Pressure building on India to condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine

Though it’s 5,240 kilometres from the hostilities, India is feeling the political heat from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s indefensible invasion of Ukraine.

New Delhi is clearly unsettled as it treads a line between Russia and NATO. It has strategic partnerships with both Russia and the US, and the two are its largest and second largest vendors of arms. India is the world’s second largest importer of weaponry after Saudi Arabia and a coveted customer of Washington and Moscow.

To reaffirm its impartiality, India has consistently abstained from voting on Russia’s murderous assault on Ukraine even as the UN Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency overwhelmingly condemned Moscow.

In abstaining, India inadvertently sided with its archrivals, China and Pakistan. China’s abstention was motivated as much by its closeness to Russia as by its differences with the West, whereas Pakistan’s was driven by its overdependence on China.

While most nations condemned Russia for violating international law, and sought an immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of its military forces from Ukraine, India called for the immediate cessation of violence, observing that states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected and efforts made to resolve all conflict through negotiations. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said India’s position was in the country’s best interests.

Western countries interpreted India’s abstentions as unwillingness to stand by them against Russia, but they have refrained from public criticism of a country they have good relations with.

However, pressure is building on India. Before the online Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit of the US, India, Japan and Australia on 3 March to discuss the war against Ukraine and its implications for the Indo-Pacific, US President Joe Biden stressed that there was ‘no room for excuses or equivocation’ on the issue. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi still refused to side with his three partners in directly condemning Putin or endorsing the US–NATO drive against Russia, the differences were out in the open.

Even as the four nations committed to work together to resolve those differences, it was unclear what the starting point could be when their standpoints were so at odds. However, sensitive about the issue, India has dropped references to Russia’s ‘legitimate security interests’ that were part of its earlier ‘explanations of vote’.

The Western alliance needs to recognise India’s strategic vulnerability as a client of both the US and Russia when it seeks New Delhi’s diplomatic mediation with Moscow. India will have limited confidence in its ability to counsel Putin over his military adventurism when it’s been unable to persuade Beijing to withdraw the 50,000 People’s Liberation Army troops entrenched in the Himalayan reaches of eastern Ladakh since April 2020, even after 15 rounds of corps commander-level talks.

It was noteworthy that Modi telephoned Putin to urge him to negotiate a settlement with the Western powers. Modi has avoided identifying China as the aggressor in the border dispute and refrained from calling President Xi Jinping to discuss the issue, which many Indians believe would help resolve the impasse. New Delhi has reportedly also urged Washington not to mention China’s cross-border intrusions in joint Indo-US statements to avoid provoking Beijing.

These factors run counter to claims Modi made during his electoral campaign in 2019 that only he  could provide strong government and make India a ‘superpower’. He’s also said he’d made India a vishwaguru, or ‘teacher to the world’.

Despite this, India’s international standing declined as the global community witnessed the government’s inability to counter China’s belligerence, its creation of epic humanitarian crises by grievously mishandling the Covid-19 lockdown and the pandemic’s second wave, and the way it has weaponised law enforcement agencies against dissenters and minorities.

In its 2020 country reports on human rights practices, the US State Department stopped just short of accusing the Modi regime of crimes against humanity when it catalogued a spate of grievous excesses against vulnerable members of the Indian public.

India’s stand on the Russia–Ukraine war has been shaped by its strong relationship with the erstwhile Soviet Union through the Bilateral Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation of 1971, elevated to a strategic partnership with Russia in 2000, which spoke of ‘consolidating defence and military-technical cooperation in a long-term perspective’.

There was a time when Soviet or Russian military hardware constituted over 70% of India’s arsenal, though the share has dwindled to about 50%. There’s simultaneously been a blistering rise in defence procurements from the US. The India–US strategic partnership agreement of 2004 led New Delhi to increasingly pivot its defence spending to Washington as it craved US indulgence to validate its aspirations for great-power status.

The US now accounts for 15% of India’s defence imports and since 2021 has authorised defence sales worth over US$21 billion to India.

An American backlash on India’s abstentions from the UN votes can’t be discounted. While the US had previously been ambiguous about acting against India for its US$5.4 billion purchase of five S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow, the threat of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act now looms large.

The US was affronted by India’s rejection of its offer in 2019 of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and Patriot missile defence systems as an alternative to the S-400s, though New Delhi had finalised the deal with Moscow the previous year after prolonged negotiations. The Kremlin is aware that India could use the S-400s against China or Pakistan, both among Russia’s few remaining allies.

The US can also make an issue of India’s leasing two nuclear-powered submarines from Russia, and a planned leasing of a third by 2025. Other Indian defence deals with Russia include four upgraded Talwar-class frigates worth US$950 million and 20,000 Kalashnikov AK-203 assault rifles.

Russian arms sales more than offset its tepid merchandise trade with India that stands at US$9.2 billion so far this financial year (April to December 2021), against US$8.1 billion the previous year. The situation is similar in India–US trade, with America’s arms transfers counterweighing its trade deficit.

India is looking to circumvent US-led sanctions against Russia by forging a rupee payment mechanism for trade with Moscow. Discussions are underway on having Russian banks and companies open accounts with state-run banks in India for trade settlements.

India also imports vast volumes of sunflower oil from Russia, as well as potash and phosphate, key ingredients in fertilisers. Russia and Ukraine export 80% of the world’s sunflower oil, and Indians might now be in for a further spike in cooking-oil prices as the war has stalled at various ports more than 350,000 tonnes of cooking oil bound for India.

On the other hand, India is troubled by Putin’s brazen invasion of a sovereign country, which could embolden China to widen its cross-border offensive against India.

New Delhi realises that while the US regards it as a vital strategic partner, Washington has not been proactive either politically or militarily on Beijing’s military posturing on its land borders with India, beyond expressing concern—and confidence that India will stand its ground against Chinese aggression. India has witnessed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s desperate pleading for direct military help from any quarters, clearly feeling abandoned by a US whose president had only recently pledged Washington’s steadfast commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.