The Russo-Ukrainian war in 2022 can be pitched in several ways – The Right against The Might, The Democracies versus The Autocracy, The NATO versus Russia or a David versus Goliath scenario. But reality is far from such simple categorizations. A war which has been destructive for Ukraine, crippling for the Russian economy and devastating for a world just barely recovering from the scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic. A war that has exacerbated the problem of rising food prices, devastated economies reliant on oil imports and caused another curtain to descend between the West and the East, if not Iron but atleast one of perhaps Stone. After 113 days of the war, the hope for a quick resolution is out. Both sides have failed in achieving their goals – for Russia, the hope for a swift “Anschluss” sort of victory evaporated on the gates of Kiev; for Ukraine, the idiocy of their President believing in NATO led attack on Russia caused him to instigate their volatile neighbor further and has resulted in a war that has caused the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians, made millions homeless and sent their country back to the stone age.
This long dreary war which is now in danger of losing the world’s interest, is made worse by ideological differences preventing peace talks. Alliances are being formed, reminiscent of 1914 Europe. The over-expansion of the NATO is the primary reason for this war but the so-called liberal news agencies of the West like NY Times, Al Jazeera (an opinionated biased mouthpiece of the Qatari regime), The Guardian or BBC will not report both sides equally and instead of informing the public as they ought to, would rather give their opinions and push their agendas and those of their Governments. In today’s world, we have come to accept that this what the media does. However, the NATO itself isn’t the point of this article – that would be covered in a future article. This is about the different players playing their own games in this devastating war. It is about one nation which enjoys strong relations with both Putin’s Russia and the EU although its relations with the NATO boss, the USA are a mixed bag when we we look at history. Let us talk about India and it’s refusal to condemn Russia and join the Western sanctions.
India abstained from UN votes to outrightly condemn Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. The world’s largest democracy refusing to join the struggle of democracies versus autocracies seems like a huge blow. But it is never white or black when it comes to geopolitics. India’s relationship with Russia and before that with the erstwhile Soviet Union has been of genuine friendship. When the US backed Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, it was the Soviet Union that supported India. During its wars and skirmishes against Pakistan and China, India has been reliant on Russian weapons and equipment heavily. India and the Soviet Union/Russia share strong cultural cooperation treaties as well. Russia acts as a bulwark against rising Chinese expansion and aggression in Asia. So let us try and understand why India does not condemn Russia and why among the general public in India, the support leans towards Russia and not the NATO.
India’s dependence on Russian weapons and equipment – India relies heavily on Russian made weapons and equipment for its Army, Navy and Airforce. Though India is pushing more and more towards indigenization of its weapons production, it is still a long way off. India imported goods worth $6.9 billion from Russia in 2021 – mainly mineral oils, fertiliser, precious stones, and nuclear technology. Its exports to Russia stood at $3.33 billion, ranging from pharmaceutical products to tea and coffee. Although India has begun to diversify its weapons portfolio and build up its own arms industry, Russia is the source of around 50 per cent of the weapons used by the Indian armed forces. Russia not only supplies, but also exchanges technology to produce this in India, which the USA and the EU refuse to do. Also, the mixed relations with the US and the US/NATO policy of arbitrary sanctions on anyone who opposes/disagrees with them, makes them an unreliable ally for weapons import.
Hypocrisy of the West on sanctions and “supporting” Russia – A major reason why the EU and the US is unable to win over most of Africa and Asia in their struggle against Russia in Ukraine is their blatant hypocrisy. American led wars which caused more destruction and damage than the Russian war in Ukraine, were unsanctioned and aside from a few words from a few liberal politicians, there was no exodus of corporations leaving the US in “outrage” or sanctions on the US economy. The deep Indian strategic empathy toward Russia is rooted in India’s post-colonial heritage, a strong and understandable anti-Western sentiment that is largely the consequence of British colonial rule. Even European criticism for India buying discounted oil from Russia has been ignored or thrown back at Europe claiming that Europe still buys more Oil and Gas than India from Russia, thus asking the logical question that do only Indian payments for oil to Russia fund the Russian war machine?
Non-Alignment is India’s historical foreign policy – Since the time of Prime Minister Nehru, India has adopted a strong non-aligned policy. It refuses to align itself to any bloc or strategic alliance. Only recently has it agreed to part of the QUAD which is more of an agreement of cooperation than a military alliance and that too due to the increasing Chinese aggression. India has never supported the NATO, an alliance that should have been ended after the Soviet Union collapsed but rather has expanded eastward relentlessly setting itself in Russia’s traditional zone of influence. Also, for India, the EU and the US are unreliable allies as these did not sanction or condemn China, when it attacked Indian positions in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh. As India was strong enough to inflict equal, if not more casualties on the PLA, further incursions were prevented but there was no action from either the US or EU in support of India. A “terrorist” state like Pakistan has been funding cross-border terrorism and militancy in India since the 1950s but still gets funding from the US despite a plethora of evidence supporting the case to stop the same. Thus for India, the war in Ukraine is a European issue with nothing to do with India.
