In the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, India’s neutral stance has generated a range of reactions. Many Western scholars have resorted to outright criticism of India’s democratic credentials for supporting an authoritarian invasion, while India’s jingoistic right-wing analysts have hailed it as New Delhi’s commitment to Moscow, its old friend. In some quarters, many see it as a result of India’s ambiguity, indecisiveness, and dependence on Russian arms.
However, New Delhi is not a passive fence-sitter this time; instead, it is an active player with both a principled stand and shrewd realpolitik. On the one hand, New Delhi has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, invoked diplomacy and dialogue to resolve the conflict, and categorically stated that nations should respect territorial integrity and sovereignty, albeit without mentioning any names. On the other hand, the Modi government has shown itself as a strategic realist taking bold decisions in the ruthless pursuit of national interests. Over the last month, India has made six abstentions from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and other United Nations (UN) institutions voting on the issue, the most recent one being the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) vote.
In typical foreign policy jargon, many have broadly described India’s stand as a tightrope balancing between the West and Moscow with a tacit tilt towards Moscow. However, this is not something unique to India. In the 2014 Crimea invasion, India also did not condemn Russia. Likewise, many Middle Eastern U.S. allies like Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt have not condemned Russia in categorical terms in the ongoing crises. In South Asia, in addition to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh also abstained from UN voting.
India’s Oriental Statecraft
India’s stance can be best summarized by what Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, its current foreign minister, said at the Raisina Dialogue 2019 while addressing a question on India’s alliance with the West. He explained, “I think we should take a stand and choose a side and that’s our side … there will be a lot of areas where our interests converge with the US and Europe and there will be areas where they won’t or they will be partial … and to my mind, east of India, there seems to be more convergence and to the west, there seems to be less.”
From Jaishankar’s statement, it becomes clear that it is not in Delhi’s preference to offer an absolute commitment to strategic alliances. India’s loyalties and commitments are a little more complex and nuanced, driven by a range of factors, including national interests, principles, values, and cultural-historical elements. Further, any keen learner of India’s geostrategic subconscious must understand the country’s ancient metaphysical/spiritual roots, which have most significantly influenced India’s overall evolution post-independence and diplomatic behavior. India’s neutrality is a classic manifestation of the Vedantic philosophy which recommends an attitude of a dispassionate, detached, and enlightened spectator as a sensible way to secure one’s interests and emerge powerfully.
Being a detached observer lends an objective, unbiased, and nuanced perception of the state of affairs. The Vedantic underpinnings provide a deeply spiritual and moral foundation to India’s strategic subconscious, which explains New Delhi’s endemic discomfort in committing itself to alliances. Nehruvian foreign policy after India’s freedom in 1947 was rooted in the principles of non-alignment, peaceful coexistence, and respect for territorial sovereignty and integrity. However, over time, harsh realistic considerations in the form of security threats from Pakistan and China made it increasingly challenging to sustain non-alignment vis-à-vis the Western and Soviet camps. As a result, New Delhi could only maintain a veneer of neutrality while making a marked tilt towards Soviet Russia sanctified by the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1971.
After the disintegration of Soviet Russia and the end of the Cold War, India began looking for new friends in Washington, DC, and the Western European capitals. The non-alignment transformed into the idea of strategic autonomy.
Over the last thirty years, India-U.S. relations have made great progress; however, they could not reach the point of India offering unwavering support to all the U.S. foreign missions, despite India being a member of Quad, the United States’ latest Indo-Pacific project. India continues to have an issue-based engagement with the United States, where the mutual interests converge. But, at the same time, India also retains membership in rival groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Russia-India-China (RIC).
