Opinion |

For India, Putin's War on Ukraine Presents a Dangerous Dilemma

India has close ties with both Moscow and the West. But its neutrality now looks like tacit endorsement of Russia’s ruthless invasion of Ukraine – and a suicidal green light for future Chinese aggression

Shairee Malhotra
Shairee Malhotra
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Russia's President Vladimir Putin and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi: India is caught between a rock and a hard place on the Ukraine war, given its close ties with both Moscow and the WestCredit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Shairee Malhotra
Shairee Malhotra

On February 24th, the world awoke to the news of Russia’s invasion of the sovereign state of Ukraine. As the West levies harsh sanctions to punish Russia, it is no secret that India is caught between a rock and a hard place, given its simultaneously close ties with both Moscow and the West, and its desire for a multipolar world order in which middle powers India and Russia are key actors.

But New Delhi won’t be able to bridge what is becoming a geopolitical and normative chasm for much longer.

On January 31, India abstained from the UN Security Council vote to discuss the Ukraine crisis, thus replicating the neutral position it took in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea. At this week’s UN General Assembly vote on condemning the Russian invasion, India is likely to abstain again.

At the more recent QUAD (U.S., India, Japan and Australia) meeting in Melbourne as well as the Munich Security Conference, India once again maintained its neutral posture and equidistance between Russia and the West. Even at the latest UNSC vote last week condemning Russia after it had invaded Ukraine, India again abstained.

Meanwhile, New Delhi has consistently called for a de-escalation of tensions through diplomacy while referencing the "legitimate security interests of all parties" – a both sides approach appreciated by Russia as "independent and balanced."

Not many countries can boast of simultaneous friendships with rivals Washington and Moscow, or Tel Aviv and Tehran, or participate in seemingly conflictual groupings such as Russia-India-China or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization alongside China and Pakistan.

While critics often chide Indian ambiguity in response to global challenges as "sitting on the fence," India frames its policy as an active choice foregrounding the principles of strategic autonomy and multi-alignment, through which it charts an independent path in pursuit of its national interests rather than succumbing to interstate rivalries.

So far, India has skillfully managed these significant relationships and to finesse their inherent tensions.

But since India’s neutral stance towards Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the world has changed substantially, and so has India’s own strategic orientation. Even as Moscow continues to remain India’s largest arms supplier, New Delhi has steadily grown closer to Washington and Brussels and emerged as an important Western ally against the Chinese elephant in the room. India is part of the QUAD security grouping aimed at containing Chinese expansionism. And yet as the only QUAD country to not levy sanctions on Russia, India is also an outlier.

Countries voting in favor of a Security Council resolution demanding Moscow stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw all troops: China, India and the UAE abstained, Russia vetoedCredit: AP Photo/John Minchillo

Beyond the safety of its 20,000 nationals in Ukraine and the surge in global crude oil prices, of which India is amongst the world’s largest importers, India has much to lose geopolitically from the conflict, which will directly affect Indian interests vis-a-vis important partners Russia, Europe and the U.S., as well as hostile neighbors China and Pakistan.

A significant diversion of Western attention from the Indo-Pacific region and China towards NATO and Russia does not augur well for an India that is fighting an ongoing border standoff with China. Russian estrangement and isolation from the West will further Moscow’s dependence on China and could solidify a Russia-China-Pakistan axis.

For India, this could affect critical military supplies from Russia, which are even more important within the context of current tensions with China. Despite India’s attempts to diversify its defense partners, including with Israel, Russia still remains its largest source of arms imports.

But Western sanctions will undoubtedly constrain these arms purchases, and at the very least, damage what was looking like a high possibility of receiving a U.S. waiver from CAATSA sanctions for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.

Russian S-400 missile air defense systems in Red Square, Moscow, May 9, 2018.Credit: \ Sergei Karpukhin/ REUTERS

During India’s 2020 border skirmish with China, the U.S. assisted India by providing equipment and intelligence. But if India chooses to be a cautious bystander now, India may get a taste of its own medicine: token U.S. assistance to combat future Chinese aggression.

