Neutrality or timidity? Unpacking India's position on the Russia-Ukraine crisis
New Delhi hasn't taken sides on the conflict yet. That's diplomatic prudence. But does it bode well for India's foreign policy choices?
Earlier today, dawn had barely broken when Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Bright flashes from explosions caused by Russian missile strikes in major urban centres, such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, lit up the still-dark skies.
According to the latest reports, Russian ground forces have entered Ukrainian territory, as fighter jets pound military assets and other critical installations (like airports). This comes hard on the heels of a rapid military build-up along the volatile Russia-Ukraine border and a war of words between Moscow, Kyiv and the West.
Three days earlier, on 21 February, in a blustering televised speech, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, asserted his claim on Ukrainian territory while accusing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) of endangering Russia’s security by arming Kyiv.
“[Ukraine] is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said, with a palpable undertone of rage (made-up or organic, one knows not).
In the speech, Putin also announced Russia’s intent to formally recognise and open diplomatic relations with the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) – two breakaway, self-declared governments controlling parts of the Donbass region in southeastern Ukraine.
Even as Moscow’s jets bombed Ukraine, the UN Security Council convened an emergency meeting, which was, ironically, chaired by Russia.
During the meeting, India made a short and carefully-worded statement that expressed “deep concern” on the crisis and called for “immediate de-escalation”, but stayed away from blaming any one party for the dangerous escalation.
In his quintessentially impassive tone, the Indian Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador TS Tirumurti, said:
We call on all parties to exert greater efforts to bridge divergent interests. I would like to underline that the legitimate security interests of all parties should be fully taken into account.
India had made a similar neutrally-framed statement after Putin’s 21 February speech, which was flush with imperialistic ambitions of annexing what he sees as Russia’s long-lost land of glory (and Lenin’s creation):
We call for restraint on all sides. The immediate priority is de-escalation of tensions, taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond. We are convinced that this issue can be only be resolved through diplomatic dialogue.
Objectively, these are nothing short of neutral statements, simply because they avoid taking sides. Yet, in the diplomatic world, ‘neutrality’ is a slippery slope. What one actor may see as neutral, others may not – especially at the brink of an actual war.
Two things are particularly notable in India’s remarks – no condemnation of the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine; and no word on Moscow formally recognising the DNR and LNR as independent states, which Kyiv and other Western capitals obviously see as a flagrant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
So, for now, India’s balanced remarks will appease only Kremlin, but won’t float well with Europe and Washington. Sure, India has insisted on diplomatic solution, but that won’t cut ice with the West – even Russia, who wants to come to the table (only from a position of strength), has done so.
Notably, when India had made a similar neutral statement at the UNSC on 17 February, the Russian embassy in New Delhi welcomed it as “balanced, principled and independent.”
Earlier on 31 January, India abstained from a procedural vote on another UNSC meeting to discuss the crisis. At that time, First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, had thanked India (along with China, Kenya and Gabon) for their stance.
Is India’s “neutrality” surprising?
Several Western commentators are not amused by India’s balancing act. Some of them see it as a squarely pro-Russia position. Others accuse New Delhi of betraying its Western allies or question the very efficacy of the West partnering with India when the latter can’t even stand for the former in times of crises.
There is also a certain degree of shock at India’s neutrality over the crisis amongst Western observers. As if no one saw it coming.
But of course, the world is much more complex than single-hemispheric takes on geopolitics.
Any long-time observer of Indian foreign policy will tell you that India’s balancing act on the current crisis is far from surprising. This is exactly how one would expect New Delhi to react to a Russia-NATO conflict. In fact, India siding with any one side would have been a startling aberration.
What explains India’s “neutrality”?
Some commentators have suggested that India’s stance is ideological — that it has got to do with the Narendra Modi government’s authoritarianism, illiberalism or sectarianism.
In my view, this argument does not hold water. Sure, the Modi government’s conduct at home is sectarian, authoritarian and illiberal – few honest observers of Indian politics would dispute that. However, that’s really not what is shaping India’s approach towards the Russia-NATO crisis.
