India is Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Shravan Krishnan Sharma

Prime Minister Narenda Modi and President Vladmir Putin in 2014.
Image Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

As the standoff in Ukraine escalates and de-escalates, we are obliged to look further than the simple Russia-US-Ukraine-NATO paradigm. 

Indeed, all of these states have friends and allies who are likely to have their own distinct positions on contentious issues. In the case of Russia, one such friend is India. 

As the second largest powerhouse in Asia with a rapidly growing international influence, India’s opinion matters – not only to Russia, but to the U.S., Europe, and the broader Russian and American alliance systems.

At the outset of the Cold War, India, along with Egypt, Indonesia, and the former Yugoslavia, formulated a “Third Way” that came to be known as the Non-Aligned Movement after the 1955 Bandung Conference. 

As the name implies, the intention was to not be dragged into the dichotomy of the Cold War – hence the “Third Way” of engaging productively with both sides and not outright aligning oneself with either side. 

The movement would come to attract a number of newly independent former colonial possessions of Western powers. Most did not want to be seen to be siding with their former colonial masters lest it sow the seeds of a communist revolution, which was an equally unattractive option to many of these new states. 

India, for its part, toed the line extremely carefully, partnering with both the Soviet Union and the United States as its interests permitted. 

As the Cold War progressed and Pakistan inched closer to the U.S., India found itself drifting towards the Soviet Union. The two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship in August 1971, five months after the beginning of the 1971 Indo-Pak war that would eventually culminate in the liberation of Bangladesh. 

The U.S., in an effort to intimidate the Indian Navy and prevent attacks on West Pakistan, sailed into the Bay of Bengal. In response, India began procuring weapons and other equipment from the Soviet Union. 

It is important to note that India, to this day, retains a posture of no formal military alliances, and adamantly so. New Delhi prefers to exercise its own strategic autonomy than committing its resources to an alliance or system of alliances that might compromise its own interests.

In that regard, India is torn. The legacy of the Indo-Soviet friendship remains strong, with India and Russia continuing to remain close partners after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Those ties with the Soviet Union has also meant, however, that India maintains a close cooperative relationship with Ukraine as well. 

In the 21st century, India has also been growing increasingly close to the U.S., and the West over all, as they turn to her to balance the rise of China in Asia. 

In some senses, there is a sense of sympathy within India for the Russian position. Given how staunchly protective India is of territorial integrity, the legacy of the Kashmir conflict is more than likely to color the Indian outlook on issues such as the current crisis in Ukraine. 

India understands all too well the Russian position of wanting to unite with a territory that is evidently culturally, linguistically and historically tied to oneself. At the same time, India cannot in good conscience stand by and watch while one of its close partners’ territory is slowly but surely annexed by another. 

Make no mistake, the Indian position in Asia does not, by any means, immediately associate India with the American or Western position on affairs pertaining to Eastern Europe. India’s system of partnerships in Asia are purely strategic, rather than ideologically driven. 

The marriages of convenience, including the Quad security dialogue with Japan, Australia, and the U.S., are specifically motivated towards the question of maintaining a very specific order in Asia and preventing the rise of China from upending that order. 

India is extremely careful about its relationship with the U.S., as it awaits a waiver on sanctions from the American government for its recent purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. New Delhi has enjoyed an increasingly close partnership with Washington since the dawn of the 21st century. 

However, India can by no means afford to alienate Russia – its military apparatus is composed in large part of Russian manufactured equipment, and to align explicitly with the Western position would only serve to push Moscow further into the arms of Beijing. New Delhi naturally fears such a result would only embolden China to make more aggressive moves in Asia.

India is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, India has stated that Russia has “legitimate security concerns” on the eastern Ukrainian border. Rather tellingly, India refused to vote on the American motion to discuss the standoff in the United Nations Security Council meeting on February 1. Moscow interpreted this as an endorsement of its position. 

In subsequent meetings chaired by Russia, India has continued to call for a “peaceful resolution to the conflict” in light of the “legitimate security interests of all countries” – de facto recognizing the legitimacy of the Russian position, but also refusing to cede that of Ukraine and her backers. 

On the other hand, an India that is becoming increasingly close with the West, specifically the United States, cannot in good conscience ignore Putin’s particularly chummy relationship with Xi Jinping. 

India, like the United States, is very much concerned about the rise of China and the implications that such a rise would have for the security climate in the Indo-Pacific. That China is backing Russia may well cause a rift in the New Delhi-Moscow relationship, but it is still too soon to tell.

New Delhi has repeatedly stressed that it has been in contact with all the concerned parties, and that it is working to ensure a peaceful resolution to the current crisis through fora such as the Normandy format and the trilateral contact group. The eventual aim is fully enforcing the 2019 Minsk agreements. 

Though India has little in the way of serious vested interests in Ukraine, it may yet to prove to be the interlocutor in the current conflict. Given the stakes involved, perhaps now is the correct time for India to truly come into her own and broker peace in Ukraine. 

Failure to do so, as troops continue to amass on both sides of the current ceasefire line, would certainly be disastrous for Europe. But it would be equally pernicious for the Indian strategic position in the Indo-Pacific, signaling to adversaries that New Delhi does not have the stomach for the tough work. 

Whether India will actually engage is a different question. The opportunity is there, and it would certainly reflect well on New Delhi to step in and take an active role in preventing what may well be World War III. 

Shravan Krishnan Sharma is a graduate student at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs, pursuing a Master’s in International Security with concentrations in Intelligence and Asian Studies. He is a regular contributor for the Realist Review.

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