It was the phase of the Cold War that actively witnessed the idea of neutrality. During the Cold War, while the world was divided into two camps – the Soviet Union or the United States of America, there was a third group of countries known as the non-aligned countries. Countries like Indonesia, India Egypt, Ghana, and Yugoslavia endorsed the idea and led the non-alignment movement. As the Cold War came to an end, the policy and practice of neutrality appeared outmoded. However, even in the 21st century, the raison d’être of a state to practice neutrality is primarily based on three aspects – small states like Switzerland and Ireland can retain neutrality; it is an alternative to stay away from getting embroiled in violent conflicts and neutrality continues to provide some sign of security. One cannot negate the fact that neutrality is a political strategy. In the explanation of Andrew Heywood, the essence of neutrality is a legal circumstance through which a state announces non-involvement in a conflict or war, and specifies its intention to abstain from supporting or aiding either side. It is a tool of foreign policy through which a state carries out its national interest.
In the present day, the stance of neutrality is again back to the centre stage. The Ukraine crisis has wide opened the contention over issues of territorial security and matter of sovereignty. The 21st century that was perceived to be guarded by various agreements, international organizations, regional groupings and prohibitive conventions, nevertheless could not avert the actuality of the Ukraine War, especially in continental Europe. With the escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO’s eastward expansion and the latter’s intention to join the NATO, consequently threatening Russian sovereignty led to the onset of the Ukraine crisis on Feb. 24, 2022. Undoubtedly, this conflict has reshuffled the power game in international politics – emphasis on the geopolitical worth of Russia, reassessment of the West’s actual power dominance, role of small states, significance of developing countries like India and the rethinking of the powers of the United Nations.
At the very outset, it needs to be reiterated that India and Russia share a historical camaraderie and are strategic partners. However, India also shares strategic ties with the US, antagonistic to Russia and has been in favour of Ukraine in the crisis. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, India chose to abstain from various procedural votes relating to the conflict underscoring a combination of immediate security and economic considerations as well as enduring assumptions about its geopolitical position and importance. To delve into the past, the Soviet Union, on several occasions, had used its veto to defend India’s interests against different resolutions brought by the West concerning Kashmir, India’s annexation of Goa and the Liberation War of 1971 against Pakistan which led to the formation of Bangladesh.
When the war in Ukraine began — the fundamental demand of the Russians has been neutrality and demilitarization of Ukraine — the key concern for India was the safe repatriation of around 22,500 Indian students from Ukraine. India is well-known for its laudable record of evacuation of its own citizens as well as of other countries; this time India’s diplomatic course of neutrality was the realist tool that made the successful completion of Operation Ganga. Besides the historical and strategic ties between India and Russia that played an underlying persuasion, Russians also acknowledged India’s neutral stance at the UN.
Military and Defence Interests
Since the start of the crisis, New Delhi has been consistently calling for peaceful resolution and immediate cessation of violence in Ukraine. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s telephonic communication with the Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, it was repeatedly asserted that through dialogue only the deeply concerning conflict situation could be resolved. This neutral stance of India could be weighed from the perspective of military interests and gains of India. In fact, India’s special military, strategic and historical ties with Russia have been recognized by the US and consequently sanctions have not yet been imposed on India for its purchase of Russian portable S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Interestingly, for the same purchase, the NATO member Turkey has faced sanctions.
Besides the Russian export of S-400 missile defence system and the several batteries of the S-400, India is in talks with Russia over the purchase of the S-500 Prometheus systems, considered to be the world’s best missile shields at the moment. Other ongoing military cooperations with Russia include production of nuclear submarines, fighter aircraft, and India’s aircraft carrier programme and so on. Also, under the Declaration of Strategic Partnership, India and Russia jointly developed BrahMos missile, said to be the fastest supersonic cruise missile. In this context, it needs to be underlined that during 2016-2020, Russia has been the largest arms supplier to India and USA stood at the fourth position. Here it is imperative to mention that in the recent past the US has been sending signals to India that it is capable of providing more armaments and military supplies to India, thus reducing India’s military dependency on Russia.
Geopolitical and Strategic Calibrations
With a strengthened bilateral trade between India and the US of worth $150 billion, in contrast to $8 billion bilateral trade between India and Russia, US considers India to be the only large military power to counterweigh China in the Indo-Pacific. This makes India a critical member of the Quad, as America has a recent record of inconclusive participation in Afghanistan; rest aside the uncomfortable ones in Vietnam and Iraq. Arguably, it is in the best interest of the American public opinion that the political leadership in US keeps away from any direct involvement in regional conflicts far away from its own shores. At this moment, the realist approach calls for careful consideration of these complex geopolitical calculations, that are many a times overlapping.
India has other geopolitical considerations too. With a hostile neighbor like Pakistan, if tensions escalate and conflict situation emerges between the two, not ignoring the age-old friendship between China and Pakistan, the bigger question remains who would stand by us? History tells us that in the past Russia have sided with India over Pakistan, though that foreign policy consideration cannot stay constant always. India’s neutral stance in the Ukrainian crisis is a potential foreign policy tool that could act as a pressure building tactic for Russia in the future. Nevertheless, if India faces a conflict with China, probably India has to fend for itself, considering Russia’s ties with China.
In addition, India has a great interest in the sphere of oil purchase from Russia. India is in talks with Russia over the purchase of Ural crude oil, the price of which has fallen due to low demands following the Ukrainian crisis. According to Kpler, a commodities research group, though the price that India is paying for the crude oil is unknown, but towards early April, the price for each barrel was at $30. In fact, data compilation by Kpler shows Indian contracts for crude oil for March and April have already touched 14 million barrels. To put things into perspective, the present fuel prices in India has surged to the highest in nearly a decade owing to the Ukraine War. Also, the series of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West has impacted the former’s economy to the extent that the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov during his recent visit to India made it clear that Russia is willing to discuss about any product India wanted to purchase from them. Hence, it is in the strategic interest of both India and Russia that India should continue with the Russian crude oil imports.
As the war in Ukraine completes more than two months now, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, hence India needs to weigh all possibilities and align its future strategy. India has to evaluate the defence support and technology sharing that it forthcomingly receives from Russia in contrast to American economic trade and defence logistic agreements – can the US fulfill the role that Russia has traditionally performed in terms of military procurement or technology sharing? Moreover, even if the US substantially fulfills this role, will it fulfill India’s requirement of political support at the UNSC, which Russia has historically provided. Here, we must not forget that the US does not view India as it views Australia or Britain – a traditional ally.
In international relations, interests are only permanent and particularly national interest. From the realist perspective, it is in the national interest of India to remain neutral over the crisis in Ukraine. India is primarily focused towards steering the cynical Western reaction to Russia’s military onslaught and not ditching Russia, a major strategic and historical ally. It needs both parties to control the rising antagonism in its own neighbourhood. Also, about the larger picture of growing its own economy, New Delhi needs to focus on what is necessary – if that needs Indian pharmaceutical firms to fill the cavity created in Russia by Western sanctions or exporting huge amounts of wheat to Europe.
[Photo by Frankie Fouganthin, via Wikimedia]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a Doctoral Research Scholar in International Relations at Jadavpur University, India. Currently, she is working on India-Russia Strategic Relations. Previously, she has been a Fellow at the University Grants Commission, Government of India.