploration, the entire spectrum, with easy payback options and softer end-user agreements on equipment with dual-use technology. The US is a newer acquaintance, strategically speaking, and the relationship is still finding its feet. It helped New Delhi step out of the category of being a nuclear pariah by signing the 123 agreement that led to separation of military and civil nuclear power plants, and helped put in place a system to check and control the outward flow of sensitive dual-use technology and ramp up defence ties. It is a relationship with a future even as Russia declines.

Testifying on India-US relations before Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, in an attempt to explain the Indian abstention in the General Assembly vote, American Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu told lawmakers that America’s relationship with India is one of the defining partnerships that will determine the security of Asia, the United States and the world. And, more interestingly, “It’s a relationship that we have to get right." He alluded to the encouraging trajectory India had been taking: since 2011, India had reduced its arms imports from Russia by 53% and increased its defence purchases from the United States and other partners as well as increasing its own domestic production capability.

So where does India stand? Fact is, India knows the dangers of switching one dependency for another. Thankfully, the good news is India is no stranger to pressures and dilemmas. It has in the past too come out of some sticky situations without too many bruises. It was painfully apparent when India was called upon to vote against Iran, for example. What is happening now is nothing compared to the process of the pressures India faced when it came out of the nuclear closet in 1998.

The question of Ukraine is no less simple.

New Delhi has given an explicit explanation on Ukraine on two occasions. In the statement External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar made to the Rajya Sabha on March 15, He premised India’s response as follows: “…a tense situation between Russia and Ukraine erupted into conflict on 24 February 2022. The root causes for this are complex, going back to a range of issues including the security architecture, political governance and inter-state politics. To that was added the challenges of implementing understandings reached earlier."

India is pointing fingers in three distinct directions: eastward expansion of NATO (security architecture), the government in Ukraine (political governance) and the parlous state of Russia-Ukraine relationship (which is knotty and messy and caught up in legacy issues in equal measures). The part about challenges of implementing understandings reached earlier refers to a raft of issues, too complicated to be explained here, but among them, surely is the oft-heard Russian refrain that the Americans have steadily reengaged from private assurances that with the unification of Germany, there would be no further expansion of NATO to the East. Jaishankar thus suggested that Russian concerns could be legitimate. Does that mean that the American concerns weren’t? Not quite.

Simply put, Jaishankar was saying India’s immediate interest was getting 22,500 Indians evacuated from Ukraine, no mean challenge with the war underway, with more than half of them in the eastern part of the country bordering Russia which bore the brunt of the Russian aggression. Without the help of both Ukraine and Russia, there was no way to get the Indians out safely. That it managed to do so through Operation Ganga, which flew 90 flights, from the countries to the west of Ukraine—Poland, Slovak Republic, Hungary, Romania and Moldova—after the closure of Ukrainian airspace on 24 February.

Earlier, in the explanation to the vote in the General Assembly, New Delhi introduced some clarifying nuances:

-that developments in Ukraine had taken a disturbing turn, which is the invasion and the war

- called for an immediate cessation of violence

-called for observance of UN Charter, international law, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.

-it was for all member states to find a constructive way forward

-called for dialogue

-called for diplomacy

India abstained, in sum, because casting a vote either way would be counterproductive to its interests and beliefs. India’s response, thus, reflects an internal coherence on the seemingly contradictory stance with regard to Russia. This is further confirmed by India’s attendance since at Quad meetings. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the G-7 meeting as a welcome invitee, even when all G-7 members were probably pushing India to take a stand closer to their positions on Ukraine, having amped up the anti-Russia and anti-China rhetoric. Russia had been part of an expanded G-7 since 1996, but was indefinitely suspended in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and subsequently Russia announced it was withdrawing permanently. India must have forcefully conveyed that a vote in the UN is not going to solve the Ukraine conundrum; it has to be solved by NATO, and Russia, and, of course, Ukraine.

Ukraine action will no doubt push Russia and China into a tighter embrace, and the associated outreach could include Iran as well. After the Chinese invaded the undemarcated border areas last year, New Delhi needs all the help it can to counter China. According to a leading commentator, Ashley Tellis, of the Carnegie Endowment, “Washington vocally supported India in its efforts to confront China’s occupation of the disputed territories; it moved quickly to provide the defence equipment requested by New Delhi; and it shared real-time operational intelligence about Chinese military activities with India. The Indian government, for its part, responded by dramatically changing course on the Quadrilateral Dialogue (the Quad)—the diplomatic forum that brings it together with the United States, Japan, and Australia. From its earlier opposition to ministerial-level Quad meetings even on the margins of the UN General Assembly, India visibly shifted to promoting high-profile stand-alone meetings at different levels. Indian policymakers also encouraged the development of concrete Quad initiatives in diverse areas to push back against China, while stepping up their criticism of Beijing’s pugnacity in the East and South China Seas and its Belt and Road Initiative."

India serves a useful purpose in the American strategy against China. It is doubtful if it will jeopardise the growing ties with petulant sanctions over, say, the S400 missile defence systems as is apparent from the recommendation of the US House of Representatives for a waiver for India from sanctions for buying Russian arms last week.

There is no need for India to be diffident on its stance on Ukraine. On the contrary, there is much scope for interlocution, to push Russia and the United States in the general direction of resolution, sooner rather than later. Too many people in far too many countries are paying the price for this war. This is unacceptable.

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