Putin’s Russia is still very much a Communist state. Modi’s right-wing, nationalist government lies on the other end of the spectrum. Beyond the duo’s authoritarian style of governance, nothing unites them on an ideological plane.
Also, Modi has taken great caution to not extend his Hindutva nationalism and cultural conservatism to the global stage. His government continues to waltz with liberal international norms and cliques – such as the G7, Quad and Alliance for Multilateralism. That is also why Western liberal democracies continue to entertain Modi’s illiberal India, as I had argued earlier in this article.
So, to assume that the Modi government is silent on Russian aggression because of his domestic style of governance makes no sense. This is more utilitarian than ideological. Modi or no Modi, India would have anyway walked the tightrope on Russia-Ukraine.
Sample this March 2014 statement made by Shivshankar Menon – the then National Security Advisor under the Congress-led government of Manmohan Singh – during Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea:
“We hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully, and the broader issues of reconciling various interests involved, and there are legitimate Russian and other interests involved…. We hope those are discussed, negotiated and that there is a satisfactory resolution to them.”
It is nearly an exact replica of the recent Indian statements. Kremlin’s response was also similar – Putin had publicly thanked India for its “restraint and objectivity”.
At that time, noted foreign policy scholar, Varun Sahni, had given three reasons for India’s neutrality: close defence cooperation; “considerable disquiet in India about the way in which the U.S. and the West have used democracy as a foreign policy tool”; and – this is interesting – a quid pro quo favour in return for Soviet Union’s crucial diplomatic recognition of India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975 (I would add Soviet/Russian support for India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998).
That foreign policy rationale, broadly speaking, is alive even after eight years, although the entirety of Sahni’s hypothesis may not be true any longer. The brass tacks here is that on Russia, India remains bound by a set of realpolitik interests and legacy relations, of which their long-term military-to-military cooperation, undergirded by their historical intimacy, is primary.
As China embarks on an ambitious military modernisation plan right next door and Beijing grows increasingly restless about the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Russian military support has become more critical for India. Add to this longstanding institutional dependencies in Indian defence forces on Russian systems, and training and operational modules, and suddenly, the idea of New Delhi angering Moscow over a single crisis sounds utterly foolish.
Only last December, Putin made a high-profile working visit to India during which both countries released a very long joint statement covering a range of sectors. As part of this, they signed a 10-year defence cooperation pact, which includes a Rs 5,100 crore deal to manufacture more than 500,000 AK-203 assault rifles in India.
During the visit, India also announced that Moscow had begun deliveries of the S-400 long-range surface-to-air missiles, which were bought from Russia in 2018 as part of a $5.5 billion deal. These missiles serve as a critical deterrence for India against China, which becomes particularly important in light of recent clashes along the northern Himalayan frontiers.
For India, defence cooperation with Russia is also crucial for its own market expansion abroad. New Delhi recently signed a $375-million deal with the Philippines for sale of three BrahMos cruise missiles (which is an Indo-Russian venture). It was the biggest ever defence sale made by India to any ASEAN country. Indonesia too might procure these long-range missiles in the near future.
Is India’s “neutrality” self-destructive?
India, I believe, had no other choice but to be diplomatically prudent about the current crisis. Any reckless side-taking could have jeopardised its delicate foreign policy posturing.
Having said that, New Delhi can’t take its “neutrality” for granted or pretend like all is going to be well from here; certainly not when Putin has gone all guns blazing inside Ukraine.
“[…] international politics is not often kind to those who seek to remain on the sidelines without an ideological justification,” Manjari Chatterjee Miller, who teaches IR at Boston University, recently noted in a Foreign Affairs article on India’s Russia-Ukraine position.
What India considers as “non-alignment” or “strategic autonomy”, the transatlantic powers could see as pusillanimity. In fact, it is likely that the US, EU and Ukraine saw India’s 21 February UNSC statement as an act of cowardice. India probably wouldn’t want to lose sleep over it, because well, every country has their own way of looking at and dealing with global crises, contingent on their specific needs and interests.
But, it shouldn’t take the Western grudge too lightly either. Geopolitics is a strange creature with many hidden faces.
