Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity for building India’s strategic autonomy: The view from CEE

By – Paweł Paszak;

Since the onset of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, New Delhi maintained a cautious approach toward the conflict emphasizing the need to resolve differences of both sides through dialogue and calling for an immediate cessation of violence and hostilities. India abstained on a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution from February 26th that “deplored in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Four days later New Delhi took the same stance during the UN General Assembly resolution demanding ends to Russian offensive in Ukraine. These actions were not only deeply rooted in India’s foundational tradition of strategic autonomy and special partnership with Russia but was also conditioned by its present dependencies in the arms, energy and agricultural sector on Russia as well as the presence of Indian citizens in Ukraine. These factors have contributed to New Delhi’s hesitancy to officially criticize its long-term partner despite evident breaches of the UN Charter Principles by Russia.  India’s motivations behind this specific stance toward the conflict are well understood in Europe, yet it is received with no enthusiasm. Surely, overtime, the decision to maintain neutrality may bare increased costs for New Delhi’s foreign policy. The challenges associated with the close relationship with Moscow are significant and will become more serious over time, but they also offer an opportunity for India to diversify its foreign policy portfolio and facilitate its emergence as a global actor with extra-regional influence. 

India is aspiring to become a global normative power as “the largest democracy in the world” and is an ascending great power. However, its stance regarding the Russian attack on Ukraine could undermine these efforts. In not condemning the invasion, instead of being increasingly identified as a part of the Free World, India has found itself in the company of countries such as China, Myanmar or Pakistan which are primarily associated with authoritarian political systems and human rights violations. India’s image may further suffer as Russia decides to adopt more aggressive war tactics and conduct mass artillery bombardment of civilian areas which will increase the death toll and intensify international criticism.

Basing idealistic critique on realist interests

One may say that the perception of a country is secondary to its material capabilities and morality is not always the best measure of foreign policy effectiveness.  However, the decision to criticize Russia shall not be seen as an idealistic choice but rather an action based on India’s national interests defined in realist terms.

First of all, the lack of a strong stance toward crucial issues of international politics and expressing “concerns” will undermine India’s image and diplomatic efforts in Europe and beyond. India will not be perceived as a key actor offering constructive contribution that goes further than expressing concern. It took the EU a long time, but it eventually brushed off criticism of inaction with a resolute decision to support Ukraine through a broad package of sanctions aimed at Russia and military and financial assistance to Kyiv.

It is worth noting India maintains not only friendly contacts with Russia but also with Belarus which staged a hybrid attack on Polish and Lithuanian borders in 2021 with the use of illegal migrants and then later supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  These experiences are not likely to increase support for India’s permanent seat at UN Security Council, as it would be seen by the West as the reinforcement of Russia’s position instead of qualitative change toward more civilized international relations.

While the European context is important, it is Indo-Pacific that has to be seen as a priority theatre. India’s caution in the context of Russian aggression on Ukraine will also hurt the credibility of its commitment to Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The main axis of India-US rapprochement has been the concern of both countries about the revisionist actions of China including an escalating situation in Eastern Ladakh, Taiwan or on the South China Sea. India’s stance toward the Ukrainian conflict may weaken the resolve of the West to act in the case of escalation on the India-China border. Clear and official indication of Russia’s aggression, even without joining official sanctions, would build India’s credibility as a country truly committed to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Concept and the Principles of UN Charter. It is also worth noting that Ukraine has achieved remarkable success in terms of building popular support among European and other democratic societies. The social pressure coupled with actions of key powers has contributed to some unprecedented decisions namely Germany establishing a special 100-billion Euro fund and the commitment of Chancellor Scholz to spend two per cent of Germany’s GDP on defence. With this in mind, India’s neutrality is likely to slow down the process of building its soft power among western societies, which proved to be decisive in terms of providing support for Ukraine. 

