Whose side is India on in the Russo-Ukrainian war?

Towards the end of March, an unusual sequence of diplomatic visitors passed through India’s capital. First came Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. They were followed by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

The parade continued. Next to arrive were Gabriele Visentin, the European Union’s special envoy for the Indo-Pacific; Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister; Jens Plötner, foreign and security policy adviser to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz; and Geoffrey van Leeuwen, foreign affairs and defence adviser to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Last and by no means least were US Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There was also an online Indo-Australian summit.

The Ukraine war has exposed India’s strategic vulnerabilities in a tough neighbourhood as arguably nothing else could, raising fundamental questions about the country’s global position and regional security. But, paradoxically—as the slew of recent high-profile visits confirms—the conflict has increased India’s strategic importance and, in the short term, widened its options.

Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi used this room for manoeuvre well? The West, even as it seeks to line up India on its side vis-à-vis Ukraine, has signalled its understanding of India’s dependence on Russia for vital defence equipment and long history of close diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.

China has been somewhat surprised to find itself on the same page as India regarding the war. Both countries abstained in a series of United Nations votes condemning the Russian invasion and have maintained their communication channels with the Kremlin despite Western sanctions. China has been asking for restoration of ‘normal’ bilateral relations with India, which have been in a deep freeze since violent border clashes in June 2020 killed 20 Indian soldiers. ‘The world will listen when China and India speak with one voice,’ Wang reportedly stated on his recent visit to Delhi.

Russia, no doubt eager to thank India for ‘understanding’ the Kremlin’s position, has offered the country economic incentives—notably, discounted oil and gas and affordable fertiliser—to dissuade it from changing its stance.

While India’s longstanding focus on ‘strategic autonomy’ has kept it out of formal alliances, its broad geopolitical orientation has been veering towards a special partnership with the United States, notably in the Indo-Pacific. India is a member of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal grouping also including Japan and Australia that is widely seen as a way to check China’s regional ambitions.

India has also significantly increased its defence purchases from the West in recent years, and, with the US, is seeking to modernise its manufacturing base for military equipment. This process is likely to be accelerated by India’s realisation that its dependence on Russian supplies imposes significant constraints, particularly in the event of a future border crisis with China.

Singh, the US deputy national security adviser, pointedly warned of ‘consequences’ should India breach the Western-led sanctions on Russia, and he urged India to recognise the diminishing value of its close relationship with the Kremlin. ‘The more Russia becomes China’s junior partner, the more leverage China gains over Russia, the less and less favourable that is for India’s strategic posture,’ he told an Indian TV channel. ‘Does anyone think that if China breaches the Line of Actual Control, that Russia would now come to India’s defence? I don’t.’

China has been pushing the BRICS grouping (of which it is a member, along with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as models of non-Western collaboration that can ensure a multipolar world order. But Chinese blandishments towards India are unlikely to succeed if China’s leaders aren’t willing to reverse their military gains from unprovoked Himalayan incursions in mid-2020. India will accept nothing less than a return to the status quo ante of April 2020 as the price for normalising bilateral relations. But whether it can leverage China’s overtures to achieve results on the ground remains to be seen.

Russia, meanwhile, is aware that India’s refusal to condemn its assault on Ukraine doesn’t imply support. India has at no stage endorsed the Russian military campaign, and its language has notably hardened as the war has dragged on. Indian statements now pointedly refer to the inviolability of borders, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and the inadmissibility of resorting to force to resolve political disputes, even while calling on ‘both sides’ to pursue diplomatic negotiations.

India has also been quick to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, sending 90 tonnes of relief materials. As the destruction has become more intense, its aid is likely to continue. India will gladly purchase essential supplies of fuel and fertiliser from Russia at discounted rates in roubles. But its diplomatic stance, and decreasing reliance on Russian defence equipment, mean that it’s not completely in Russia’s camp.

Still, India’s calls for peace in Ukraine would have been more credible had it taken steps to bring about that outcome. Whereas countries like Turkey and Israel have been actively engaged in peace diplomacy, India has made no effort to play a mediating role, despite at one point sending four cabinet ministers to Europe to supervise the evacuation of Indian citizens from Ukraine. Even Lavrov suggested in Delhi that India could help ‘support’ a mediation process.

India could have used the diplomatic attention it has been getting over Ukraine to carve out a role worthy of its aspirations for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Sadly, its ambitions seem to have been too modest.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, observed in 1946, ‘India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary part in the world. She will either count for a great deal or not count at all.’ Ukraine is a test case, and the jury remains out. Will today’s India count at all?