At a recent closed-door meeting in New Delhi that Firstpost was privy to, a visiting high-ranking European Union official expressed Europe’s open displeasure at India’s stance on Ukraine war. The message was unequivocal. Europe is not happy with the position of neutrality that New Delhi has adopted, given Russia’s clear attack on UN charter and rules-based order, and while the European nations are cognizant of India’s compulsions, the seriousness of the situation calls for New Delhi to jettison its neutrality, unequivocally condemn Russia and reflect that shift in the voting pattern at the UN. “You can’t be neutral on these sort of things,” said the official.
Why is India the centre of global diplomatic attention?
The EU official is part of a steady stream of over a dozen foreign diplomats who have descended on India in the past two weeks. With the Ukraine war dividing the world into two geopolitical blocs, the bulk were from the West (the United States alone had sent two). With a few exceptions, such as the Mexican foreign minister, the European and American dignitaries were either busy wooing India to draw it away from ‘neutrality’, or employing coercive tactics in varying degrees to ensure that New Delhi joins the Western endeavour to completely isolate Russia, punish Vladimir Putin and avoids backfilling the economic sanctions.
For instance, while German NSA Jens Plötner or UK foreign secretary Liz Truss were open about their wish to see India join their camp, they took a more considerate view of India’s neutrality, whereas visiting US deputy NSA Daleep Singh issued veiled threats and warned New Delhi of “consequences”.
At the other end of the spectrum, India also played host to the Chinese foreign minister and the foreign minister from Russia who was the only one to get an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They see in India’s neutrality a chance to form a rival geopolitical bloc that can resist western pressure and erode American unipolarity.
By refusing to play bloc politics and sticking to prioritizing own interests amid a massive churn in global order, India, as a big, strategically important swing state has invited a lot of global attention.
What does the West want from India?
The war in the European theatre has made it clear that though India’s political system is similar to the West, strategic interests and geopolitical compulsions vastly differ. Led by the United States, the West has so far attempted to bridge those differences and draw India close by employing a carrot-and-stick strategy.
By now it is clear that Russia’s military strategy of sealing a quick victory in Ukraine has failed, and the war is likely to become a protracted struggle. The West has accordingly shifted its strategy. At the beginning of the Russian invasion, with fears looming large of Ukraine getting steamrolled by a far superior military force, America and its NATO allies planned to deny Putin an easy victory. They supplied Ukraine with a lot of lethal weapons and financial assistance. As it became clear that Russia is struggling to achieve its military objectives the West now wants to pin Russia down in an extended Ukrainian quagmire and simultaneously raise the costs of this war for Putin by imposing massive economic sanctions. Alongside, it wants also to diplomatically isolate Putin and eventually remove him from power. Biden recently said the quiet part out loud though the administration later tried to clean up the president’s gaffe.
In this context, given that India has so far abstained from all voting at the United Nations where the West has been trying to lead a united, multilateral effort to criticise Russia, and given India’s repeated refusal to publicly naming and shaming Putin, the US and its European allies reckon that failing to swing India to their side would create a diplomatic loophole for Russia to exploit. Hence the incessant pressure on New Delhi to take a principled stand against Russia even though that could be detrimental to India’s strategic interests.
The West also wants to discourage India from buying Russian oil. This job is a little trickier. Given the nature of Europe’s dependence, Russian energy has been kept beyond the purview of sanctions. With Europe paying Moscow 1 billions euros a day for oil and gas and practically sponsoring Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it would be embarrassing to ask India to refrain from buying Russian oil. So, the West’s message to India is: buy Russian oil if you must, but better not buy in bulk or cross the threshold of your past purchases. The Americans sent their deputy NSA to India to hammer home this message, and in case India still failed to pay attention, the White House has taken it on itself to periodically remind its strategic partner of the dangers of violating American sanctions.
The West is aware of the nature of India’s dependence on Russian arms, the compulsions in maintaining that stock and the restrictions that such a dependence poses on India’s strategic choices. The US, for instance, has hinted that it is ready to provide India with alternatives to encourage New Delhi’s diversification of military supplies and lessen its reliance on Russian weapons systems. US under-secretary of state Victoria Nuland during her recent visit conveyed to New Delhi that Washington is willing to put its past reluctance in sharing advanced equipment aside and ready to do business with India’s defence industry. She also pointed out that the losses suffered in the war may make Russia an unreliable supplier of weapons and sanctions will make the transactions harder.
The other American worry is that India will bypass the dollar-based financial system — the biggest economic weapon in US armoury — and carry on trading with Russia through a rupee-rouble mechanism. Since India has historically been, and still is, the largest buyer of Russian arms and may jack up procurement of discounted Russian oil to address inflationary pressures on its economy, the US wants India to know that these moves may result in New Delhi falling foul of sanctions.
US deputy NSA Singh, whose visit turned out to be quite controversial, told reporters in India that “there are consequences to countries that actively attempt to circumvent or backfill these sanctions” and “we are very keen for all countries, especially our allies and partners, not to create mechanisms that prop up the rouble and that attempt to undermine the dollar-based financial system.”
The seriousness with which the US wants India to heed this message is evident from the fact that not just Singh, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, commerce secretary Gina Raimondo, Biden’s top economic adviser Brian Deese and the White House press secretary have at various times repeated the same warning.
What does China want from India?
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s trip to New Delhi was by far the most interesting of all diplomatic sojourns. For the first visit to India by any Chinese leader since the Glawan clash in 2020, it was noticeably low-key. His visit remained unannounced, the diplomatic slight by India was evident and he flew away the day after without getting to meet the prime minister. Still, despite being cold shouldered, Wang said later that “he ‘keenly felt’ during his visit that New Delhi and Beijing were not a threat to each other” and “two countries should help succeed one another instead of undercutting each other.” Worth noting that Chinese media of late has been quite conciliatory towards India and has curiously been underlying the “strength of bilateral ties” even as lakhs of soldiers, armed to the teeth, remain deployed from both sides at the Himalayan borders.
