- In a multilateral world where India is desperate to make inroads. Russia provides the most security to the country in the UNSC, a table where it lacks its presence.
- It is also a well-known fact that Russian-made technology occupies the largest portion of Indian Defense. Spare parts for our defence systems are procured from both Russia and Ukraine.
- India is playing a strategic game called national interest. Whole-heartedly condemning Russia in any manner would jeopardize its relationship with one of its biggest all-weather allies.
- India needs to be fully aware of the threat that lies in supporting Russian aggression.
- There is also strong messaging being relayed from the West toward India to not get too cosy with the Putin government.
- India must also wisely channel itself through this challenge as the stakes are high on either side.
If the world were to search for a prime example of what it meant to be a true ally to a nation, the money would be in India’s unwavering stance towards Russia. Even in the middle of a war.
On February 24, news broke out that Russia had finally launched an attack on neighbouring Ukraine and invaded the country. Unlike the withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan which caught the public by surprise, the world was closely following this situation for weeks before. The Eastern-European region was a simmering pot and finally, the steam was let out.
Living in the post-war era, the global order has been proactive in shunning the emergence of any war. As a natural response, leaders of various nations and their governments quickly condemned the actions of Russia and called for an immediate end to the oppression by the Putin government. But one such nation while passionately calling for an end to the situation redirected its disapproval not towards any country or leader but rather to the unfortunate incidence of war.
India was charting its own response to the invasion and was not going to be pressured to act otherwise.
“The calls of the international community to give time to the recent initiatives undertaken by parties to diffuse tensions were not heeded. The situation is in danger of spiralling into a major crisis. We call for immediate de-escalation and refraining from any further action that could contribute to a worsening of the situation,” stated Ambassador TS Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN.
INDO-RUSSIAN HISTORICAL TIES
The bilateral relations between India and Russia are well cemented in the history of the ages. While the effort to put a date on the beginnings of this relationship seems rather tricky, we do find instances of interaction.
In the 4th century, Indian trade with the European nations took place via the ports of Russia in what is known as the North-South Corridor. The Bhagavad Gita was translated into Russian in the 18th century by Empress Catherine the Great. However, these isolated instances do not indicate a sense of continued bilateral support.
We visit a time in history when India was viewed with disdain by the Russian rulers. Stalin believed that Indian leaders were “running dogs of Imperialism” and “tools of British and Capitalist forces”. This hostility towards India remained for the entire period of Stalin’s reign.
But then with the rise in power of Nikita Khrushchev and the effort to rid Russia of his predecessor’s input through the ‘Destalination’ drive, the seeds for Indo-Russian relations were planted. Khrushchev visited India and extended a bilateral economic treaty in 1955. They supported India diplomatically by declaring the Jammu and Kashmir and Goa regions as part of the sovereign territory of India, a claim contested by other nations.
Driving the relations deeper was the apparent disengagement that started brewing between Russia and China, a result of differences in the Communist ideology. This, however, turned out to be a major positive for India when it battled a war with China in 1962 in what is now known as the Sino-Indian war.
India remembers its past and is influenced by it in the present.
In 1971, when India was at war with West Pakistan on the issue of the sovereignty of East Pakistan it was Moscow that provided naval assistance by intercepting the British and American fleets that were attempting to invade the Indian waters in an intense effort to threaten the nation from progressing forward.
During the Cold War era, India adopted the well-known posture of Non-Alignment. As much as this was a gesture of India’s outlook, it also in subtle ways was proof that India would not turn its back on the then USSR in the bid to get cosy with the United States, the leading world power.
There’s a valid reason for that. In as much as one can make an argument that India really wanted to pave the way to create unity rather than division in the world order, it must not be forgotten that the late PM Jawaharlal Nehru who spearheaded the NAM was also inclined towards the Eastern state due to his own leanings towards socialism and communism.
But the India of the 21st century is not only far away from socialism as an ideology but is rapidly turning into a market economy, despite being known as a welfare state, thanks to the LPG of the ‘90s.
Therefore, who Russia was to India only partially explains India’s stance. The remaining answer lies in looking at who Russia is to India today.
RELATIONSHIP AS IT STANDS TODAY
In a multilateral world where India is desperate to make inroads. Russia provides the most security to the country in the UNSC, a table where it lacks its presence. The first use of veto power by the USSR in favour of India was in 1957 over Kashmir. Interestingly even the 100th veto of the country was issued for the same cause.
For India, Kashmir is an undeniably contentious issue that strikes at the very heart of the nation. There is a no-compromise attitude that is echoed by each successive government and any nation that supports India on the matter has a special place diplomatically.
It is also a well-known fact that Russian-made technology occupies the largest portion of Indian Defense. The S-400 missiles or Sukhoi fighters have all been imported to India. Though the country is now quickly scrambling to produce and manufacture its own weaponry and technology under the ‘Make in India’ initiative, experts from various quarters unanimously agree that 2030 is too close a deadline for this to become a reality. It’ll easily be a couple of decades before India can truly become self-reliant. India’s dependency on Russia is not going away anytime soon.