India’s Russia dependance

India’s reliance on the transfers of Russian arms was undoubtedly one of the valid reasons why India has abstained from openly criticizing Moscow’s actions. India is one of the two largest arms importers in the world with a 9,5% share during the 2016-2020 period and 14% in 2011-2015. According to research conducted by Air University, around 85 percent of India’s military equipment is of Russian or Soviet origin, and India continues to rely upon Russia for maintenance, spare parts, and other support. Taking into consideration these conditions, it is impossible to immediately diversify imports but, it is worth accelerating that process in the future. In fact, a greater share of military equipment from the EU, the US, Japan or South Korea would guarantee greater strategic autonomy of India and build a stronger foundation for political and economic relations. There is also the additional angle that such a move over time will facilitate building a diversified arms portfolio. 

Cold War 2.0 between the West on the one side and China with Russia on the other will likely push many countries in Asia to carefully choose between specific arms providers. Buying weapons from the EU, USA, Russia or other countries is not purely an economic decision, but has considerable strategic implications. That is why recently Indonesia decided to make a $22 billion purchase of French Rafale and American F-15 instead of Russian Su-30. It was not a decision based purely on economic merit, but a careful cost-benefit analysis that included the assessment of the political implications of each decision. 

After the robust package of Western sanctions on Russia, Moscow is likely to find itself in isolation much deeper than after the 2014 Annexation of Crimea. This deterioration of Russia’s international position is likely to increase to power asymmetry of Russia and China in Beijing’s favour. Therefore, Beijing is likely to exert an even stronger influence on Russia’s foreign policy and the two countries are likely to coordinate more closely than ever before. If China makes a decision to unilaterally change the border with India, it is very unlikely that Russia will exert significant and effective pressure on China to stop hostilities. During the military escalation in Ladakh Moscow was often perceived by New Delhi as a valuable partner in alleviating tensions with Beijing. In the past RIC and SCO summits provided opportunities to navigate differences between three great Eurasian powers and Moscow was content to increase its international prestige by playing a role of a mediator acceptable by both sides. However, due to Russia’s rising dependence on China its potential to shape Beijing’s strategic choices is likely to decrease which translates into the lower attractiveness of Russia as a strategic partner for India.

Immediate outcomes for Moscow’s might 

Russia’s economy struggles with several systemic issues including its overdependence on hydrocarbons exports and deepening demographic crisis. Western sanctions further limit Russia’s ability to transform into an innovative, high-tech economy deeply integrated with global value chains. The world has made significant efforts to depart from fossil fuels and deaccelerate global warming and that process is likely to continue among the developed countries. The diversification of energy imports and limiting the role of fossil fuels will likely reduce Russian sway over the world economy and will speed up its relative decline as a great power. From this perspective, Russia’s attractiveness as a strategic partner for India will continue to diminish in many areas. Nevertheless, India may also take advantage of Russia’s weakened position as a global arms supplier to negotiate better contract terms for the deliveries of new equipment and maintenance of existing equipment. Simultaneously strong relationship with Moscow will be an obstacle to elevating relations with the US, EU, Japan, Australia and South Korea to a higher level

During the last decade, India has shown its ability to adjust the concept of its strategic autonomy in the face of growing China’s power and its rising revisionism in South and East Asia. This flexibility enabled a remarkable rapprochement with US administrations based on shared interest and the greater involvement of India in the networked security architecture in Asia that goes far beyond the US . India’s adherence to the Free and Open Indo Pacific concept is a symbol and practical measure of India’s growing security role in the region and its significance for the effective strategy of balancing the most immediate threats in the region. The Russian aggression on Ukraine has led to unprecedented integration of the West over very evident security threats. It is also the West and its Asian allies that are the most useful partners in terms of supporting India’s security position diplomatically, militarily, economically and technologically against China. On the other hand, Russia is a declining great power experiencing deepening isolation as a consequence of its confrontation with the West. Over the next years, India has to make some difficult choices regarding the path it wants to take in the future and building greater autonomy from its Russian partner might be one of the hardest, but ultimately beneficial steps. 

Paweł Paszak is PhD Student at War Studies Academy (Warsaw, Poland). Analyst in Institute of New Europe (INE). His research focuses on US-China strategic confrontation in the Indo-Pacific and China-V4 relations. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *