NEW DELHI: Owing to the involvement of major global powers and forces, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, since February 2022, has been consistently shaping the contours of world politics. Ironically, Ukraine’s quest to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as a member state in search of security triggered Russia’s insecurity due to a justified fear that any further eastward expansion of the NATO will bring the US-led alliance at its doorstep.
Moreover, if Ukraine wants to zealously guard its political sovereignty and territorial integrity, Russia, in contrast, treats mineral-rich Ukraine as its integral part. In his essay on Historical Unity of Russians, President Putin had argued, in 2021, that Russians and Ukrainians are one people divided by artificial borders and outsiders. Besides, three General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the then Soviet Union (CPSU) such as Nikita Khrushchev (1953-64), Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85) were either born or raised in Ukraine. Similarly, the famous dissident in the Soviet Union and Nobel Laurate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his last days, had advocated a “Russian Union” encompassing Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and ethnic Russian parts of Kazakhstan.
Since President Putin’s determination to integrate Ukraine with Russia is being fiercely resisted by the former, the issue of the Russo-Ukraine war and its resolution have already hit the portals of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). On March 2, 2022, the UNGA with an overwhelming majority (141 out of 193) demanded that Russia should end its military operations in Ukraine. Furthermore, in view of the human rights violation by Russia in Ukraine, the UNGA at its meeting, held on April 7, 2022, suspended Russia from the membership of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) through a resolution passed by the majority votes (93 in favour, 24 against and 58 abstention).
Reflections on Indo-Russian ties
During the entire episode of the Russo-Ukrainian war, India has stood on the side of peace and immediate cessation of violence and end of hostilities between the contending parties. In view of this, it would be worthwhile to reflect on India’s reluctance to condemn flagrant violation of international law as well as human rights by Russia in Ukraine and manage a tightrope walk between the contending parties.
In fact, India is the second most powerful Asian country after China that matters in world politics. Evidently, the contending parties and their allies took initiatives to woo India on their side in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. This was amply manifested by the visits of high-level dignitaries such as the Prime Ministers of Japan and Britain, Foreign Ministers of China, Britain, Russia, Mexico, Oman, Greece and Austria, the US Under Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor and a Senior Advisor of the German Chancellor to New Delhi during the past few weeks. Furthermore, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, who attended the Raisina dialogue ,held in New Delhi from April 25-27, 2022, discussed the impact of the Russo-Ukrainian war on the Indo-Pacific region with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Irrespective of these efforts of the visiting dignitaries, India has not budged from its basically neutral position on the issue. India’s position could be better appraised in the context of a long-term view of its foreign policy.
Historically, India had deployed non-alignment as a foreign policy strategy in the context of the Cold War to steer clear of the then superpower rivalries. It allowed India to judge every issue on merit and find freedom of expression in international politics. India’s relationship with the former Soviet Union and Russia have been structured in the politico-diplomatic, economic and military spheres from the mid-1950s. While blocking the resolutions primarily sponsored by the US-led western powers, the Soviet Union exercised its veto in India’s favour at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on six occasions from 1957-71. This allowed India to take the Kashmir question outside the purview of the UN, facilitated integration of Goa, Daman and Diu within the Indian Union in 1961 and helped India in liberating Bangladesh after winning the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Conversely, India had also refrained from issuing condemnatory statements against the Soviet military interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979).
The post-Soviet Russia has also steadily rebuilt its ties with India in diverse domains. Russia was the largest supplier of arms to India from 2012-2016 and 2017 to 2021 although India’s imports dropped temporarily between the two periods because Russia wound up some of its programmes and India diversified imports. Moreover, Russia is building six nuclear reactors in India. Both the countries, through a joint venture, are producing Bramhos, a versatile missile after almost two decades of cooperation. India is also purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh, is involved in three projects in Russia while Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, owns 49 per cent of Nayara Energy which has 6000 filling stations and a large refinery in Gujarat. Furthermore, during the course of the Russo-Ukraine war, India has been buying Russian oil at discounted prices.
Sino-Indian ties and Russia
China has been an important factor in Russo-Indian relations. India’s protracted border dispute over nearly 3500-kilometre-long border with China still stands unresolved. Consequently, much to India’s dismay, China has been claiming critical areas in Ladakh as well as the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh of India. Over the years, the growing dependence of India’s immediate neighbours such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan on China has almost encircled India with unfriendly neighbourhood. China has acquired maritime presence in the region by building ports in Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Kyaukphyu (Myanmar). Irrespective of these political tensions, however, China was the second largest trading partner of India in 2021 with bilateral trade worth $110.4 billion. While dealing politically with China, Russia’s neutrality, if not outright support, will always be vital for India.
India’s security through Quad and the US
India is handling China in politico-strategic matters by relying on its membership of Quad, a group constituted by the US, Japan, Australia and India that aspires to promote the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also designed to enable free navigation through international waterways such as straits of Malacca to promote international trade, prosperity and peace. The Malabar exercises or multilateral naval exercises among the Quad members have certainly been useful in boosting India’s naval security. Moreover, during former US President Trump’s regime (2017-21) India’s weapons procurement from the US had jumped from $6.2 million to $3.4 billion. The US also was India’s top trading partner in 2021 with bilateral trade worth $112.3 billion.
In spite of their burgeoning ties, India cannot entirely rely on the US since the latter may not necessarily deliver in times of crisis in India’s neighbourhood. In the recently-held Raisina dialogue, India expressed concern over the lack of rules-based order in South Asia. For instance, India has over $3 billion investments in Afghanistan. The US-led NATO forces had militarily intervened in Afghanistan to strengthen democratic forces in 2001 after the ouster of the Taliban. Ironically, two decades later the US allowed the same Taliban to capture power in Kabul in August 2021 leaving India’s interests in jeopardy. Hence, India cannot put all the eggs in the US basket.
India’s policy within a broader spectrum
Considering the complexities of world politics and India’s national interests, there is nothing unusual about India’s position in the Russo- Ukraine war. Several significant powers seem to have adopted a similar stance. Just to cite instances, China became closer to Russia even before the war. Turkey owing to strategic as well as energy security-related considerations is sticking to middle ground as Russian gas meets 45 per cent of its energy requirements. Pakistan signed a trade treaty with Russia in the middle of the war. Israel tried to become a peacemaker in the war. The United Arab Emirate (UAE) remained neutral towards Russia. South Africa blamed NATO for Russia’s Ukraine war. Brazil and Mexico did not support the ouster of Russia from the HRC. Argentina has been more concerned about reducing its dependence on the US and the International Monetary Fund than condemning Russia. In substance, since India’s position is no different from several other important countries, it need not be singled out for attack for taking a neutral position.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has placed India in a precarious predicament. In view of the configurations of powers and the current balance of forces in a divided world, India needs to retain friendship with the US as well as Russia to handle China while serving its national interests. India’s neutral stand is not merely strategically prudent but appears consistent with its long-term policy.
(Rajen Harshe is a leading scholar in African and international relations studies. He is the former Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Allahabad. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)