Putin’s folly and the end of Indian multialignment

For New Delhi, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to prove as big a strategic shock as the twin blows inflicted on India in 1991 by the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those traumatic experiences prompted a shift in Indian strategy. Regardless of how this war ends, Russia’s aggression in 2022 will almost certainly have a similar effect.

India had a disastrous year in 1991. At that time, half of its oil came from Iraq and Kuwait, and almost 200,000 Indians worked in those two countries. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s actions put both in peril. The resulting spike in oil prices plunged India into a balance-of-payments crisis. New Delhi was forced to hock its gold reserves to borrow hard currency and, at the same time, attempt a difficult evacuation of Indian citizens. India then watched as Iraq’s Soviet-supplied and -trained army was destroyed in six weeks by a US-led coalition. Some Indian leaders drew a clear lesson: only nuclear weapons deter major powers.

Ten months later, the fall of the Soviet Union dealt an even more serious blow, stripping India of a diplomatic, economic and defence partner on which it had been able to rely for two decades.

Estranged from the West, with unresolved disputes with a rising China and a hostile Pakistan, India was adrift. But within a decade, New Delhi implemented a new strategy that transformed India’s situation. It swapped near-autarky for openness, betting that higher rates of growth would offset the risks of capture and coercion inherent in more trade and foreign investment. It reached out to the economic powerhouses of East Asia seeking know-how and capital. It acquired nuclear weapons to deter threats from the west and north.

This new approach paid off. India’s economy boomed. Japan and Southeast Asia warmed to New Delhi. And the crossing of the nuclear Rubicon, to borrow C. Raja Mohan’s phrase, seized Washington’s attention, catalysing a dialogue that led to new defence and security partnerships with the US and its regional allies.

Today, India is far stronger than it was 30 years ago, with an economy 10 times larger, and robust relations with the West. But New Delhi still faces serious challenges. Growth has slowed over the past decade and Covid-19 has hit India very hard. New Delhi fears that the Taliban’s resurgence will revive Islamist insurgency in South Asia. An aggressive China is pressuring India to tilt away from the US.

These challenges put India’s longstanding strategy of ‘multialignment’ under strain well before Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Seeking to maintain a stable external environment and cordial relations with all major powers, multialignment was intended to give India access to the resources and capital needed to fuel its economy. Of necessity, the strategy depended on ambiguity, evasion and geopolitical stability, allowing India to do things that might appear contrary, like reconstituting the Quad in the same year as joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Multialignment also entailed maintaining a partnership with Moscow to help manage security threats from China and Pakistan, develop India’s economy and realise New Delhi’s long-term geostrategic ambitions.

As a result, some 60–85% of India’s military hardware is Russian. Russia is India’s primary supplier of civilian nuclear technology. And, until recently at least, Russia has played a major role in the imagined multipolar order many Indians would prefer to a Western-dominated world or one dominated by a Sino-American bipolar contest. For that reason, India has long engaged Russia in the hope that Moscow might settle its differences with the West, eschew an alliance with Beijing and embrace a multipolarity more in line with New Delhi’s interests.

Putin’s war dashes that dream, makes managing China harder and undercuts multialignment. Even if Russia wins, it will be an international pariah, not a putative partner in global governance. And even without Western sanctions, India will now find it hard to secure the arms it needs to defend its northern frontier. The rate of attrition in Ukraine means Russia’s defence industry will have to focus not on exports, but on rearming Russia.

So, how will India respond? It’s unlikely that any new strategy will involve allying with the US or joining an anti-Russia coalition. Instead, concerned about both China’s weaponisation of trade and the West’s weaponisation of finance, India will intensify its efforts to enhance domestic economic resilience and self-reliance. It will pour resources into its shaky, but arguably improving, domestic defence industry. Using vehicles like the Quad, it will seek more information sharing and technology transfer from the West. It will further diversify its arms supplies, creating opportunities for France, Israel, South Korea and the UK, as well as the US. And it will quietly abandon mechanisms like the Russia–India–China grouping that were never especially viable.

This approach might disappoint some, but it shouldn’t. The US and its allies, including Australia and Japan, need a strong India to realise a balanced Indo-Pacific. Putin’s folly should not derail efforts to enhance New Delhi’s capacity to deal with Chinese coercion.