Given the fact that Chinese media is controlled by the state, Wang’s visit and the media choreography suggest China wants to tone down the temperature in bilateral ties, forge an anti-western front against American unipolarity and boost regional unity — possibly encouraged by India’s voting pattern at the UN.
China also wants Modi to attend the upcoming BRICS summit in Beijing, and it would have also featured high on Wang’s agenda. Getting Modi to attend the summit would be a ‘geopolitical win’ for Xi Jinping.
The Chinese foreign minister carried yet another message. Beijing also wants India to freeze the current status quo at the border and normalise bilateral ties, that would require India to withdraw its demand of restoring the April-May 2020 status quo, forget the violation of all past agreements, ignore the ongoing border stand-off and quietly accept the fait accompli. Evidently, Wang’s visit was unsuccessful on both fronts.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told him that normalization of bilateral ties isn’t possible unless there’s peace and tranquility at the border, and sought to differentiate India’s stance on Ukraine from that of China’s.
What does Russia want from India?
For Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the visit was an important one on several counts. Geopolitically, Russia wanted to show that it is not friendless despite American and European pressure to diplomatically isolate Moscow. This was evident from the way Russian foreign ministry enthusiastically distributed Lavrov’s pictures of meeting with Modi a gesture that the Indian side didn’t seem to reciprocate.
Lavrov praised “friend” India for not taking a “one-sided view” of the Ukraine conflict, sent Putin’s regards to Modi, welcomed Indian mediation on the conflict and stated that if India wishes to buy anything in national currencies bypassing the dollar-based system, then Russia is ready.
Evidently, Russia is desperate to sell India more oil since its European customers are sending signals of non-cooperation. It is also very keen to continue the defence cooperation. Lavrov has claimed that both countries are discussing “additional” production of Russian military equipment in India.
Trading with India also helps Russia undermine the dollar-based financial system and bypass the sharp edge of the western sanctions. It prevents Russia’s diplomatic and economic isolation and helps Moscow achieve its goal of securing a multipolar world order where American hegemony can be challenged.
What does India want?
What we have seen from India so far is the fullest expression of strategic autonomy — a posture that relies on diplomatic activism, geopolitical pragmatism, prioritizing national interests over bloc politics and maintaining good relationships with all sides so that these relationships can be leveraged to eke out the best possible outcome for India, even amid moments of global turmoil.
As C Raja Mohan points out in Foreign Policy, “from Russia, India is getting discounted oil, fertilizer, and other commodities as Moscow desperately seeks new buyers. From China, India is looking to extract an easing of the Sino-Indian military confrontation in the Himalayas. With the United States and other Western partners, India is looking to modernize its defense industrial base and reduce its dependence on Russian military supplies.”
Strategic autonomy is also an attempt to maximise policy space. India sees bloc politics as a constraint on its actions and choices. As Jaishankar stated recently at an address, “foreign relationships should be actively explored and leveraged for domestic development and progress.
This helps India — which ranks several rungs below developed nations in a range of metrics and power politics — in pursuing developmental goals, gradually build its national composite power and nurture its great power ambitions. India is a middle power. However, given the size of its population, if it manages to ensure enough prosperity for its citizens, transferring that wealth into military power and becoming a dramatically stronger geopolitical actor is not outside the realm of possibility.
India’s single-minded pursuit amid this war in the European theatre, which may trigger second-order repercussions in Asia, has been securing its own interests. This hasn’t been easy. First, the strategic autonomy that India holds dear has been severely affected by its reliance on Russian military hardware and servicing of legacy equipment — a dependence that industry estimates put at 60-70 per cent.
As Pranab Dhal Samanta points out in Economic Times, “Russian negotiators have often played hard with delivery of spare parts, demanding finances on grounds that they have to specifically make these parts for India. This means creating a dedicated production line.”
India’s core interest lies in balancing China and nurturing strategic partnerships with both the West and Russia. The relationship with Russia is vital for India for a variety of reasons. Apart from the reliance on Russian arms and legacy systems which forms the bulk of India’s military hardware across all three domains, India can ill afford to alienate Russia and turn a hostile continental region even more friendless.
Notwithstanding a tighter Russia-China axis that would be an inevitable result of the Ukraine war, India doesn’t want to send Moscow a message that it has abandoned its strategic partner under pressure from the West. There have been arguments that a Russia indebted to China may go against India at a time when New Delhi may seek its help, but such an outcome is unlikely.
As Rohan Mukherjee observes in Hindustan Times, “Russia is already concerned about its power asymmetry with China, as well as China’s increasing inroads, literal and metaphorical, in Central Asia. If Russia reacted negatively to the NATO knocking on its European door, it will hardly sit idly by while China begins to do the same in Asia. Therefore, as Russia’s largest arms buyer accounting for one-third of its export market, India will possess significant influence as a counterweight in Moscow’s China policy.”
However, while India needs Russia to stay as its partner, it needs the West even more for its developmental goals and as a balancing counterweight to China’s threat in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, with China as its core interest, India’s need for aligning with the West is equally, if not more important than nurturing ties with Russia. For India, therefore, choosing one partner over another is not feasible as it needs both to secure its developmental, strategic and security needs.
The war in Ukraine, however, has imposed on India exactly the choice that it seeks to desperately avoid. Given this predicament, India has tried its best to express displeasure at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and violation of a nation’s territorial integrity while simultaneously trying to avoid naming and shaming of Putin to reserve its strategic space. India’s stance has been pragmatism, away from moral absolutism.