For a country that claims to be a vishwaguru or world teacher, India’s shortsighted stance on critical geopolitical events remains baffling.
This was evident in the United Nations Security Council vote on January 31 when India joined Kenya and Gabon in abstaining from a Security Council vote to discuss the Russian military threat to Ukraine. Ten nations supported the successful American initiative. Only China joined Russia in opposing it.
In what is being perceived as a tightrope walk for India, taking a more neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine war may have long-term adverse consequences for the nation with regard to its relationship with democratic allies of the European Union, the United States and of course, Ukraine.
Yes, India may not share a border with either Russia or Ukraine, and as many intellectual elites have already argued, the case for New Delhi not taking sides between Washington and Moscow may appear straightforward, or a replay to its earlier neutral stance when Russia annexed Crimea.
Russia is one of India’s largest arms suppliers and a key strategic ally. More than half of India’s arms imports between 2016-2020 were from Russia. As Sadanand Dhume argued in the Wall Street Journal: “Many Indian foreign-policy elites also view what’s officially called the country’s ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’ with Russia as a totem of Indian strategic autonomy. India shares Russia’s goal of a multipolar world. It is a member of the Russian- and Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and of BRICS, a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.”
But Russian military action against Ukraine is a different event – at a different point of time in world history. The world has not been this polarised since World War II. The global economic landscape, in a post-Covid situation, is in a shambles. With the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism across the globe (including in India), moments such as this in history, warrant bold, corrective action – and more importantly, a principled, moral outlook.
India’s efforts to maintain a delicate balance between its partnerships with the US, Europe and Russia isn’t easy. As Tanvi Madan at Brookings argues: “Delhi (in the Russia-Ukraine war) could try its posture, post the Russian annexation of Crimea, of neither openly criticising nor endorsing Russian actions. However, its silence will be seen as an endorsement. Moreover, even as Moscow might seek support from Delhi, it will sell India’s ‘silence’ as an endorsement, as it did in the case of Crimea, and recently when it unilaterally issued a joint statement on Afghanistan.”
The Western response to Russia’s unwarranted aggression in Ukraine has drawn critical sanctions that will inhibit any nation (including India) from doing business with Russia and potentially diversify Russia-India ties. This also comes at a time when Washington is considering a waiver for India from sanctions under CAATSA, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act
The elephant in the room is China.
A deepening global crisis would allow Russia to deepen its ties with China for political support, market access and technology. We no longer live in the 1980s or ’90s. A US-led international order now seems pretty much over, anchored as it was by financial imperialism through dollar-dependence, a petro-dollar market and via strategic military dominance as perceived in the late 20th century and during the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
China is likely to use this opportunity to exhaust America’s foreign policy attention-capital away from its strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. It could even use this opportunity to deepen its ties with Europe, while presenting itself as a useful interlocutor between the West and Moscow.
From the Indian perspective, a silent endorsement for the Russians (as one can see now) is likely to catalyse a consolidatory push for Chinese interests in the South Asian region over time, posing a risk for for India (whose network to counter Beijing in the Indo-Pacific is dependent on the US and the Washington-enabled Quad).
As Madan argues, “In order to focus on the Russia challenge, European capitals could [also] seek to stabilise ties with China, rather than act against its assertive actions. This, in turn, could negatively affect the coordinated approach that Delhi seeks among like-minded partners to balance China.”
Those citing realpolitik compulsions often argue that power often trumps principle. Realists might even argue that India’s recent effort under the Modi government to “reclaim” or expand its “sphere of influence” in the Indian subcontinent, creating a rhetoric around the integrated creation of Akhand Bharat is part of the thought process of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
India is not the only one. Many middle powers are seeking to build or rebuild spheres of influence – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Australia is fending off the growing Chinese influence in the Pacific islands. The fear of American retrenchment has created an urgency for the regional powers in the Middle East to expand their networks of influence.
The question is of principle, though. When a war isn’t at your doorstep nor directly involves you, taking a more principled approach that is in alignment with India’s international law commitments and its post-Independence constitutional vision may help the Indian cause, not hurt it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justifications for its actions against Ukraine are similar to those Beijing makes versus India: historical claims on territory, ethnic Linkages and Indian steps that it says threaten China. Putin claims the same with the perception of Ukraine trying to join NATO. Russian military action would go against the respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty for which India frequently advocates.
It’s worth reiterating the question: what principles or core value objectives does India’s foreign policy have? Is there logical coherence in what it says on one issue and on the position it takes on another?
Silently siding with Putin’s imperial nostalgia, Narendra Modi’s “balanced posturing” and silent endorsement of the Russian president may hurt India’s credentials as a democratic republic and affect its partnership with liberal democracies across the world.
A principled, moral outlook in India’s foreign policy – one founded on a charter of liberal inclusive principles – and its international law commitments must anchor the government to take a more lucid stand against Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine.
Deepanshu Mohan is an Associate Professor of Economics and Director at the Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University.