India’s dilemma on the First Anniversary of the Ukraine war

Driven by self-interest, India has been buying oil from Russia and arms from the US, but its ability to intervene diplomatically to end the war is limited

India’s dilemma on the First Anniversary of the Ukraine war

Sarosh Bana

February 24 marks a year of President Vladimir Putin’s unilateral and mindless war against Ukraine. The year-long strife has taken a toll of “at least” 8,000 Ukrainian civilians and wounded 13,300 more – according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – but has also jeopardised global food and energy supply chains besides upsetting geopolitics.

Some countries like India have steered clear of the coalition against Russia comprising not only the United States and its NATO allies, but also a broader liberal union.

Days before the first anniversary of the invasion, US President Joe Biden waded into war-torn Ukraine on 20 February on an unannounced visit to express solidarity with its people and President Volodymyr Zelensky, and declared it was not Ukraine alone that had been tested by the Russian invasion, but “the whole world faced a test for the ages”.

“Europe was being tested; America was being tested; NATO is being tested; all democracies are being tested,” he stated.

Taking umbrage, Putin announced the following day his decision to suspend implementation of the last remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Though this does not terminate New START, due as it is to expire on 5 February 2026, the announcement not only makes a renewed agreement unlikely once New START lapses, for the first time since 1972, it also has the potential to spur a new nuclear arms race that can prompt even current non-nuclear powers to join the fray.

Expressing concern for its energy security, India has broken with the West in escalating its fuel imports from Russia, which from 5 February has been banned by the European Union from exporting refined petroleum products, including petrol, diesel and jet fuel, to the 27-nation bloc.

India’s crude imports from Russia rose a phenomenal 384 per cent to $37.31 billion during April 2022-January 2023, making Russia India’s fourth largest import partner in 2022-23, up from 18th position the previous year. India may increase its crude oil imports from Russia even further if the prices and terms are favourable. Simultaneously, some Indian refiners are importing Russian diesel and other refined products and re-exporting some quantities after refining to the Western countries in what is a win-for-all situation.

Indo-Russian relations were moreover elevated significantly when Putin deigned to grant an audience to National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval on the latter’s recent two-day visit to Moscow for the fifth meeting of Secretaries of Security Councils/NSAs on Afghanistan. Doval thus became the first Indian functionary of his seniority to have met Putin one-on-one in the last over 20 years since Brajesh Mishra, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NSA.

Just days before Russia’s invasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping had stated that his country and Russia enjoyed a “friendship without limits”. India has been in a piquant situation as it finds itself inadvertently siding with its arch rivals, China and Pakistan, in abstaining from voting against Russia at the 15-member United Nations Security Council (UNSC), 193-member UN General Assembly (UNGA), 47-member UN Human Rights Council, and 173-member International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

China’s abstention has been motivated as much by its closeness to Russia as by its differences with the West, whereas Pakistan’s was guided by its over-dependence on China.

India, however, appears to lack a coherent strategy against Chinese belligerence, which has been aggravated by the sponsorship of cross-border terrorism by Pakistan. Facing a challenge on two fronts, India realises it has to fight its adversaries on its own, but denies it has any military asymmetry with China.

Nevertheless, alarmed by the developments on its frontiers, New Delhi ordered $3.4 billion worth of arms from the US in 2021, up from $6.2 million in 2019, and has sought faster deliveries of crucial weaponry that it has on order from countries such as the US, Russia and Israel.

The US meanwhile projected a high profile at the recent week-long Aero India show in Bengaluru by showcasing for the first time in India its most advanced fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, alongside the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Rockwell B-1B Lancer supersonic conventional bomber, in an evident effort to overshadow Russia, India’s largest weapons supplier since the Soviet Union era.

The American delegation was the biggest in the 27-year history of this defence exposition, whereas Russia had but a nominal presence with state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport having a joint stall with United Aircraft and Almaz-Antey.

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

India might eventually opt for some of the American combat aircraft on offer, if only to placate Washington that had lost out to the Rafale of France’s Dassault Aviation that was selected over the F-16 Block 70 and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.

The Western alliance needs to recognise India’s strategically vulnerable position as a client of both the US and Russia, when it seeks New Delhi’s diplomatic mediation with Moscow. India has limitations on counselling Putin for a diplomatic resolution of his military adventurism, particularly when on its own border issue with China it has been unable to wrest any climb-down in Chinese excesses at the LAC even after 17 rounds of Corps Commander-level talks.

Modi did telephone Putin to urge him to negotiate a settlement with the Western powers, and this was noteworthy. After all, he has himself all along avoided even identifying China as the aggressor, and refrained from raising the issue by calling President Xi, which many Indians believe would help defuse the border impasse. New Delhi has reportedly also urged Washington to avoid mentioning China’s cross-border intrusions in Indo-US joint statements so as not to “provoke” Beijing.

These factors run counter to Modi’s own claims that he made during his electoral campaign in 2019, that he was the only leader who could provide a strong government and make India a “superpower”. He has also since 2015 been speaking of having made India a vishwaguru, or Teacher to the World.

Despite such beliefs, the nation’s international standing has been in decline, as the global community stands witness to his government’s inability to counter China, its creation of humanitarian crises of epic proportions by a grievous mishandling of the lockdown and of the second COVID-19 wave, as also its draconian vendetta politics where it has weaponised law enforcement agencies against dissenters and minorities.

Though 5,240 km away from the area of hostilities in Ukraine, India is feeling the heat of the political fallout, as it treads a fine line between Russia and the US-led NATO alliance. Apart from its strategic partnerships with both Russia and the US, the two warring powers are also respectively its first and second largest vendors of arms.

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