As Russia fails to heed the voice of the international community in stopping its aggression, an array of sanctions is being imposed on it as a result. These sanctions take the form of punishment for the behaviour that the country is embodying.
A ban on oil and gas imports has been pushed from various quarters. While the US has applied a total ban, the UK instead is using a phase-out approach that is to be completed by the end of 2022. The world’s largest Russian gas importer, Germany, is however walking on thin ice as 32 per cent of its gas needs are fulfilled by the former superpower. Its major pipeline with Russia, Nord Stream 1, is scheduled to be closed down for about ten days for maintenance works. But the German side worries that Russia will cut off operations completely and hinder the restarting of the pipeline which would cause major damage to the West European nation.
“I would have to lie if I said I didn’t fear that”, says German Vice-Chancellor, Robert Habeck in an interview with the German broadcaster ZDF. However, the nation has frozen the opening of Nord Stream 2 which would along with Nord Stream 1 provide for more than a quarter of the gas that would be utilized by the EU nations annually. The EU also has not committed to full sanctions as 40 per cent of its gas needs are supplied by Russia.
But India did not join this bandwagon.
Putin claimed at the BRICS summit that “Russian oil supplies to China and India are growing noticeably.” The country is now procuring Russian fuel at a 30 per cent discount to the dismay of the other world leaders. But for a country that is upcoming, has a population of around 1.3 billion, and is not self-sufficient in oil, thereby making it import the commodity at exorbitant costs, taking the Russian deal is a way of surviving in the world order. This oil however seems to flow beyond India.
According to an article by the Guardian, India may be a backdoor to Russian oil (called ‘blood oil’ by Oleg Ustenko, the chief economic adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky) supplies in Europe. Despite sanctions from the European markets to which Russia is the major supplier, it managed to account for $20bn from exports in May which is about the cost it was garnering pre-invasion.
“Indian refiners are clearly taking significant volumes of discounted Russian crude and then re-exporting a material proportion of refined product back out of the country,” said Shore Capital analyst Craig Howie in the article.
India is playing a strategic game called national interest. Whole-heartedly condemning Russia in any manner would jeopardize its relationship with one of its biggest all-weather allies. Apart from the various benefits that India derives from the Indo-Russian relationship, the latter also acts as a negotiator between the country and China which is making several inroads and violations in the north.
WALKING THE TIGHTROPE
However, India needs to be fully aware of the threat that lies in supporting Russian aggression. This support is not in terms of releasing Ministerial statements that explicitly mention so but rather in actions that the country takes. That Ukraine is deeply disappointed in the Indian stance is very much evident. Reacting to PM Modi’s delayed response to the Russian invasion, Igor Polikha, the Ukrainian Ambassador to India, stated that “This is not the time for protocol-bound statements.”
India must also maintain a favourable position with Ukraine. Simply because, apart from Russia, India also conducts business with Ukraine. Spare parts for our defence systems are procured from both Russia and Ukraine. The war-torn country also plays an important role in ensuring that global food supply chains remain intact.
There is also strong messaging being relayed from the West toward India to not get too cosy with the Putin government. The US has through multiple officials including the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean- Pierre hinted at its displeasure of India not engaging in the united front led by the US to counter Russian aggression. That there might be consequences in the form of sanctions imposed on India also highlights the comments made by officials of these countries.
US under-secretary of state Victoria Nuland has conveyed the US’ willingness to engage with India and initiate deeper relations in the field of Defense.
But whatever India chooses to do with that offer, it is clear that the war in Ukraine has not been a military success for the Russians. Criticizing their approach Lt Gen D.S. Hooda, former northern army commander and part of India’s surgical strike against Pakistan, said that the attack “is not good enough as they have so far failed to achieve the victory. the ultimate objective of any military operation is victory.”
Instead of an easy and swift win, the war has slowed down and is being prolonged. Experts believe that it is indicative of the nature that wars will take in the 21st century. Russia is also being bruised by the offensive of the countering bloc.
It has lost about 222 multiple launch rocket systems and 2438 vehicles and fuel tanks among other things. With 70 per cent of the Indian military being of Russian origin, it begs the question of how bad the hit is going to be experienced by the sub-continent. What are the alternatives that present themselves to India to avoid production delays?
In the name of self-interest will India partner with other nations to strengthen itself militarily? And if so, how would Moscow react to that news?
In any case, India currently maintains its stance on neutrality. Dialogue and diplomacy were reiterated by PM Modi in his recent visit to the G7 Summit held at Schloss Elmau, Germany even as the other nations pressed him on imposing a price cap on Russian energy imports.
India must also wisely channel itself through this challenge as the stakes are high on either side. With the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in May as a grouping centred around the contentious water region dominated by China, the emerging nation must be cautious to remain balanced and neutral without tilting in favour of any one side.
One, we’ve always maintained a distance with power blocs and rather adopted a mediator and conciliatory position. Two, we must send a clear message that we will not be pressured to act against our national interest which must never be lost in any instance.
(Larissa Clitus is a research scholar at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy (IRP&PP), St. Joseph’s University (SJU), Bengaluru-Karnataka, India.)