Artyom Lukin & Aditya Pareek
Moscow’s decision to recognise the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and then launch a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine has created a tricky balancing act for India. Delhi’s immediate reaction to the crisis has been restrained, neutral and focused on ensuring the safety of its nationals inside Ukraine.
Several hours after Russian military action was underway, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Modi urged that all violence should be ceased immediately and reiterated India’s emphasis on diplomacy and ‘honest and sincere dialogue’ between Russia and NATO.
On 26 February 2022, the United Nations Security Council held a vote on a resolution demanding that Moscow immediately stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw all troops. India was among the three countries to abstain, along with China and the United Arab Emirates. India’s UN envoy expressed his ‘regret that the path of diplomacy was given up’. India also abstained on a procedural resolution to call for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly.
Modi also held a phone call with Ukrainian Presi-dent Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he expressed ‘his deep anguish about the loss of lives and properties’ but refrained from directly criticising Russia.
The India–Russia relationship is officially characterised as a ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’. The entente between Moscow and Delhi dates back decades. Though the bond is no longer the de facto alliance it once was in the 1970s and 1980s, Moscow remains Delhi’s an important strategic partner, on par with the United States. The two nations don’t have any significant areas of disagreement and both share a fundamental interest in a multipolar balance of power in Eurasia.
India relies on Russia for the majority of its imported military equipment, nuclear submarine technology and some vital space faring technology. A highlight of India–Russian defence cooperation has been the US$5.43 billion deal for the S-400 air defence system, which Russia began delivering in December 2021. Russian-made weapons are critical to India’s ability to counter its main external threat — China.
There are also perhaps ideational factors behind India’s reluctance to censure Russian actions toward Ukraine. The conflict over Ukraine may have some parallels with India’s historic traumas. The fragmentation of the Soviet Union that led to the birth of an independent Ukraine was not dissimilar to the partition of the British Raj, which produced India and Pakistan, two culturally close but still antagonistic entities. Putin characterises the modern state of Ukraine in antagonistic terms as an ‘anti-Russia’ project.
Western powers portray the conflict as a struggle between an imperialistic autocracy and a young democracy, but Delhi may not buy this narrative. India has always been somewhat sceptical about the US-led discourse on liberal democracy. This remains the case despite the Westernisation of Indian elites. Under Modi, India has been evolving in an illiberal and ethno-nationalistic direction. It is an open secret that India wants to maintain its sphere of influence in parts of South Asia.
India does not have many significant security interests in Europe, which helps explain its relative aloofness to the Ukraine crisis. But Delhi does have some stakes in Ukraine. For instance, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s semi cryogenic engine is being developed based on Ukrainian supplied RD-810 designs and many Indian navy warships depend on Ukrainian gas turbines, including those under construction at Russian shipyards. So India has a national security stake in not alienating Ukraine.
Another reason for India’s repeated calls for the cessation of violence, de-escalation and resolving the situation through diplomacy is high energy prices, which may negatively affect India’s stressed economy.
Delhi’s position on the Ukraine crisis also needs to be examined in the context of the Russia–China–India triangle. Some subtle evolution has taken place here. India spoke of Russia’s ‘legitimate interests’ in the wake of the 2014 events on the Crimean Peninsula, which could be interpreted as a position of implicit support for Russia. By contrast, Beijing maintained a more neutral position at the time. India has also since then abstained or voted against Russia-denouncing UN resolutions concerning Crimea.
However, as the Ukraine crisis continues to unfold, China seems to have become more supportive of Russia as indicated in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks during a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. During the call, Wang Yi mentioned ‘Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues’. India has made no such reference to ‘Russia’s legitimate interests’ and remains more neutral compared to China in the current crisis.
A key concern for Indian foreign policy is how the Ukraine crisis — and its unpredictable outcome — will affect Russia’s relations with China. There is little doubt that the security mess in Europe and the West’s ostracisation of Russia will push Moscow further toward Beijing. If Russia’s dependence on China deepens and Western condemnation of Russia intensifies, the Delhi–Moscow ‘privileged partnership’ could be at serious risk.