Modi’s New Strategic Doctrine
After 2014, India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), embarked upon a new strategic doctrine. Though not explicitly defined, it implied that India would not hesitate in taking bold and courageous decisions in its national interests without worrying much about annoying its allies or friends. This new strategic doctrine was amply visible in Modi’s muscular policy against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir; surgical strikes (2016); Balakot air strikes (2019) deep inside Pakistan’s territory; changing Kashmir’s constitutional status without fearing the repercussions in the West and in Pakistan and China; and, last but not least, in India’s powerful force posture against China after the Galwan clash in Ladakh (2020). The most recent stance of an independent line is another decision in furtherance of the aforementioned new strategic doctrine. Hence, India’s neutrality arguably emerged from its conventional wisdom of “non-alignment” and “strategic autonomy.” However, this time, it is more a decision based on some harsh realistic calculations instead of the profound moral compunctions which have traditionally had an overwhelming influence on India’s foreign policy decisions.
Brute Realism and National Interests
Oft-cited reasons for India’s neutrality are India’s historical, cultural, diplomatic, and strategic ties with Russia, going back to India’s pre-independence period. In 1962, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) supported India’s annexation of Goa, vetoed the UN resolutions of the 1971 Bangladesh war in New Delhi’s favor, and consistently voted in India’s favor on the Kashmir issue. The old guards in India’s diplomatic community have a fondness for Russia. Many of them and many young analysts, academics, and journalists are not entirely in agreement with the Western narrative that Vladimir Putin and Russia are solely responsible for the war in Ukraine. They believe that NATO’s expansion is a critical factor that left Russia with no choice and they also question the Western world’s track record of democracy, human rights, and the notions of rules-based world order.
However, the most critical factor that binds India to Russia is the former’s heavy dependence on Russian military hardware and weapons. Though much reduced now from 70 percent to 49 percent due to India’s efforts to diversify its defense portfolio, Russia still constitutes the largest and decisive share in India’s defense portfolio. Between 2015 to 2019, India imported more than half of its armaments and ammunition from Russia, including the state-of-the-art S-400 missile defense system to India. Also, among several strategic quarters in India, it is believed that Russia made sincere efforts to salvage India’s position in the Afghan peace process.
After the Galwan standoff with China and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, India’s strategic masterminds came face-to-face with a reality check: New Delhi realized that it could not rely on Washington in a grave crisis. In the case of Afghanistan, New Delhi learned the hard way that, despite years of Indian argumentation about Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups in South Asia, Washington displayed little concern for India’s strategic interests and did not bother to involve India in the Afghan peace negotiations. Also, even in public perception, Russia enjoys far greater emotional support than the United States; the masses view it as a true friend that sees beyond a narrow transactionalism and abides by its long-term friendship. The mainstream media in the West has largely been critical of India over Hindu nationalism, the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, and the citizenship amendment act, casting aspersions on its democracy and liberal credentials. Amidst India’s dominant nationalist socio-political scenario, the negative coverage by the Western media has spread among the masses through social media, severely damaging the popular support for the United States. Further, after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington’s image significantly plummeted in India’s public perception.
Indian strategic thinkers believe that if Russia gets further entangled in the Ukrainian situation, India has nothing to lose as Russia will be marginally or perhaps significantly weakened. In that case, Moscow will need New Delhi more as a strategic and economic partner. Of late, with its strengthening ties with China and Pakistan, Russia’s approach towards India had become mildly antagonistic, acrimonious, and domineering. After this war, Russia will face global isolation; hence, it will need India more than it ever did. In the face of Western sanctions, Russia will be notably dependent on China. Moscow’s natural response to such a scenario will be to diversify the basket and minimize the dependence on Beijing, which is likely to result in selling oil and advanced weaponry with technology transfer to India at highly discounted rates.
Since India’s immediate threats are Pakistan and China, supporting the United States and condemning Russia would have further driven Russia into the Chinese fold. Also, lately Russia’s ties with Pakistan have witnessed a significant upswing. Hence, New Delhi finds it contrary to strategic wisdom to drive Russia into the arms of its adversaries for a war on a far-off continent. Further, India’s diplomatic community thinks, and perhaps rightly so, that in case of any future face-off with China or Pakistan, Russia will not go against India and even play a major role to India’s advantage.