The Anatomy of India’s ukraine dilemma

Contact Counsellor

The Anatomy of India’s ukraine dilemma

  • India abstained from a UNSC resolution which called for condemning the Russian military action against Ukraine.
  • But it went on to note its uneasiness of the Russian action in writing .
  • New Delhi has taken a subtle pro-Moscow position on the question of Russian attacks against Ukraine.
  • This pro-Russia tilt is not just the position of the Indian government, but is something, somewhat surprisingly, shared by much of the Indian strategic community as well.

The Russia tilt

  • Condemn Russian aggression, support Russian aggression, stay silent on Russian aggression, or express displeasure (short of condemning) and call for diplomacy.
  • The first option will pit India against Russia, the second will pit it against the U.S. and its allies, the third option will be read as pro-Russia, and the fourth option — which it has taken — is the least harmful.
  • An aggressive Russia is a problem for the U.S. and the West, not for India. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion is Russia’s problem, not India’s.
  • India’s problem is China, and it needs both the U.S./the West and Russia to deal with the “China problem”.
  • There is today a sobering recognition in New Delhi about the weakening of the U.S.-led global order and the rise of China as a counter-pole, geographically located right next to India.
  • There is an emerging dualism in contemporary Indian strategic Weltanschauung: the predicament of a continental space that is reeling under immense pressure from China, Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan adding to its strategic claustrophobia; and, the emergence of a maritime sphere which presents an opportunity to break out of the same.
  • New Delhi needs Moscow’s assistance to manage its continental difficulties be it through defence supplies, helping it ‘return’ to central Asia, working together at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or exploring opportunities for collaboration in Afghanistan.
  • India is simply not in a position to address the China challenge in maritime space without the active support of American and western navies and, of course, the Quad.
  • The war on Ukraine could have major implications for India’s strategic calculus.
  • Russian action in Ukraine dismissing the concerns of the rest of the international community including the U.S. will no doubt embolden China and its territorial ambitions.
  • Second, the new sanctions regime may have implications for India’s defence cooperation with Moscow.
  • Third, the longer the standoff lasts, the closer China and Russia could become, which certainly does not help India.
  • Finally, the more severe the U.S.-Russia rivalry becomes, the less focus there would be on the Indo-Pacific and China, which is where India’s interests lie.

Impact on foreign policy

  • A country located in a hostile neighbourhood trying to make the best of a terrible situation it finds itself in. This then means that, going forward, India’s ability to be a “swing state”, “major power” or a “leading power” stands diminished. So we must expect more middle-of-the-road behaviour from New Delhi rather than resolute positions on global strategic developments.
  • India’s position also shows the unmistakable indication that when it comes to geopolitics, New Delhi will choose interests over principles.
  • A careful reading of India’s statements and positions taken over the past few days also demonstrates a certain amount of discomfort in having to choose interests over principles.
  • Going forward, if tensions between Russia and the West persist, balancing extremes will be a key feature of Indian diplomacy. India is perhaps already mastering the art.
  • Consider India’s “explanation of vote” during the recent vote on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: even though New Delhi abstained from voting on it (thereby siding with Moscow), it made its unhappiness about the Russian action clear in the written note.

On strategic autonomy

  • India’s strategic autonomy has been under a lot of stress for some time now. However, New Delhi’s response to “explanation of vote” at the UNSC indicates a careful recourse to the principle of strategic autonomy: India will make caveated statements and will not be pressured by either party.
  • India’s indirect support to the Russian position is not a product of Russian pressure but the result of a desire to safeguard its own interests. Therefore, while we may witness a steady erosion of India’s strategic autonomy in the longer term — primarily as a function of the need to balance against China — we will continue to witness instances where Indian diplomacy will take recourse to the principle of strategic autonomy.