New Delhi's indirect support to the Russian position is not a product of Russian pressure. Neither is it about its genuine belief about Russia’s legitimate interests in Ukraine. Rather, it is the result of a desire to safeguard its own interests, strategic vulnerability and 'non-alignment'- a cultural foreign policy ethos that prevails in Indian thinking.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine couldn’t have come at a worse time for India. For a developing country still recovering from the debilitating onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war has thrown up major economic, strategic and geopolitical challenges for the country. While India may have responded in the best way possible balancing its immediate and long term interests, it has been under harsh criticism by the US and the Western world.
Let’s begin by examining the nuanced nature of the Indian response to the Ukraine war so far. Among the various options available to New Delhi in the context of the Ukraine war, it chose the least problematic one. To be clear, there are four potential options India could have chosen from: Unequivocally condemn Russian aggression, support it, remain silent or express displeasure (short of condemning) and call for diplomacy. As it turned out, India chose the last one, which it thought would hurt its interests the least. And yet, there is no denying that it is still a pro-Russia stance because India has not condemned an unjustifiable war.
That said, it is also notable that India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine standoff has evolved over the years. When Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, the then National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, stated in his rather off-the-cuff remarks: “We are watching what is happening in Ukraine with concern... The broader issues of reconciling various interests (are) involved and there are, after all, legitimate Russian and other interests involved and we hope those are discussed, negotiated and there is a satisfactory resolution to them.”
His remarks were, however, qualified by the then prime minister Manmohan Singh who subsequently highlighted India's position on the “unity and territorial integrity” of countries and hoped a diplomatic solution would be found to the issue. Singh also hoped that all sides would exercise restraint and work together “constructively to find political and diplomatic solutions that protect the legitimate interests of all countries in the region and ensure long-term peace and stability in Europe and beyond.”
India has come a long way from being cognisant of the ‘legitimate interests of all parties’ in 2014. For one, in 2022, India put out a written explanation of its vote at the UN for the first time, which hardly justified the Russian action. Thereafter various joint statements that India has issued with countries such as the US and Japan show that India is uneasy about the Russian aggression.
Consider the following. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs' readout of the talks between Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar in early April 2022 stated that the “MEA emphasised the importance of cessation of violence and ending hostilities. Differences and disputes should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy and by respect for international law, UN Charter, sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.”
Later Jaishankar stated in Parliament on 6 April 2022: “We are, first and foremost, strongly against the conflict. We believe that no solution can be arrived at by shedding blood and at the cost of innocent lives. In this day and age, dialogue and diplomacy are the right answers to any disputes. And this 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. If India has chosen a side, it is the side of peace and it is for an immediate end to violence. This is our principled stand and it has consistently guided our position in international forums and debates including in the United Nations”.[i]
India adopted a harsher tone on the civilian killings in Bucha. T.S. Tirumurti, India's permanent representative to the United Nations, told a meeting of the Security Council that reports of civilian killings in Bucha were “deeply disturbing. We unequivocally condemn these killings and support the call for an independent investigation”.
There was also a vigorous debate on the Ukraine war in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, on 5 April 2022. Around 28 Members of Parliament spoke during the discussion. What was quite clear from the deliberations was that there was subtle support for Russia among most Indian parliamentarians despite the uneasiness among them about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I would call the support ‘subtle’ since there was no overt support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and because several of them expressed unease about the war. There was a sense of appreciation for the historic relationship between India and Russia, which most lawmakers appeared to highlight during the debate.
Apart from the official Indian responses and the debate in Parliament, the thinking within the Indian strategic community has also been somewhat ‘sympathetic’, if not supportive, of Russia. In strategic matters, Indians generally tend to think that Russia is a steadfast supporter of Indian interests internationally. This general empathy appears to be somewhat widely shared across various segments of the society. This might undergo a change if the war drags on, but for the moment, the warmth of the historical India-Russia relations seems to outweigh the sympathy for the Ukrainian victims of the war.
Explaining India’s response
India’s indirect support to the Russian position is not a product of Russian pressure. Neither is it about its genuine belief about Russia’s legitimate interests in Ukraine. Rather, it is the result of a desire to safeguard its own interests. For New Delhi, its response to the Ukraine war has nothing to do with giving up norms, values or standing by a non-democratic state unlike many of its US and Western partners seem to describe. This, for New Delhi, is not a fight between democracies and non-democracies either. For the Indian government, this is about looking after its interests. Let us briefly examine some of India’s reasons for adopting a neutral stand.
Argument from national interest
New Delhi has been carefully using the language of ‘national interest’ to offset criticism against it. Jaishankar stated in Parliament that “India’s approach should be guided by our national beliefs and values, by our national interest and by a national strategy”[ii] and that India’s actions are driven by “legitimate pursuits of national interest”. In further elucidating such national interest, Jaishankar said: “So what should India do in these circumstances? At the time when energy costs have spiked, clearly, we need to ensure that the common person in India is not subject to an additional and unavoidable burden. Similarly, fertiliser prices have a direct implication for the livelihoods of the majority of our population.”
