Widespread international assertions levied on India have accused it of being somewhat soft in condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine. Staying true to its own policies of non-alignment and national interest needs, New Delhi has maintained a cautious stance on expressing any public statement that will severely question the Russian military attack on Ukraine. Amidst such strategic silence by Delhi, the question remains as to why India is reserved in condemning outrightly Moscow’s military adventurism on Ukraine. How to read and judge India’s future foreign policy graph vis-à-vis the Russia-Ukraine war? And, amidst such balancing, what approach would India hold towards its Indo-Pacific military outreach with a focus on India-Russia defence ties?
Russia as a Multilateral Balancer vis-à-vis China
India’s silent diplomacy on Ukraine has allowed it to maintain its strategic autonomy despite international pressure from democratic, like-minded partner states. Such an overture has been a welcome move for Russia, allowing it some respite from international backlash. Both China and India have remained prominent voices absent from condemning Russian actions, and the move has gone to show the clear importance Moscow holds for both Delhi and Beijing. While the critical value of Russia as an arm and energy supplier to India has been largely credited as the reason behind Delhi’s aversion to breaking its silence on Ukraine, another key factor shaping India’s policy is Moscow’s role as a balancer especially vis-à-vis China.
Moscow has over the years ensured that India-China ties continue to remain stable and open to dialogue, especially as this allows Russia to stay relevant in multilateral parlance of relationship frameworks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), Russia-India-China (RIC) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). An amicable relationship between India and China works well for Russia, strengthening these multilateral groupings in its own favour. Russia’s traditional partnership with India and the ideological and powerful friendship it shares with China have long been balanced delicately by Kremlin to ensure that the three Eurasian powers stick together against the West. Even in Doklam and Galwan, Russian neutrality and focus on continuing with the RIC framework as a means of dialogue post conflict highlight this outlook.
For Delhi, Russia also emerges as a gateway for its “Connect Central Asia Policy”. The India-Russia partnership, despite its growth, still continues to fall short on the global stage, especially since India’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific has advanced much deeper than Delhi’s connection with Central Asia. Nonetheless, India has been trying to improve its Central Asia connection, especially in lieu of the ever-growing Chinese footprint in the region, and Russia is a critical regional power. Infrastructure ventures like the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) focused on connecting India with Northern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia and Iran are the most prominent examples of this trend, increasingly dependent on the strong partnership India-Russia share.
Importantly, the INSTC was ideated way before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), being the result of an agreement between Iran, Russia and India signed in 2000 and later joined by 11 more nations. In lieu of the BRI footprint, the goal of building a 7200 kms multi-modal trade corridor running from India to Russia to Europe while linking the Indian Ocean with the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea becomes even more critical. A more serious partnership or even India’s joining of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is very much in the country’s consideration. In practical terms, the EEU would give India access, via a single tariff framework, to entire Eurasia as well as its markets and commodities. As India remains outside the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), such a connection becomes important to further Delhi’s economic trade ambitions. From its side, India will be able to add to internal connectivity projects of EEU members, while its Chahbahar port will gain importance in this setup by linking Afghanistan to Central Asia, potentially extending into the EEU territory.
India’s Indo-Pacific Military Outreach: China vs. Russia
Despite sharing communist ancestry and governance, democratic India’s ties with both China and Russia have grown on different paradigms. For starters, India shares a disputed border with China that Beijing has increasingly and repeatedly sought to restructure unilaterally, with the 2020 Galwan conflict being the most recent example. As opposed to Russia, which has been a defence partner and traditional ally to Delhi, Beijing has been a regional competitor with whom India has still maintained an economic partnership.
India’s relationship with Russia has been built on strategic, diplomatic and defence cooperation ambits, ranging across energy, arms and defence with international support vis-à-vis India’s UNSC bid. Despite US sanctions like Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India’s decision to go ahead with its procurement of S-400 air defence systems yet again proves that “India’s relations with Russia stand on their own merit”. New Delhi’s bilateral trade with Russia in 2020-2021 amounted to US $8.1 billion, of which Indian exports were approximately US $2.6 billion and imports about US $5.5 billion.
Hence, even though sanctions on Russia amidst the Ukraine war will have an effect on the India-Russia trade, this will continue as an immediate decoupling is not possible, with the Indian government even attempting to use present momentum to buy more oil from Russia to fulfil its growing energy needs.
Furthermore, India-Russia defence ties will influence India’s defence relations with other Indo-Pacific partner states – and especially the Quad – with respect to the military balance. Amidst AUKUS and India’s growing logistics and technology agreements with Quad powers, India has sought to balance its defence equipment needs. A reduction in Indian defence dependency on Russia is a goal that India has been trying to work towards in recent years.
The current Indian strategic silence on Ukraine has mostly appeared as one driven by national interest rather than the national image. Abstaining from voting at international forums such as the UNSC, UNGA and UNHRC shows India’s support for its own needs, rather than Russian actions. Importantly, India has maintained that dialogue and diplomacy to contain the Ukraine crisis are essential, showing that Delhi remains committed to rules-based consultation mechanisms despite refraining from criticizing Russia as the instigator.
Ultimately, India appears more focused on ensuring that stakeholders look to speak and discuss solutions. Furthermore, the West also realises that between China and India being the only two key powers taking a non-anti Russia stand, the door to dialogue with Russia could potentially be built via India. India’s calculative neutrality ultimately ensures that to Russia, there remains the option of engaging with a democratic, West supported power at the time of dialogue rather than depending on China for international mediation, limiting its own outreach. It is due to this reality that India’s continued presence and participation in the SCO, BRICS, RIC and AIIB is also vital against China. India remains a balancing power in these regional platforms, allowing Russia dialogue opportunities with the rest of the world.
India recognizes that much like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping is also prone to invoking history to justify the ‘reunification’ of China, with a focus on Taiwan and Hong Kong. Such posturing highlights India’s perception of a potential crisis in Taiwan followed by Ukraine. This drives Delhi’s hope that the European Union’s growing focus on Taipei should discourage China’s threat to its freedom, drawing from the example of Ukraine. China, which also claims on a similar “ancient times” rationale the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, sees the Ukraine-Taiwan connection with an even more alarming focus. Even as Taiwan is not Ukraine —strategically nor geographically—it becomes increasingly clear that strategic clarity amongst Quad members is needed to ensure a contingency plan, a lack of which in Europe saw the Russian invasion of Ukraine take place at such rapid speed, only derailed by Ukraine’s self-reliance on asymmetric war tactics.
Gauging such manoeuvring goes to show that India’s connection with Russia against the balancing act with China remains focused on building its Eurasia and Central Asia connections while keeping the Indo-Pacific defence outlook centre stage.