May 2022

Shifting sands

As the Russian war in Ukraine rages on and global geopolitics adjusts on its axis, Amit Agnihotri assesses why all sides seem to be wooing India

The contours of a new world order, resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war, might still be hazy but there is no denying the fact that a global churn is taking place, which was reflected recently when all sides to the conflict courted South Asian major India.

Although the war in Europe prompted the US and its allies to project the face-off as a ‘with us or against us’ kind of a situation, the conflict revealed that the West basically wants to control an aggressive Russia.

The intensity and scale of the Russian aggression seems to have caught the attention of the US and its allies in Eurasia but the grouping cannot afford to ignore the long-term threats it faces from an expansionist China in the strategic Indo-Pacific region.

India’s credentials as the world’s largest democracy, coupled with New Delhi’s demonstrated military capability and resolve against Chinese aggression in the Himalayas, seems to have found favour with the West, which is keen to have an effective counter balance in Asia on its side.

These realities must have been factored in by the United States when it played down New Delhi’s consistent refusal to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine, but still Washington did not give up trying to convince its Quad ally to sign on the dotted line.

Top officials from the US, the UK, Japan, Australia and Greece visited New Delhi to bring India closer to the Western narrative on the Ukraine war, while representatives of Russia and China rushed to present their side of the story.

Among the Western block, the US warned India not to buy discounted oil from Russia, which is reeling under sanctions, while Washington’s allies resorted to persuasion to change New Delhi’s mind.

The hidden message was that India should shun its reluctance to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine.

Later, the US stance changed track when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted that each country had the right to decide on its energy imports. India’s oil imports from Moscow were only 1-2 percent of its total energy imports, said Psaki, adding that the Biden administration would help New Delhi deal with the shortfall.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (r) with India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in New Delhi on April 1, 2022

Reports that the 27-member European Union had purchased oil worth 35 billion euros from Russia during the imposition of sanctions, whereas the group had provided aid only worth 1 billion euros to a battered Ukraine, may have had a sobering effect on the US strategists.

Around the same time, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urged India to reduce its dependence on Russian military exports, indicating that Washington had taken note of New Delhi’s security concerns vis-à-vis China and Pakistan, while appreciating its Quad ally’s non-aligned foreign policy.

It was natural, then, that visiting US diplomat Victoria Nuland and Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla reaffirmed their commitment to the shared objective in the Indo-Pacific, which hosts the world’s busiest shipping lines.

An IMF report on the impact of the Ukraine war on the global economy noted that the Indian economy would be in the best position to withstand the international headwinds resulting from the raging conflict.

Taking a cue from this, visiting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida assured $42 billion worth of investments in India as he flagged up the need for a stronger Quad to secure the Indo-Pacific.

Days before he visited India, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted that, as the two countries were facing threats to their peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it was vital that democracies and friends stuck together.

Like Kishida, Johnson was focused more on doing business with India than putting pressure on New Delhi to change its views over the conflict. 

Yi’s attempts to look for a chink in the Quad’s armour were unsuccessful

Russia & China

The April visit to India of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dropped sufficient hints that Moscow wanted to thank its old friend for adopting a neutral position over Ukraine at the UN, and to assure New Delhi of more cheap oil supplies.

Faced with global sanctions, Moscow was all too eager to showcase its ‘good’ relations with the two Asian giants, China and India. In that line, Ukraine too appealed to the Indian PM Modi to help stop the war.

While it would be a bit far-fetched to say that China took a cue from Russia or underwent a change of heart, the unannounced visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi seemed more like catching up with the West it so despises.

Wang Yi tried to present himself as a friend and talked peace, conveniently forgetting the ongoing border row along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh that had turned bloody on June 15, 2020 when 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers died in the clashes at the Galwan Valley.

The subsequent heavy militarisation of the LAC by China, which forced India to match troop deployment, converted the area into another potentially dangerous conflict zone that could have global ramifications.

Though the Chinese Foreign Minister talked about shared interests, his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar told Wang Yi that without peace at the India-China border, no forward movement in the bilateral relationship was possible.

Unfortunately, Yi’s attempts to look for a chink in the Quad’s armour were unsuccessful. 

Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi : Catching up with the West

The Russian aggression brought the West and Europe closer

Contrarian view

Those who had a different take on the world leaders courting India during the Ukraine war noted that fence-sitting was not a good option for New Delhi, which aspired to be a global leader. The supporters of this line of thought pointed out that a nationalistic foreign policy being pursued by India may not be in sync with the liberal international order.

In reality, India had adopted a flexible policy and calibrated its response when Permanent Representative at the UN TS Tirumurti used strong words to condemn the civilian casualties in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. India’s demand for an independent probe into the shocking incident was nothing short of criticizing Moscow.

The Russian aggression brought the West and Europe closer, but it is true that they had serious differences until recently over issues like trade, defence and Covid management.

CAUTIONARY: US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urged India to reduce its dependence on Russian military exports

While the world’s rich democracies found common cause in opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the developing ones in Asia had a mixed response to the crisis. For them, dealing with domestic economic and security challenges that have resulted from the conflict has been far more pressing than being in this or that camp.

With no end in sight to the Russia-Ukraine war, the conflict, it seems, will only get worse and have a more adverse impact on global economies. 

This, in particular, will force the governments in Asia to look for solutions to their domestic problems rather than indulge in geopolitical grandstanding.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues