Russia-Ukraine War: An abyss under the tightrope

Has Indian diplomacy really been as ‘smart’ as it postures to be in the Russia-Ukraine war?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sarosh Bana

February 24 marked a year of Russian 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, jeopardised global food and energy supply and is dangerously close to an escalation.

US President Joe Biden landed in Ukraine on 20 February on an unannounced and dramatic visit to express solidarity with its people and President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukraine alone had not been tested by the Russian invasion, he asserted, but “the whole world faced a test for the ages; all democracies are being tested”.

Taking umbrage, Putin announced the following day his decision to suspend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Though this does not terminate New START, which is due to expire on 5 February 2026, the announcement makes a renewed agreement unlikely, for the first time since 1972. It also has the potential to spur a new nuclear arms race.

With the unilateral invasion virtually defining the contest between democracy and autocracy globally, India, as the world’s largest democracy, needs to be perceived as not looking the other way. New Delhi might well need to re-evaluate its foreign policy that it claims is guided by ‘self-interest’. It has successfully done a tight-rope walking, ignoring sanctions to get petroleum and gas at favourable rates from Russia and placating the US and its allies by placing massive defence purchase orders.

India has explained its ambivalence and reluctance to condemn Russia by pointing to the age-old relationships, particularly to the Bilateral Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation of 1971 with the erstwhile Soviet Union, elevating to the ‘Declaration on Strategic Partnership’ with Russia in 2000, which spoke of ‘consolidating defence and military-technical cooperation in a longterm perspective’.

Expressing concern for its own energy security, India has broken with the West in scaling up 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 European Union.

India’s crude imports from Russia rose by a phenomenal 384 per cent to $37.31 billion between April 2022 and 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 elevated significantly when Putin deigned to grant an audience to National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval on the latter’s two-day visit to Moscow in February 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 past 20 years since former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra. Doval and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar have jointly master-minded India’s policy on the war in Ukraine, and the NSA’s Russia visit came three months after Jaishankar’s.

The Narendra Modi government does not seem worried over Moscow’s deepening ties with Beijing, which, particularly since the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) invasion of eastern Ladakh in 2020, has loomed menacingly at the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC). Just days before Russia’s invasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping had stated that his country and Russia enjoy a “friendship without limits”.

India is in a piquant situation as it finds itself inadvertently siding with its arch rivals China and Pakistan in abstaining from the votes against Russia for its murderous assault on Ukraine, 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).

For the sixth time in February, India abstained on a UN resolution involving Ukraine. This resolution castigated Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and India’s abstention helped no one. It went through with 141 member nations demanding that Russia quit Ukraine. India, whose Prime Minister famously observed last year that “this is not the era of war”, was among the 32 countries which have failed to make up their mind about this particular war.

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 seems to lack a coherent strategy against Chinese belligerence. 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 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, State-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport having a joint stall with United Aircraft and Almaz-Antey.

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 US also resented India’s $5.43 billion purchase of five S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, but had nevertheless refrained from sanctioning New Delhi under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The Kremlin is aware that India can well use the S-400s against China or Pakistan, both of whom are the few remaining allies of Russia.

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 avoided even identifying China as the aggressor, and refrained from raising the issue by calling President Xi, which many Indians believe would have helped 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, made during his electoral campaign in 2019, that he was the only leader who could provide a strong government and make India a “superpower”. Despite such beliefs, India’s international standing has been declining, as the global community stands witness to his government’s inability to counter China, its 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 hostilities in Ukraine, India is feeling the heat, as it treads a fine line between Russia and the US-led NATO alliance. Besides its strategic partnerships with both Russia and the US, the two warring powers are also respectively its first and second largest vendors of arms.

India is mindful, though it has never publicly acknowledged, that it is principally their high esteem for India as a coveted client that has driven these “strategic partnerships”, which are essentially transactional relationships.

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