New Delhi is the only Quad power to have not criticised Russian aggression in Ukraine. That definitely marks it as the odd one out in an alliance of so-called “like-minded partners” in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).
This is even more so because India’s IPR push is very much hinged on a liberal vision of achieving a “free, open and inclusive region, underpinned by international law and a rules based order.” As vague as these norms might sound, if the Modi government stays mute on the Russian unilateral claim of Ukrainian territory based on ethnolinguistic and historical fantasies (and arguably in direct violation of international law), it will have a tough time answering what “rules based order” does it want to propound in the Indo-Pacific.
This ostensible duplicity would also throw open the door for China to mount targeted attacks at India over its IPR diplomacy. But, India shouldn’t fret over that, given that the Chinese position on Russian belligerence is equally soft. In fact, both India and China are on Team Hypocrisy here – perennially sensitive about violations of territorial integrity and sovereignty, but nothing to say on Kremlin’s Ukraine moves.
What New Delhi should really worry about are the ramifications of its stance on its evolving relationship with the US and its transatlantic allies on China and the Indo-Pacific.
The US is already keyed up about India’s growing defence cooperation with Russia. After New Delhi inked the S-400 missile system deal with Moscow, the Trump administration threatened sanctions against New Delhi under its Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). But, Washington has been stalling on the sanctions ever since. India’s refusal to condemn Russia over Ukraine could change that. Only last month, the Biden administration, once again, cribbed about the S-400 sale to India.
On the Indo-Pacific, India has found common ground with the US, EU and their strategic allies in the region (such as Japan and Australia). The renewed American and European pivot into the region, which is based on alliance-building, has helped India assert its own geopolitical presence in the region and in the process, balance Chinese expansionism to some extent. One could argue that India’s Russia-Ukraine stance could drive the West away from the IPR and render Indian interests vulnerable.
But, I don’t believe that’s going to happen anytime soon. The transatlantic powers did not come to the Indo-Pacific on India’s volition or request. They came for themselves. Because they wanted to arrest China’s rise in its own ‘backyard’. India is just a key piece of that puzzle, but not the only piece. That the US and UK decided to join forces with Australia for an exclusive Indo-Pacific trilateral pact (AUKUS) shows this.
So, contrary to what many have suggested, there is no “trade off” here. Geopolitics isn’t a game of barter (on most instances). India doesn’t owe the West anything for balancing China in the IPR, because the West isn’t very altruistic about it – it also has its own interests in mind.
Further, the EU itself remains divided over the IPR. Just look at how AUKUS triggered a bitter rift between the Anglosphere triad and France, which is a resident Indian Ocean power and an important Indian ally in the region. In such a complex situation, the West would think twice before abandoning an aspirational Indian Ocean middle power with good working relations with almost all major camps with interests in the region – US, UK, France, Germany, ASEAN, Japan, Australia, South Korea.
I would even argue that in the longer term, the West would need India more than India would need the West in this part of the world.
The China aspect, however, looms large. As the last five or so years have shown, Xi Jinping doesn’t mind pushing the line against India on the border – metaphorically and literally. Not only does he want to flex his muscle along the northern frontier, but also poke India in new ways in Arunachal Pradesh – as the Galwan Valley clashes and new Chinese settlements along the disputed eastern border show.
In such a situation, India’s refusal to condemn Russia could harm its interests in two ways. The first is obvious: Western unwillingness to back India, even tacitly, on the LAC issue. The second is an emergent issue: growing intimacy between Moscow and Beijing. On the latter, Associate Executive Editor at The Economic Times, Pranab Dhal Samanta, recently made an intuitive intervention when he asked:
In light of these, there are two moot questions for India:
Does the West really care about what it has to say on Russia-Ukraine?
Is not condemning Russia worth the risk?
My response to both questions would be a yes. And that itself shows the complex geopolitical muddle in which India finds itself today.
With China breathing down its neck, the West flocking to the Asia-Pacific, and now Putin training his guns on Ukraine, India’s complex foreign policy choices have become even more complex. New Delhi might want to return to the drawing board and take a stab at its grand geopolitical vision and diplomatic strategies with a new knife.