While relations have diminished in the post-Cold War era, Russia continues to be a source of key weapon systems and much of India’s military assets are of Russian origin, needing Russian maintenance and spare parts. As part of a 2018 deal, India purchased the S-400 missile system from Russia and risks being hit by sanctions under the U.S. CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act). The expectation in India is that the U.S. would waive CAATSA sanctions. The sharpening confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over the war against Ukraine may however jeopardize prospects of obtaining a waiver.
It has been India’s assumption that Russia has been a restraining influence on China despite their increasingly close political, security and economic alignment. India also believes that there is a threshold beyond which the Russia-China partnership is unlikely to expand because of their divergent longer-term interests. If Russia considers Central Asia and Eastern Europe its “near neighbourhood”, it is China which is rapidly expanding its influence in these areas, not the West. Furthermore, Russia has not allowed China to affect its military relationship with India. Therefore, facing an increasingly aggressive China on its borders, India still values its relationship with Russia. The recent Russia-China Joint Statement issued during President Putin’s visit to Beijing on February 4, 2022, has caused consternation in India as the language and tenor reflects greater strategic convergence. There is a view that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, in a sense, enabled by unprecedented Chinese support of Russia’s position vis-à-vis Western Europe and the U.S., as reflected in the Joint Statement. China has also refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is unlikely to support imposing sanctions on Russia.
India’s response to Russian actions in Ukraine
India has abstained on U.N. Security Council Resolutions condemning Russian actions. It has been careful in its official comments on the crisis. While abstaining on the latest resolution on February 25, 2022, however, India’s statement on its vote went much further than before in its implicit criticism of Russia. The statement expressed deep concern “over the recent turn of events in Ukraine.” It repeated Prime Minister Modi’s appeal to President Putin for “the immediate cessation of violence and hostilities” and reiterated that “no solution can ever be arrived at, at the cost of human lives.”
More importantly, the statement emphasized the need for all states to respect “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states” and that dialogue is “the only answer to settling differences and disputes”; and, finally, expressed “regret that the path of diplomacy was given up.”
It is apparent that while abstaining on the resolution the Indian representative went further than before in implicitly criticizing Russian actions. Given the constraints under which it must act, India has adopted a carefully nuanced position in line with its own interests. It is unlikely to be supportive of Russia; equally, it is unlikely to join the U.S. and Western European countries in condemning and politically and economically isolating Russia.
Repercussions for the Indo-Pacific and India
The Ukraine crisis may preoccupy the U.S. with the security situation in Europe. This may mean that once again, the U.S. may fail to “pivot to Asia.” If it must concentrate its energies on safeguarding its European flank from an apparent threat from an aggressive Russia then it may take its eye off the ball in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. has identified China as its main adversary and has declared its intention to redeploy its capabilities to the Indo-Pacific to constrain the expansion of Chinese influence. In that context, the “Quad”, a coalition of India, the U.S., Australia, and Japan, has a key role to play. There is apprehension that while it is preoccupied with Europe, the U.S. may pay less attention to Asia, providing an opportunity for China to consolidate and grow its influence in the region. The Quad may also lose some momentum. The Ukraine crisis has so far handed China a geopolitical advantage.
The Indian economy will also suffer collateral damage from higher oil prices and trade disruptions resulting from the imposition of sweeping economic sanctions against Russia. Recent inflationary trends across the global economy are likely to be intensified. These setbacks will dampen the economic recovery from the pandemic. However, the Indian economy has proved to be resilient to recent external shocks. It will weather these setbacks. It has ample foreign exchange reserves and has pursued a conservative fiscal policy.
India hopes that there will be a swift end to the armed hostilities in Ukraine and diplomacy will resume. It has been apparent for some time that a new security architecture is required in Europe that offers mutual security to all stakeholders, including Russia. The immediate challenge is to stabilize the situation in Ukraine. That may be possible by a tacit agreement to accord it a neutral or non-aligned status, such as that enjoyed by Finland, also on Russia’s border. This must be anchored in a new Helsinki process which takes into account the many changes that have taken place in Europe since the end of the Cold War. It would have to acknowledge Russia as a major stakeholder that it has proven itself to be, violently perhaps, but in unmistakable terms.
India will face a challenging situation, but its strength lies in maintaining close and friendly relations with the U.S., Europe and Russia as well as playing a key role in the Indo-Pacific region, including as a member of the Quad. It can leverage these relationships to contribute to a peaceful outcome to the Ukraine conflict and an orderly transition to a new and more stable international order. Its non-partisan posture may enable it to play the role of an honest broker. It may also be able to facilitate communications between the parties currently locked in confrontation. This will be a challenge for Indian diplomacy but one should recall the active and constructive role Indian played on the international stage in the early years of the Cold War in promoting international peace and security despite its limited power. Today it is much more substantial power and should therefore be prepared to shoulder bigger responsibilities in restoring peace and promoting dialogue. That said, the unpredictability in the current international situation carries risks for all countries, big and small.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary of India and was ambassador of India to Myanmar, Indonesia and Nepal and High Commissioner to Mauritius. Currently he is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
This article of 2 March 2022 is republished with the permission of the Centre for Policy Research