India’s Diplomacy at the time of Russia and Ukraine Conflict
Badar Alam Iqbal
APAC Non-resident Distinguished Fellow, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mohd. Nayyer Rahman
Assistant Professor, Department of Commerce, Aligarh Muslim University, UP, India
Asian Profile, Vol. 51, No. 1, March, 2023
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At the highly precarious time, when most of the nations are either at loggerheads with each other or facing internal disturbance (such as Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan) India has conducting a series of high-level talks including a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and US Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Daleep Singh, followed by 2+2 negotiations to be held on April 11, 2022, between Defence and External Ministers of US and India. This is the fourth such meeting between US and India, previous meetings were held in 2018, 2019, and 2020 addressing different issues. However, after overcoming the Pandemic challenge, this meeting intends to combat the other issues of a new world order. Since the last three meetings, Indian government has remained unchanged, with S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh serving as Foreign and Defence Ministers, respectively. On the other hand, the government in US has changed, with the Democratic Party in power and Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin serving as Secretary of State and Defence Secretary, respectively (Times of India, 2022). It is evident from past that whenever Democratic Party is in power in US, their foreign policy is preoccupied with Russia. However, this time Joe Biden did not seem to deviate from the Republican party’s stand on China but Vladimir Putin’s stance on Ukraine posed a new challenge to his foreign policy. As a result, the United States is now confronted by its two main adversaries at the same time. On the other hand, European countries with less agreement on sanctions against Russia are not reaping the maximum benefit of sanctions. Therefore, US desperately needs the support of India to give a potential blow to Russia. On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a full majority government for some time seemed to be deviated from Non-Alignment Policy, but is now steadfastly adhering to it. It is evident from the India’s stand on Ukraine-Russia conflict. The subsequent discussion throws a light on the Indian foreign policy and its predicament in the current scenario.
Modi’s government tends to view foreign policy as a tool of national interest, and approaches rival nations with this premise, unconcerned about their own policy orientations. India’s foreign policy is in a good position in the midst of the horrific Ukraine crisis and Modi Government will continue to take advantage of the situation (in terms of buying Russian oil) in its favour while advocating for peace agreements between both conflicting countries. Even Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has praised India’s “Azad foreign policy,” hailed Modi for purchasing discounted oil from Russia on the one hand while remaining a key member of the US-led Quad on the other (Dutta, 2022). However, as a global democracy and a truly non-aligned power, India bears significant responsibilities. While the government cannot be criticised for refusing to succumb to US pressure, provided the ground situation in Ukraine, it must emphasize the implications of staying agile in its position at the UN and in bilateral discussions. Modi’s government recognise that its value to both sides will sustain as long as it remains uncommitted to either. His government visibly follows the old maxim by William Clay to reasserts itself: “There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, just permanent interests.”
There were numerous topics on the table for discussion between the two countries, including public health collaboration, resilient supply chains for critical and emerging technology, ways to enhance climate action, establishing trade and investment collaboration to boost the wellbeing of diaspora of both countries and to strengthen the US-India expanding Major Defence Partnership (US Department of State, 2022). Extensive discussions will also take place about how to expand cooperation on global food security, global energy supplies, and the final agreements on the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which enables for the discussion of geospatial information. Taking into account the responsibility of world’s biggest democracies, a discussion about Indo-Pacific region’s shared interest in a rules-based international order that protects sovereignty and territorial integrity, promotes human rights, and broaden global and regional stability and tranquillity is expected. The possibility of lifting the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Acts (CAATSA) sanctions against India in exchange for the purchase of Russian S-400 systems will also be discussed. However, India’s stand on Russia-Ukraine conflict will dominate the discussion as US is constantly attempting to veer the Indian Government off its chosen course of remaining neutral.
In respect to consensus, India-US talks have no consensus on such issues, there is promise to cooperate. With the 2+2 negotiations, it may be expected that bold consensus on defence issues will be reached as defence is the major sector in which both countries have vested interests. India needs US to fend off China and US wants to become major defence partner in order to reduce the dominance of Russia in India’s defence sector. Moreover, given the region’s growing instability, India will make full use of the platform to advance its interests in South Asia. India and US both see China as the greatest threat and are committed to working together in the Indo-Pacific to manage China’s rise as important members of the QUAD, which also includes Japan and Australia.
