India’s Ukraine tightrope

Russia’s war in Ukraine has exposed India’s strategic vulnerabilities as few other things could, raising fundamental questions about the country’s position in the world, its regional security and the wisdom of its long-term relationships.

India abstained in a succession of United Nations votes—in the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council—condemning the Russian invasion. In its initial ‘explanation of vote’, India didn’t even mention Russia or deplore the invasion. Instead, India merely urged a de-escalation of the conflict by those involved, as if both countries were belligerents, when in fact there is an obvious aggressor and a clear victim. India didn’t even object to Russia’s earlier recognition of the independence of the separatist Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In subsequent statements, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has at least reiterated India’s longstanding principles, while calling for ‘concerted efforts from all sides to return to the path of diplomatic negotiations and dialogue’. In the face of mounting casualties—including an Indian student killed by Russian fire while queuing for food in Kharkiv—Modi’s government continues to call in vain for peace, while ensuring that no criticism, let alone condemnation, of Russia passes official lips.

The reasons for India’s reticence are easy to discern. For starters, Russia supplies India with about 50% of its weapons and defence equipment. And while India’s other commercial ties with Russia are much more modest than those it has with the United States, diplomatic relations with the Kremlin have been close since the days of the Soviet Union. Soviet vetoes at the UN frequently shielded India on Kashmir, and the Kremlin’s protection was indispensable during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, when the US and China supported Pakistan.

Russia’s increasing closeness to, and geopolitical affinity with, China has therefore been worrying Indian policymakers for some time. The Kremlin has also been visibly warming to Pakistan, China’s client state. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, and continued with his meetings, including with President Vladimir Putin—a clear sign that Russia’s calculations in the subcontinent have shifted. India seems to feel that it needs to cling to Russia’s goodwill in order to avoid losing it altogether.

But India has also been looking west in recent years, building a strategic partnership with the US that includes increasingly significant defence ties. It has embraced the US-led Quad (an informal four-country grouping that also includes Japan and Australia) as a useful counter to China. But Indian leaders realise that their continuing failure to join their Quad partners in opposing Russia’s invasion could jeopardise these links. The government thus finds itself on a tightrope, anxious not to fall to either side.

The war in Ukraine poses another strategic challenge for India. Until the crisis began to escalate late last year, the US seemed to be focusing on the global threat posed by China, and on the Indo-Pacific rather than Europe. But America may now revive its adversarial obsession with Russia. That could reduce US hostility towards China, India’s menacing northern neighbour, which has repeatedly encroached on Indian territory along the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border, even killing 20 Indian soldiers in an unprovoked attack less than two years ago.

All this is happening at a time when the security threat from Afghanistan is at its greatest since the Taliban were last in power two decades ago. China’s build-up of military infrastructure in the region, its financial patronage of the Taliban, its opening to Iran (which cooperated with India in countering the previous Taliban regime) and an increase in Pakistani-supported militancy in Kashmir have put India on the defensive. Russia, China and Iran recently conducted joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean.

India’s traditional allies in the region can sense which way the wind is blowing. Nepal has allowed China to build major railway lines and highways across its northern border areas. Bhutan signed a border agreement last October that surrenders territory coveted by China, giving the Chinese an advantage in any future conflict with India. Most of India’s other South Asian neighbours have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India strenuously opposes.

China’s increasing influence over these countries undermines India’s diplomatic position in its own backyard. And to the east, the ruling junta in Myanmar has declared a ‘special kinship’ with China, whereas its predecessor had come to see India as a valuable counterbalance to China.

In short, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed India in an unenviable position. Ideally, India would have liked to continue strengthening its partnerships with Western democracies, especially Australia, France, Japan, the UK and the US, while maintaining its traditional closeness to Russia, in the hope of deterring China from further encroachment on India’s core security interests. Instead, India finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It could antagonise the West while still losing Russia to China’s embrace, even as Pakistan—with friendlier Afghan and Iranian neighbours—feels emboldened in Kashmir.

The conflict in Ukraine is posing a profound challenge to Indian grand strategy. Non-alignment is hardly an option for a country with antagonistic neighbours seeking to violate its borders. India’s traditional reluctance to choose sides on major international issues could prove highly costly in the not-too-distant future, when it wants other countries’ support. It will be either Hobson’s choice, or Modi’s.