Economic self-interest – Just like most European nations, the US, China or Russia, India looks first at India and its people. American sanctions on oil from Iran and Venezuela have forced India to take the opportunity for heavily discounted oil and gas from Russia. It is basic economical logic that you make the best deal for yourself and applies to people and nations. If Venezuelan oil or Iranian oil comes into the market, India might even stop importing Russian oil especially since Ural crude is difficult to refine. It would even result in a fall in oil prices. But sadly it is not to be. Even the rise in global food prices is partially due to the Western sanctions – true, there are no sanctions on food grains from Russia but why shouldn’t they use it as a weapon when their country has been crippled by European and American sanctions? Wars are not won by ethics and despite the cruelty of that statement it holds true and Russia has a leader willing to be cruel to achieve victory. For India, there is nothing to gain and a lot to lose from sanctioning Russia.
In the first instance, India’s public neutrality toward the Russian invasion is driven fundamentally by its concerns vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. New Delhi sees both of these states as immediate and enduring threats, and it believes that preserving its friendship with Moscow will help to prevent deepening Russian ties with China and to limit Russian temptations to build new strategic ties with Pakistan. Both China and Pakistan desire closer ties with Russia than India feels comfortable with. Consequently, New Delhi aims to minimize Moscow’s proximity to both of its rivals. Toward that end, it has concluded that studiously avoiding any open criticism of Russia offers it a chance to arrest the tightening Sino-Russian embrace while preventing a new dalliance between Moscow and Islamabad, both of which undermine India’s core interests. Russia is viewed in India as having been a sturdy friend of India’s going back to 1955, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly declared Moscow’s support for Indian claims over Jammu and Kashmir (when the West was either neutral or opposed in comparison). And the Soviet Union wielded vetoes in the UN Security Council on India’s behalf on six occasions (and Russia could be called upon to do so again in future crises) – another reason for a reform of the UN Security Council. Keeping Russia on side through its veto-wielding prerogatives thus remains an important consideration that reinforces India’s reticence to criticize Russia, even when its behaviors are judged to be deplorable and on occasion undermining India’s vital interests.
Although India has begun to diversify its arms purchases away from Russia during the last two decades, Russia still remains a critical—and, in fact, a highly desirable—source of weapons for India. This is because Russian weapons are usually cheaper in comparison to their Western counterparts, at least as far as their initial costs go, and they are often just as good, for India’s operational needs. Moreover, Russia alone, again in contrast to the West, is often willing to provide India with the high-leverage strategic technologies that others will not, has pursued the co-development and coproduction of advanced weapons systems to include their manufacturing in India, and does not burden India with excessive end-user constraints, thus making India’s defense relationship with Moscow even more valuable for New Delhi, like in the case of the BrahMos supersonic missiles. The bottom line, therefore, is that India would be unwilling to break the defense supply links with Russia, even if it could procure comparable weapons from alternative Western sources, because Moscow offers it important technological and political benefits which the EU and the US, do not.
Lastly, as one Indian scholar put it, “an aggressive Russia is a problem for the United States and the West, not for India. [The] North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion is Russia’s problem, not India’s. India’s problem is China, and it needs both the United States/the West and Russia to deal with the ‘China problem.’”
India’s current struggle to find a pathway that avoids criticizing Russia despite its aggression in Ukraine highlights a larger underlying reality: the unyielding importance accorded by India to protecting India’s interests in its international decision-making. India’s enduring goal remains ascending to the international stage as a great power but without committing to any entangling alliances along the way, thus finally taking heed of Indian strategists like Chanakya (the Indian Sun-Tzu). This ascent is best assured under conditions of peace in the presence of multiple, competing power centers that can be leveraged by India to derive benefits for itself amid their mutual rivalries. Given this aim, neither unipolarity nor any bipolarity that involves a strong Indian antagonism toward one of the poles serves India’s interests: the former creates few incentives for the dominant power to assist India’s rise, and while the latter may induce one great power, such as the United States, to support India in its competition with a close rival such as China (which is also opposed to India), Washington’s asking price may be too high and may involve forms of entrapment in an alliance of servitude that the EU is in currently in the form of the NATO, that India should to avoid to the extent possible.