Q&A: What does Russia’s war mean for India?
Russia’s war on Ukraine sends shockwaves across Europe and the wider world. This Clingendael Spectator Q&A series explores the wider geopolitical consequences with key analysts from across the globe. In the sixth episode, Raja Mohan (Asia Society India Centre) explains what the Russian war means for India. How are the country’s security, aspirations and fears impacted by the Russian invasion in February 2022?
Question 1: India has adopted a studied public neutrality towards Russia, despite Moscow’s continued war on Ukraine. Could you explain us why?
I would not describe India’s position on the war in Ukraine as neutral, although its public posture might indeed suggest this. For India, the challenge has been to navigate between the long-standing partnership with Russia dating back to the 1950s and the consequences of Vladimir Putin’s disastrous decision to invade Ukraine. India’s reluctance to explicitly criticise the Russian actions does not imply an endorsement or acquiescence.
With regards to India’s seeming neutrality, one also has to take into account that India is locked in a major military conflict with China in the high Himalayas. In the summer of 2020, there was a confrontation between Chinese and Indian soldiers in the Ladakh region, a border area where both countries have overlapping territorial claims. After an incident relating to the mapping of the border area, Chinese soldiers killed 16 Indian soldiers that summer. Since that heated moment, nearly 60,000 Indian troops have been stationed at heights uninhabitable for humans in a military standoff with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
India’s need for spare supplies and ammunition from Russia in this standoff – Moscow accounts for nearly 70 per cent of India’s military arsenal – has significantly constrained India’s diplomatic room on Ukraine.
Question 2: India champions a ‘rules-based international order’. How does this fit with remaining neutral towards Russian aggression?
In its diplomatic responses to the Russian invasion, Delhi has consistently underlined the importance of respecting territorial sovereignty of states, the respect for the principles of UN Charter, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.
To India, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are not very different from those of China, which has unilaterally altered the territorial status quo in the South China Sea and is trying to do the same in the Himalayas. Delhi also cannot accept Russia seizing territory and then annexing it through sham referenda – as has happened in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine. After all, India also rejects the Pakistani effort to change India’s territorial disposition through a referendum in Kashmir.
Delhi lastly rejects Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear Ukraine, which is trying to liberate its own territories from occupation. If Russia gets away with it in Europe, it will not be difficult to imagine how China might leverage its nuclear weapons in Asia.
Question 3: Is the Indian government afraid that it will lose Western – and in particular American – political and strategic support in a possible confrontation with China, due to its neutrality towards Russia?
India is certainly not afraid of losing the United States’ support in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, Washington has shown better appreciation of the Indian position on Ukraine and its path dependence on Russian military supplies than Europe.
To counter Chinese influence, the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US is based on a major role for India in building a stable regional security architecture. The American national security strategy issued by the Biden Administration at the end of 2022 argues that China remains the principal long-term threat despite the current challenges presented by the Russian aggression in Europe.
Question 4: How do Western sanctions on Russia affect India – for example on energy and arms sales and cooperation?
India has a long tradition of respecting international sanctions, despite its opposition to unilateral measures by individual (and groups of) countries.
Since 2017 the US has sanctioned many businesses and nations that knowingly entered significant transactions with the Russian intelligence or defense sectors.1 However, it has not (yet) imposed sanctions on India after the Indian decision to purchase of Russian S-400 missiles in 2018. Realists believe that Washington will find a way to exempt India, given the growing stakes of the US in the military partnership with India in the Indo-Pacific.
Furthermore, there were no Indian energy sanctions on Russia until the price caps policy that kicked in December 2022. Delhi is likely to abide by the broad rules laid by price caps, even as it notes the multiple exceptions that Europe has created for itself in its hydrocarbon relationship with Russia.
Question 5: Russia is now focused on its war on Ukraine. Does this offer opportunities for India’s strategic rivals (China and Pakistan come to mind) to take advantage of Moscow’s lack of attention to what is going on in Asia?
Currently, India has confrontations with both Pakistan and China. The scenario of a two-front war is hard wired into India’s security condition. The Ukraine crisis adds to that problem, if only on the margins. China’s aggression in the Ladakh region (April 2020) preceded the war in Ukraine, but there is an interesting diplomatic effort by China to draw Pakistan into an anti-American and anti-Western coalition in the region. The decision of Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan to show up in Moscow on the day before President Putin invaded Ukraine was reportedly at Chinese prompting.
Russia, on its part, has not made secret of its displeasure with India’s growing strategic ties to the US and the West. It has been making overtures to Pakistan. For much broader reasons, Moscow has decided to build a partnership ‘without limits’ with Beijing. Looking ahead, China will remain India’s principal challenge. There is growing recognition in Delhi that Moscow’s alliance with Beijing will only make matters worse. That in turn will reinforce the incentives for India to strengthen ties with the United States and allies – Asian and European.
- 1On 1 August 2017, US President Donald Trump signed into law the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The act orders the United States to impose sanctions on any entity engaged in a “significant transaction” with the intelligence or defense sectors of Russia, Iran and North Korea.