While Western countries also have serious bones of contention with China, none of them share a border with China. And despite the EU and America’s recently launched strategies to deal with challenges in the Indo-Pacific, a war on European soil means a reduced appetite to focus elsewhere. India, on the other hand, has territorial disputes on its western and eastern borders with two nuclear-armed neighbors whom, as scholar Tanvi Madan from the Brookings Institute states, have irredentist or expansionist historical or identity-based claims to certain territories or populations in India.

Thus, India faces a tough dilemma. Criticism of Russia will push Moscow closer to Beijing, and neutrality will be viewed by India’s Western allies as tacit endorsement of Moscow’s aggression. The harsh reality is that in order to manage China, India needs both Russia and the West, at least until it is able to construct competitive alternatives to Russian arms.

India’s allies have respected its neutral UN posture with pragmatism, as evident in the Biden administration’s assertion that New Delhi’s ties with Washington stand on their own merit.

But all that was before the fateful morning of February 24. Now, Russia is waging an actual war of choice against Ukraine. Now, India must face a very different reality and a far more constricted diplomatic and strategic space. That change is already evident in the pressure being exerted on New Delhi to climb down from its neutrality on Russia at the UN.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends the drills of the Ministry of Internal Affairs during his working trip to the Kherson region, 12 days before Russia invaded UkraineCredit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha have all made heartfelt appeals to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for India’s support. The U.S. too urged India to use its unique leverage with Russia in a constructive way.

But India’s official statement after the Security Council vote did not mention Russia at all. It did emphasize respecting the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of states," a significant part of the rhetoric India itself uses to critique Chinese encroachments on its border and to the inroads China’s Belt and Road Initiative is making through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

And this is not a new principle for India to champion: since the days of independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, foreign policy has centered around respecting sovereignty and the principles of anti-imperialism and non-intervention. In a simpler world, it would be a no-brainer for India to denounce Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for his unilateral invasion of the territory of sovereign Ukraine.

Now, during an actual war, India’s neutrality has become even more unsustainable. Worse, despite sending across medical aid to Ukrainians, India’s abstentions are being perceived as a tilt towards Russia, echoing China’s position. There are even reports that Indian nationals in Ukraine are bearing some of the backlash.

If India’s key foreign partnerships are based on "shared values" and underpinned by the common premise of a rules-based international order, then its neutrality on Russia’s aggression is easily parsed as ambiguity bordering on double speak.

What are its Western allies supposed to think about the authenticity of India’s principles if New Delhi rightfully sounds the alarm when China violates its "territorial integrity and sovereignty" but remains a silent bystander when Russia does the same? How long can India selectively defend or ignore universal rules and norms?

Indian paramilitary soldiers keep guard as Indian army convoy moves on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway in the region where India and China were engaged in a standoff after a deadly clash two years agoCredit: AP Photo

What dangerous precedent does all of this set for Chinese behavior in Asia, not least its implications for India, one of the likelier candidates to have to bear the brunt of Beijing's behavior?

Putin’s aggression has repercussions far beyond Ukraine on the future of global peace and security. And when large nations like India remain neutral when the rules are ruthlessly broken, those rules are downgraded to mere choices, leading to an even more anarchic international system.

India today faces tough foreign policy choices. It can choose to remain silent in the face of illegal aggression and an unfolding humanitarian crisis, or stay on the right side of history, by backing the rules-based order it continues to unequivocally profess. At the same time, while not participating in Western sanctions efforts, New Delhi can leverage its decades-long friendship, influence and goodwill with Moscow to de-escalate Europe’s largest crisis since WWII.

The world is watching closely and the pressure on India is mounting. As India navigates a geopolitical quagmire not of its making, it must bear in mind the old adage: "A friend to all is a friend to none."

Shairee Malhotra is an international relations expert who has worked for the European External Action Service and with think tanks in India and Europe. Twitter: @MalhotraShairee

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