Disagreements are unavoidable in any bilateral relationship and talks, but they must be handled with decorum. Disagreement over India’s stand on Russia-Ukraine conflict is the bone of contention, as evidenced by the constant pressure on India over, to change its vote at the UN, where it has abstained from all resolutions. India is advised not to “accelerate” its purchases of discounted Russian oil; and not to use rupee-rouble national currency-based payment mechanisms that could circumvent “backfilling sanctions.” On the other hand, India will not succumb to the pressure as Indian Ministers will reaffirm India’s “national interests”, the country relies heavily on imported energy, which accounts for 85 percent of its energy basket. India will also oppose the US foreign policy’s double standard, in which European countries are still allowed to buy Russian oil while the US continues to buy unbanned items from Russia while attempting to deny India’s engagement with Russia. Though Germany has caved in to US pressure to shut down the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia, Europe’s reliance on its Russia remains at $1.1 billion per day (Malhotra, 2022). India will reiterate that its foreign policy would strive to strengthen alliances with US intended to aid economic development and raise India’s global standing, while also protecting its sovereign rights. India and the US disagree on a number of issues, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and even the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but both are expected to cooperate in resolving their differences.
Possible Changes of Foreign Policy of Present Government
Considering the current crisis, India is listening to all sides and acting in its national interest. Modi’s foreign policy seemed to be adamant over Russia-Ukraine conflict, as even after critical remarks of US president, India continued to buy crude oil from Russia. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman had said India would, keeping its national interests in mind, buy fuel at a discounted price, if there was an opportunity to (Ghosh, 2022). India’s neutrality on Ukraine tested again with double pressure but once again India stood firm. For the 10th time New Delhi abstained from voting at the United Nations in a bid to remove Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) (Lakshman, 2022). Before the vote Russia had a warning do not abstain, if one abstains it will be considered an unfriendly gesture. Nonetheless India did exactly that it was among the 58 countries that abstained from voting. India’s position has made one thing amply clear that neutrality is not a matter of convenience, it is a matter of principle. Until now the west was pressing India to vote against Russia, now Russia is doing the same thing. Pressing India to vote against the west neither side has had any success, implying that no amount of pressure will sway India. No doubt there is a lot of pressure US officials are now warning of “significant consequences of a more explicit strategic alignment with Moscow.” It can be argued that America has completely misjudged India’s position, they are warning against a more explicit alignment with Russia but there is no alignment in the first place and that is the whole point of neutrality. Once again, the US is falling back on cold war rhetoric either with India or against India. Imagine if every country worked like that, conflicts would never end. There would be no accountability and that is why India has abstained because removing Russia from the UNHRC is a political move, and it is not about justice. New Delhi along with 58 countries abstained, all from South Asia, indicating that the emerging world understands the political games at the United Nations. India better than most think. Back to 1948 India took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations, there was no help. Again in 1971 India fought a war to liberate Bangladesh but UN security council tried to push multiple resolutions against the war, all of them were vetoed by the Soviet Union. The bottom line is this, that the big powers have always manipulated the UN. On the other hand, NATO allied Turkey, is cashing on the war. Since the war broke out 14,000 Russians have arrived in Turkey and deposited in banks around three billion dollars in two days. A question can be asked that why is the west giving Turkey a free pass while blaming India for buying Russian oil which is not even sanctioned. It can be argued that if the west primarily US is serious about ending this war, they need to review their strategy. Suspending Russia from the United Nations bodies will not work, neither will sanctioning Putin’s family but a serious crack down on profiteers like turkey can work, not neutral states defending their national interest.
However, the possible repercussions of India’s stand could be sanctions which may deter Modi to stop buying Russian oil. India’s stance on Russia will remain unchanged: it will not vote against Russia in UN Security Council and will refrain from criticising it on other platforms. Modi cannot ignore China between this ongoing conflict, as its continued dominance in the region may put India in an awkward position, given that Pakistan and China are at odds with India under his rule.
