India’s “Studied Neutrality” and the Ukraine War: Drivers and Opportunities

The war in Ukraine has made multiple significant developments simultaneously. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine entered a new phase of “partial mobilization” on Sept. 21, 2022. Furthermore, Putin announced Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian territories, namely: Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk. This led Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to reconsider Ukraine’s priorities and resulted in the submission of an expedited application for NATO membership.  

The “West”, led by the United States and joined by its EU and NATO allies, has condemned Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Russia has been deemed the aggressor and is accused of breaching international norms by trying to acquire Ukrainian territory as well as allegedly committing war crimes. While most democracies were quick to condemn and impose sanctions on Moscow, India maintained a “studied public neutrality” over the war in Ukraine. 

India’s neutral posture has received criticism from the West. The perception in Washington DC and Brussels is that India is “sitting on the fence” over the breach of international norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Additionally, India’s choice to abstain during the UN Security Council (UNSC) vote condemning Russia’s use of force in Ukraine raised eyebrows. New Delhi’s responses followed an age-old diplomatic script of non-interference, mirroring India’s traditional responses to Russia’s past invasions of Crimea, Georgia, Chechnya and Abkhazia. 

To some, India’s repeated abstentions in the UNSC over the Ukrainian war and a simultaneous increase in Indo-Russia energy cooperation in light of economic sanctions imposed by the West, New Delhi drew criticisms from Washington DC. Although White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki conceded that the increased crude oil purchases between New Delhi and Moscow “would not violate sanctions” but said it was time for India to choose on which side of the history does it want to be on.

At the same time, India’s attempts to act as a moderator and pacify Russia have proven futile. The Russian President met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the SCO Summit a day after his meeting with President Xi. Modi reiterated his past calls for the cessation of hostilities and reminded Putin that “today’s era is not an era of war”. New Delhi’s abstention should not be confused with its support for the cessation of hostilities, diplomacy and dialogue. New Delhi had earlier, on several instances, supported calls for an independent investigation into the Bucha massacres. Furthermore, in the early phase of the Ukraine war, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in an address to the Parliament of India unequivocally stated, “one should bear in mind that the contemporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, on respect for international law and for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states”. India’s foreign minister in a cryptic message very clearly reiterated that it does not support Russia’s use of force in Ukraine. Given India’s upper hand as a balancing power, it would be wise for New Delhi to leverage its relationship with both Russia and the United States in order to best pursue its own interests. 

Drivers for Neutrality  

The author posits that the strategic calculus in India’s neutrality over the Ukrainian war stems from three important considerations embedded in pragmatic and neo-realist motivations — military dependency; perception of relations; and counterbalancing China.

First, India’s arms and military dependency on Russia adds an element of hesitance. Since the early 1960s, the USSR, followed by its successor Russia, has been India’s primary arms supplier in terms of military equipment, hardware, and spare parts as well as key sophisticated defense technologies and equipment crucial to India’s national security and self-defense. The reluctance of the United States and its European allies in supplying India with similar technology citing proliferation concerns has resulted in the expansion of Indo-Russian defense cooperation in the last few decades. New Delhi and Moscow put pen to paper on a $5.5 billion deal that would see India purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system. 

Even though the US Congress generally sanctions nations associating with Russia, Iran and North Korea using its coercive tool, Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India has been exempted from economic sanctions. This may be explained by Washington DC’s established precedent of granting exemptions to New Delhi as seen in the Indo- US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (123 Agreement) and applying for India’s waiver in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India was granted an exemption under US domestic laws for the trade of sensitive nuclear material and technology despite being outside the purview of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Furthermore, given India’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, it is an enticing partnership for the United States to pursue mutual interests such as ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific and countering growing Chinese influence in the region. This has pushed the United States to consolidate ties with India through key arrangements such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also QUAD) and the 2+ 2 Ministerial Dialogue between the Foreign and Defense Ministers of India and the United States.

Second, India’s neutrality also stems from strong institutionalized notions and perceptions of cordial relations between New Delhi and Moscow. India’s relationship with Russia, and its predecessor Soviet Union, has been cemented by Moscow’s willingness to cast its veto over the Kashmir issue in the UNSC on several occasions including in 1957, 1962 and 1971. Furthermore, historic Indo-Soviet ties were guided by Khrushchev’s doctrine of “Hindi Rusi Bhai Bhai”(Indians and Soviets are brothers) and were later formalized through the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. 

While the 1971 Indo-Soviet treaty was perceived as a gesture to counterbalance China, much has evolved ever since the end of the Cold War. Russia supports India in the UNSC over Kashmir, the two countries share the stage in key non-Western coalitions and arrangements such as the BRICS Summit, East Asia Summit and the SCO. It was also Moscow’s intention to bring India within the purview of SCO to counter China’s influence, although Beijing was able to neutralize this by extending the same invitation to Pakistan. 

