April 2022

Treading a tightrope

India’s non-aligned policy may have proved helpful during a recent UNSC vote on the Russia-Ukraine war, but balancing its strategic interests –invested with both Russia and the US –will be critical in the days ahead, warns Amit Agnihotri 

The old policy of being non-aligned helped India adopt a neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine war at the United Nations. But balancing power equations with the US and Russia in the coming days will involve some tightrope walking for New Delhi.

India refused to join the West in condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine by abstaining during crucial UN votes. New Delhi suggested the path of dialogue to resolve the conflict, but did not fail to point out that it was deeply disturbed by the developments.

US lawmakers cried themselves hoarse at India’s neutral position, saying the move had placed the Quad ally in the Russian camp. Although the Biden administration showed maturity in understanding India’s stance, Washington did try to persuade New Delhi to reconsider its decision.

For its part, the South Asian nation simply followed the operating rule in global diplomacy and was guided solely by its own strategic interests, which remain invested with both the US and Russia.

The former is New Delhi’s largest trade partner (Indo-US trade crossed $100 billion in 2021), while the latter continues to supply around 50 percent of its defence inventory.

In light of this, the UNSC vote was a hard choice for New Delhi, which faces security threats from two neighbours, China and Pakistan, both of whom have fought wars withIndia in the past.

Even since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has been known as a global exporter of terrorism and continues to push terrorists across India’s borders.

Putin (l) met with PM Modi in New Delhi on Dec. 6 last year to finalise defence deals worth $5 billion

For its part, China deliberately violated the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh in 2020 and has since then heavily militarised the zone by deploying large contingents of the People’s Liberation Army, forcing India to match the aggression.

On one hand, the South Asian security challenge requires New Delhi to boost its defence capabilities. On the other hand, the situation necessitates India keeping its international friends close by.

Apart from the Himalayas, India also needs to counter China’s expansionism in the Indian Ocean region and the globally strategic Indo-Pacific, which explains New Delhi’s move to join the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) in 2020.

Although the Ukraine conflict has brought Russia and China closer, at least in the short term, India needs the support of both Washington and Moscow to keep the Asian Dragon in check.

When US President Joe Biden convened a virtual meeting of the four-nation Quad leaders to condemn Putin, India reiterated its neutral stand.

Later, India maintained its position before Quad member and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who visited New Delhi. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, meanwhile, who had a virtual interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was more accommodating.

For its part, the US had also identified the Asian Dragon as its enemy number one and strongly criticised Beijing’s aggression along the LAC, long before the Russia-Ukraine war broke out.

Though Russia, an old friend of India, did not take sides during the LAC skirmishes, Moscow is able to calm Beijing. should it feel tempted to escalate the border tensions.

Another reason why New Delhi needs to engage with Moscow is to deal with the emerging Russia-China-Pakistan axis, which saw the unstable Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, visiting the Kremlin to discuss energy deals in the midst of the Ukraine crisis.

Further, the power vacuum created in Afghanistan post the 2021 US withdrawal has thrown up a security challenge for India. Here again, Russia may have greater influence over the Taliban ruling Kabul than Washington.

The Ukraine conflict has its origin in the decades-old US-Russia rivalry and is unlikely to go away, even if a truce is worked out between Moscow and Kyiv.

Hence, the emerging situations will continue to test Indian diplomacy in the near future.

The UNSC vote was a hard choice for New Delhi, which faces security threats from neighbours China and Pakistan

Past and present

The US-led NATO was set up in 1949 to protect eastern Europe against Soviet aggression. The Cold War that followed ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union into several independent republics in 1989.Russia was still the largest among them but struggled to stage a comeback on the global scene.

Meanwhile, the disintegration of the Soviet Union forced India to make a gradual shift towards the United States and pursue a strategic partnership with Washington, which deepened over the past two decades.

For the US, India came across as a natural ally and an effective counter-balance to China, which aimed to replace American as the world’s leading economy.

It was, therefore, easy to dub the Quad, which also includes Japan and Australia, as an alliance of global democracies to counter a Communist China.

At the same time, India-Russia relations also flourished.

In 1971, Russia stood by India during the war of independence in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), when the US threatened New Delhi by sending its Seventh Fleet to the Indian Ocean.

Moscow has been a partner in New Delhi’s space program since the 1980s, sending the first Indian astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, into space aboard Soyuz T-11 in 1984. Last year, Moscow trained four Indian astronauts for New Delhi’s first ever manned space flight, the Gaganyaan.

HIGH-FLYER: Russia sent Indian astronaut Rakesh Sharma into space aboard its Soyuz T-11 in 1984

Russia supported India’s stand on Kashmir at the UN and became a key defence partner

Russia supported India’s stand on Kashmir at the UN and became a key defence partner, exporting fighter jets, tanks, aircraft carriers, missiles and submarines.

In December last, Putin visited New Delhi to finalise defence deals worth $5 billion, including the S-400 advanced missile defence systems, aimed at deterring China.

A miffed Biden administration threatened to impose sanctions against its Quad ally but New Delhi stood its ground and put on hold a $3 billion drone deal with the US to ward off pressure.

India, Russia seek to skirt US sanctions threat to arms deals

Despite its dependence on Russian military exports, India has been trying to broad base its defence purchases over the past decade by inducting force multipliers from the US, Israel and France.

As the Ukraine war raged on, New Delhi ignored US warnings and allowed a private deal to buy discounted oil from Russia, which was reeling under international sanctions.

Faced with a US rebuke over the issue, India pointed out that Europe too was buying oil and gas from Russia, despite the sanctions.

It has been India’s policy in the past to avoid condemning a country by name. Instead, New Delhi resorted to indirect references to make its point.

For now, the point has been noted.

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