India’s Relations with the US and Russia
India’s strategic relationships with the United States and Russia are unquestionably crucial in achieving its strategic goals. India desperately needs a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in order to counter its adversaries and reshape itself into a major global power. Given that its major allies, the United States and Russia, both are veto-wielding powers in the United Nations, and support India’s proposal for a permanent seat, as well as encourage India’s admittance to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. To counter China’s dominance and establish itself as a strong power in the Indo-Pacific region, India is at crossroads in having the support of both countries. India maintains and balances relations with both in order to achieve its varied interests, as evidenced by its membership in QUAD, G20, BRICS, and SCO. On the one hand, Russia provides sophisticated technology to India that other countries deny access to, while on the other, the United States provides a major market for Indian products. India desires to re-enter the US Generalized System of Preferences in order to effectively increase its exports to the US. India’s growing demand for oil and gas, as well as its position as the world’s third largest gas emitter, are compelling it to transition to cleaner energy sources, and Russian natural gas sources may provide a suitable alternative to this initiative. India and Russia are bolstering their partnership in the space, nuclear, and defence sectors, as well as taking additional measures to operationalize the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor as connectivity projects (Pradhan, 2021). India has been collaborating closely with the US in the Indo-Pacific, which Russia has vehemently condemned as a US-led strategy to undermine India’s long-standing relationship with Russia. Despite Russia’s vehement opposition, India has continued to pursue its Indo-Pacific Strategy through regular exchanges within and outside the QUAD, demonstrating that it will act predominantly in its own interests. India makes its own foreign policy decisions, regardless of whether Russia or the United States agree with them. On the other hand, despite US pressure, India is acquiring Russian S-400 missiles, indicating independence in external relations.
At this critical juncture in the war, US is also seeking engagement with the Chinese. Despite continues antipathy, US-China trade has increased by 28.7 percent to $755.6 billion in 2021, (Malhotra, 2022) making it too critical for China to jeopardise. “President Biden has just reiterated that the United States does not seek a new Cold War with China, to change China’s system, or to revitalise anti-Chinese alliances, and that the United States does not support ‘Taiwan independence’ or intend to engage in conflict with China.” Given the India’s crucial importance in US strategies to counter Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific, the US administration’s envisioned policy to integrate the Euro-Atlantic vision with the Indo-Pacific may present a captivating conundrum for India. On the other hand, Russia’s military might be formidable. However, its economy is experiencing long-term structural decline. It is important to remember that China’s economic interests with Russia pale in comparison to those with the West. The emergence of a Sino-Russian axis, as well as Russia’s occasional signalling to India by engaging with Pakistan, alerted against a relationship with Russia that lacks any buffers. Moreover, numerous sanctions are likely to harm Russian energy companies that may cast doubt on India’s closer economic prospects, which is expected to increase rapidly of around 9 percent in 2022. India’s neutral stance on Russian aggression may impel US to use CAATSA sanctions as a condition for policy alignment with the Euro-Atlantic position on Russia. India’s challenges may grow further as it navigates the complex economic order that arise as a result of Russia’s complete exclusion from major international financial mechanisms, notably considering the magnitude of trade between the two countries. On the other hand, India is deeply concerned about China’s growing influence in international affairs especially given the China’s increasing use of the Renminbi by more than 100 countries (Cogan and Mishra, 2022), as well as its indigenous China International Payment system (CIPC), may emerge as an alternative to existing payment mechanisms in the long run. The route to strategic hedging in India is narrowing. After the US 2+2 meeting, India and US may jointly work on an independent alternative payment mechanism.
Modi has attempted to prudently consolidate foreign policy with national economic interests. His use of foreign agreements to endorse “Make in India” and the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-Sustainable India Revolution) is predicated on pragmatism in a world where protectionism is on the rise and efforts are being made to weaponize interdependence. India currently has preferential market access and economic cooperation agreements with over 50 countries and is in the process of negotiating FTAs with the UAE, and the EU. India under Modi’s regime appears to have institutionalised the Chanakya axiom: “Every friendship is motivated by self-interest.” Without self-interest, there is no friendship. Despite the numerous challenges that India faces at this critical juncture, the Indian government will work to achieve its strategic goals while prioritising its humanitarian responsibilities.
India Role During Russia-Ukraine Conflict
As highlighted in the previous section, India will always play a win-win game in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. On one hand Russia is an old friend and importer for India, on the other hand, Ukraine provides key engine parts for aircrafts in India. Indian army F17 chopper’s key engine parts are supplied by Ukraine. Thus, India cannot take a firm stand as it is not in its interest. Its interest is to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine and to benefit from Russia by trading through better negotiation. The 2+2 talks will not have any significant changes to India’s stand. India may cooperate with US but will make it independent of what it does with Russia and Ukraine.
India’s Cooperation with Russia
Russia has been India’s most trustworthy strategic partner, with the two cooperating on political, security, and other strategic issues for many years. Despite stiff competition from US, Israel, France, Israel, and other Western countries, Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier. In December, India and Russia held their first 2+2 Ministerial dialogue, demonstrating that Russia is as important to India as its QUAD partners, with whom it already had this mechanism. Russia is the world’s second largest arms exporter, trailing only the United States. Russia’s largest importer is India with 66.5 percent of arms imports, and India’s largest exporter is Russia followed by US and Israel, between 2000-2020 (Kaushik, 2022). Between 2016-2020, India remained the dominant recipient of Russian arms, accounting for 23 percent of the total (SIPRI Report, 2021). Between 2016 and 2020, Russia’s contribution of Indian arms imports dropped to around 50 percent, but it continued to stay the single largest importer. During this period several arms deal completed and new orders placed by India in 2019-20 (SIPRI Report, 2021). INS Vikramaditya, India’s sole aircraft carrier, is a Kiev-class vessel built in the Soviet Union. All of Airforce, six air tankers, INS Kalvari, the first submarine of India, navy’s only operational aircraft carrier is a refurbished Soviet-era ship. India’s existing military arsenal is extensively packed with arms that are primarily Russian-made or Russian-designed (IISS, 2022). Chakra-3 and Chakra-4, two nuclear-powered ballistic submarines, and negotiations related to it is going on. Moreover, despite the threat of American sanctions via CAATSA, India not only decided to proceed with the 2018 deal for S-400 missile defence systems, but also officially confirmed a new deal worth INR 5,000 crores for the production of 7.5 lakh AK 203 Russian assault rifles (Mishra, 2022). According to the US Congressional report, “many analysts in India and elsewhere conclude that the Indian military cannot function effectively without Russian arms and will keep relying on Russian weapons in the near and medium term.” In this context, much of Moscow’s influence in India emanates from its willingness to supply sophisticated weapons technologies and systems to India that no other country would share. Russia also continues to provide advanced weapon platforms at reasonable prices. Major NATO countries including Italy, France and Germany, rely primarily on the Russian oil supplies. It could be argued that if these NATO countries keep on buying Russian oil for economic reasons, India can also prioritise its economic interests as well. Since late February, India has imported at least 13 million barrels of Russian crude oil which is far ahead of the 16 million barrels for the whole of 2021 (Das, 2022). The jump in import is enticed by steep discounts as a result of Western sanctions on Russian entities. During Putin’s recent visit to India, Russia agreed to hold consultations on the Indian and Pacific Oceans, indicating that Putin supports India’s Indo-Pacific concept.
Russia has undoubtedly been India’s most reliable partner for more than half a century, but in past few years, stimulated by worsening ties with the US, Russia has strengthened ties with China. This has raised concerns among policymakers in Delhi about Russia’s ability to balance China. Moreover, “The precipitous reduction in India’s arms imports from Russia appears to be primarily due to its long and complicated procurement processes, coupled with efforts to reduce its reliance on Russian arms by diversifying its network of arms suppliers” (SIPRI Report, 2021). To counter Pakistan and China, more imports required without significant delays in supply. Russia’s economy is evidently in decline and will now rapidly deteriorate as a result of the most stringent sanctions. India has reiterated that it considers Russia and the United States as distinct partners and will not allow either to directing its foreign policy. Notwithstanding the crucial importance of Russia in Indian diplomacy, India does not support violence and opposes the conflict. The country reiterates that in this day and age, dialogue and diplomacy are the best ways to resolve any conflict, and this should be honoured. “In terms of diplomacy, India remained committed in its demand for an immediate cessation of hostilities and violence.”
India’s Cooperation with US?