Third, India perceives that a robust and supportive Russia is paramount in its goal of counterbalancing China in the Indo-Pacific. India and China also have a longstanding border dispute which spans the western and eastern sectors of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas. Mid-2020, following allegations of a massive Chinese military buildup along the western sector, there was an intense Sino-Indian military standoff that reached its peak during the June 16 Galwan border clashes. Therefore, New Delhi’s national security strategies are premised on maintaining and respecting the status quo along the LAC and preventing Beijing’s territorial incursions.

The war in Ukraine has increasingly aligned Moscow and Beijing’s interests and is subsequently making New Delhi cautious of deepening Sino-Russian relations and its implications for India’s national security. Xi and Putin who announced a partnership of “no limits” in February, weeks before the invasion now share the same adversary, the United States of America. Taiwan in the midst of the War in Ukraine emerged as an important theater of great power competition between the US and China. Tensions between Washington and Beijing increased after the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and reaffirmed the US commitment to the self-governed democratic island. Days after her visit, ballistic missiles were fired from the Chinese mainland across the Taiwan Strait as a signal warning. The United States maintains a robust unofficial relationship with Taiwan, however, Washington refuses to take a position on the latter’s sovereignty under its One China Policy. 

Putin and Xi’s meeting on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Samarkand was closely watched in Washington with experts deeming Moscow as the “junior partner” and the Sino- Russian partnership as that of unequals. The Russian leader appreciated the “balanced position” of China, however, conceded that Beijing had some “questions” and “concerns”. The Russian President also condemned what he called “provocations” by the United States by referring to the US House Speaker’s recent visit to Taiwan and reiterated Russia’s strong commitment to the One China principle. Contrarily, the war in Ukraine has made Beijing rethink its no-limits partnership with Moscow but has promised support for Russia’s core interests. President Xi did not offer any comment on the situation in Ukraine but extended his willingness to work with Russia “to assume the role of great powers and play a leading role to inject stability and positive energy to a world in chaos”.

Opportunities 

In light of the crippling sanctions imposed by the West, Russia is now looking for potential markets in the East. Moscow has responded to the economic sanctions by strengthening ties with non-Western nations such as China, India and Iran. Russia has also increased its crude oil and natural gas exports as it finds new markets in Asia. With European Union (EU) states reluctant to pay in rubles and looking to end their dependency on Russian energy completely, Putin has now turned to China and India for crude oil and gas purchases. Both SCO members are buying more crude oil from Russia at a cheaper price. The purchase of Russian oil here seems to be easing supply constraints in global markets, however, the luxury of a discount amid huge demand has only been extended to Russia’s partners in the East, with drastic increases in crude oil and natural gas exports to India and China.

India’s attempt at balancing becomes evident by pursuing the strategy of multialignment in conducting its relations with other great powers. A number of recent international meetings that India has participated in – the QUAD Forum in May 2022, the BRICS Summit in June 2022, the Commonwealth and the G7 meetings in June 2022, as well as the recent SCO Summit in September 2022 — provide an important observation to assess India’s changing nature of pursuing multilateral ties. 

While India’s participation in these forums — some of which are at odds with each other — might suggest a concrete shift from non-alignment to multi-alignment. In the words of C Mohan “if multialignment is playing by all sides, non-alignment was supposed to keep away from them”. New Delhi has pursued multialignment by strengthening engagement in emerging global and regional multi and mini-lateral institutions as well as deepening cooperation through bilateral strategic partnerships in place

To some, India’s posture for multialignment dates back to New Delhi’s accelerated push for membership and deeper engagement in emerging global and regional multilateral forums. The BJP-led Modi Government has shown great interest in multilateral groupings such as the G20 and BRICS and simultaneously also pursued its goals in regional forums such as the East Asia Summit and SCO. It was also under Modi’s Government that India made a formal application to join the SCO. While India is also a part of the QUAD, it has reiterated that it considers the arrangement a non-military alliance and a multilateral grouping to check China’s assertion of its maritime interests in the Indo- Pacific. At the same time, India has also contested and resisted steps by Russia and China to turn BRICS into an anti-Western bloc

Nevertheless, policymakers in New Delhi also sense the unease in being grouped with Iran, Russia and China which all share estranged relations with the West. Iran which has been at the center of UN and US sanctions for years now for its clandestine nuclear program that has seen a failed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Tehran finds itself one step away from becoming an SCO member. Iran’s full accession to the organization shall become effective in April 2023 when India takes over as the Chair of SCO. Tehran, which now follows a “Pivot to East” doctrine, believes the SCO can be an effective non-Western coalition to nullify the effect of US and EU sanctions on Iran. With Iran’s accession to the SCO, notions of anti-Westernism within SCO shall intensify even further and make New Delhi cautious of its posture.

[Header image by Prime Minister’s Office, India, Via Wikimedia Commons]

*Moksh Suri has recently completed his Master’s in International Relations from Leiden University. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs from O.P. Jindal Global University. Moksh has also undertaken executive summer courses at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Universidad De Granada. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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