To understand the Indian position and argument from national interest, it might be useful to examine it from the logic of non-alignment. Writing in 1987, K. Subrahmanyam, noted strategic analyst and the father of external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, made an important distinction between non-alignment and neutralism: “Non-alignment asserts freedom of choice among available options in every situation, whereas neutralism is abdication of the right of choosing.” In other words, non-alignment, according to him, was a strategic doctrine to pursue national interests based on the specifics of a given situation, and that it is not neutralism but retaining the ability to make a choice based on the merit of the existing circumstances.
In my opinion, this view of non-alignment, a strategic cultural strand still prevalent in Indian thinking, is useful in explaining India’s position on Ukraine.
Argument from structural constraints
India’s position on Ukraine is also a product of the global balance of power considerations. There is a growing view in New Delhi that given the fact that the US-led Asian regional order is weakening in the wake of the American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the potential shrinking of their interests in the Middle East, the US will not be keen on shaping the regional geopolitical outcomes in some of Asia’s key theatres such as South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, among others, which are of great significance to India.
The US withdrawal from these regions, New Delhi reasons, will lead to a potential rise in China-led regional orders in the above-mentioned Asian geopolitical theatres. Given that New Delhi is geographically located in the confluence of these geopolitical theatres, it will need to make wise choices keeping the diminishing role of the US and the rising influence of China in these regions in mind.
These geopolitical changes and India’s geographical position at the heart of it makes the country, it reasons, strategically vulnerable in the region. In that sense, New Delhi’s response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine appears to have been shaped by harsh geopolitical circumstances. India may be with the ‘Political West’ when it comes to values and norms, but it is located in the political non-west and that has its own implications.
In its broader region, India is caught in the whirlwind of a number of geopolitical contestations: Aggressive rise of China, which is displacing India from its traditional sphere of influence in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean region; the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan where, after having invested over US$3 billion in development assistance, India suddenly finds itself friendless; the potential coming together of states such as China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Russia to fill the regional power vacuum under the Chinese leadership, among others, have put India in an unenviable spot in the region. Russia perhaps is the only country that is not unfriendly towards India. While Russia may not go against China in trying to help India, India cannot afford to have another unfriendly neighbour in the region in the meantime.
The unease about US/ Western high-handedness
What often goes unnoticed in the US and Western capitals when it comes to analysing India’s behaviour, is the all-pervasive political culture of a post-colonial country. Even though India and the US/ West are closer to each other than ever, New Delhi and its strategic elite continue to be deeply uneasy about how the US/ West takes India for granted or does not respect its strategic autonomy. India, for instance, does not share the US/ Western view of non-UN, unilateral sanctions given that it has often been at the receiving end of such sanctions. India was sanctioned after it tested nuclear weapons in 1998 (Russia had stood by India then), and US sanctions against Iran had hurt India as well. So when the US tells India that there would be consequences if India evades US/ Western sanctions on Russia, such a veiled warning doesn’t go down well in New Delhi.
Non-Western forums’ view
The US and Western states and their institutions have overwhelmingly condemned the Ukraine war. There has been little focus on how non-Western forums have reacted to it. While analysing India’s response, it might be instructive to take a look at prominent non-Western groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Notably, India, despite being a close partner of the US and the West, is also a member of both BRICS and SCO.
It is interesting to note that India is not the only country from the BRICS bloc that has taken a somewhat neutral position. So far, none of the BRICS members have overtly criticised Russia for the Ukraine war or supported the US/ Western sanctions against it. As a matter of fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin had reached out to the BRICS leaders individually before he ordered the war against Ukraine. While there is little evidence to show that Putin sought the support of his BRICS’ colleagues for the war, his outreach to them before the war and their position on the war may be indicative of how certain non-Western blocs have viewed the war.
The upcoming BRICS summit to be virtually hosted by China may tell us more about where BRICS as a forum and its individual members stand on the Ukraine war. The deliberations and reactions from non-Western forums such as BRICS and SCO could tell us more about how the war could impact on the US-led contemporary international order.
India has so far refused to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine even though its stand on the war has undergone subtle changes over time. New Delhi’s position on the Ukraine crisis is influenced by considerations of national interest and recognition of its strategic vulnerability of being located in an unfriendly region.
While New Delhi has so far refused to condemn Russia, it has also signalled the US and the West that it is keen on enhancing India’s strategic partnership with them. New Delhi also understands that as the war drags on, India will find it hard to justify its stand on Ukraine. But for now, it has managed to navigate its foreign policy through the challenging straits of contemporary global geopolitics without too much blowback.