The underlying dialogue would enable both sides to pursue the goal of providing strategic guidance and vision for further strengthening the relationship as well as encouraging the mutual understanding for addressing common interests and concerns. India has been collaborating closely with the US in the Indo-Pacific and the upcoming 2+2 dialogue will provide an opportunity to deepen ties over the region. Ministers of both countries are likely to exchange the perspectives on crucial global and regional developments, and will conduct an extensive review of cross-cutting issues on the India-US bilateral agenda concerning defence, security and foreign policy. India has a strong defence partnership with the United States through institutional arrangements such as the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), Industrial Security Annex (ISA), Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA), Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) and Defence Technology Trade Initiative (DTTI) (Thakker, 2019). Under this meeting India is expected to accelerate the cooperation with United States in order to make it a major Defence Partner and diversifying its defence requirements. India has been strengthening ties with the US since the beginning of the century, is now speeding up its multidimensional collaboration and coordination with the US, primarily to counterbalance China.
Notwithstanding the good relations between both (India-US) the countries, India will not join the sanctions towards Russia. So far, forty-seven days into the Ukrainian conflict, India has managed to stay afloat by playing all sides while keeping its head down and refusing to criticise anyone – whether the US, Russia, China, or Europe. It is well known fact that India makes its own foreign policy decisions, regardless of whether United States agree with them or not. In the current conflict, India’s role is more effective than other countries may have anticipated, and the country will take advantage of the opportunity to the greatest extent possible.
Persisting Crisis and India’s Reaction
Indeed, in the event of a crisis, any Head of State must act in the best interests of the country, and Modi as a staunch nationalist will not veer away from this postulate. If the crisis worsens, India will never undermine its responsibilities and will take a firm stand, as seen in the Afghanistan crisis, India did not succumb to the Taliban and instead remained critical of the Taliban’s takeover and destruction of Indian investment. In the current scenario, the most significant challenge the dominance of China in the region and will continue working towards it. Modi will push for more diplomatic meetings and ministerial visits to lessen the impact of the crisis on the Indian economy, while remaining proactive in handling the situation amicably. Negotiation is considered necessary by pragmatism to resolve conflicts. In light of the foregoing, it can be stated that, while the objectives did not change under PM Modi, the process of achieving those objectives did. India has become more assertive in its pursuit of its objectives, while attempting to stay as far away from power antagonism as possible.
India vs US and Russia
India has cordial relations with both Russia and the United States, and allying with one could jeopardise its relationship with the other. However, India has so far managed to navigate it successfully, while taking a neutral stance but the future appears dismal. If the United States and Russia cooperate, India would be the biggest beneficiary, but in the current situation, it appears impossible. With its western dominance and public support, the United States is more potent than Russia over Ukraine issue. The US is not leaving any stone unturned in its efforts to punish Russia economically without resorting to military force and it wants to pull India closer in order to give a final blow to Russia. On the other hand, India, to achieve its best interest, under Modi’s regime, has successfully integrated foreign policy with economic growth and defying any international order that may limit its strategic autonomy and deter it from pursuing its policy aggressively. Considering India’s trade relations, the United States is the country’s second largest trading partner, with exports worth $51.62 billion and imports worth $28.88 billion in 2020-21, allowing India to maintain its trade surplus status (Sen, 2021), and outpacing Russia by a wide margin. Despite the fact that Russia is not even one of India’s top five trading partners, with only USD 2.6 billion in exports and USD 5.48 billion in imports (Embassy of India, 2022), it remains one of the country’s biggest defence partners, with the capability of supporting in times of war. India has carefully balanced relations with both countries so far and will continue to do so while advocating for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly called for peace talks between both the nations and has spoken with Vladimir Putin and as well as Vladimir Zelensky in this regard (Laskar, 2022). This strategy is critical at this juncture since it also allows India to avoid the pressure of choosing one over the other. India needs to bolster the effort of creating an environment for peace agreements, as it is in everyone’s best interests. Both countries are attempting to entice India to their side, but India should respond pragmatically because choosing one may be counterproductive in the long run.
In light of the preceding discussion, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s remarks in Parliament in 1957 need to be mentioned, explaining a year after the Soviet intervention in Hungary, as to why India took a non-condemnatory stance. “There are many things happening in the world from year to year and day to day, which we have disliked intensely. We have not condemned them...because when one is trying to solve a problem, it doesn’t help calling names and condemning.” Nehru’s axiom has remained a guiding principle in India’s approach to dispute, especially when it involves its strategic partners. Following this External Affairs Minister
S. Jaishankar also stated that “If India has chosen a side, it is the side of peace and the immediate cessation of violence” (Bhattacharjee, 2022).
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