Ukrain war and India’s Balancing Act
Geopolitical considerations and national interest should b e the guiding force while taking a stand as regards the Russian- Ukraine conflict. — KK Srivastava
The unipolar world is again likely to become a historical legacy. America can not afford to act as the sheriff of the global village, especially in face of increasing economic, political and technological might of ascending China. Many nations, most notably India, have refused to take sides at the prompting of the US and the West in the latest war. Delhi’s challenges – and interests lie in preserving the balance, especially when the economic and military interests are aligned with Russia. No doubt the Ukrainaian war has upset the global order. The west, including US has declared an economic war against the enemy. These sanctions adversely affect not merely Russia but other nations too, including India. Oil and commodity prices are going through the roof, payment channels have been obstructed, food shortages and inflationary pressures are becoming a reality, indeed the whole world order is under pressure. The west is weaponising finance and trade system against Russia. India is in a cleft, a catch 22 situation.
India is a lower middle income economy with 70% dependence on imported energy. Inflating energy prices come in the way of our nascent past covid recovery, especially when domestic wholesale inflation had touched 12% even before the war. Government can ill afford to lower fuel taxes since that will adversely tell upon our fiscal balance. India cannot thus be faulted when it approvingly looks at the Russian offer of discounted price oil supply.
The Ukranian conflict is a product of Soviet Union’s collapse, the failure to establishequitable security architecture in Europe, NATO’s expansion eastwards, and a steady decline of US-Russian ties coupled with the breakdown of any constructive dialogue between the two nations. Russia was provoked when the US sought to expand NATO to cover Ukraine and Georgia. Russia termed it an immediate threat, an existential crisis for it. For India, though in principle India should have opposed Ukrainaian invasion, realpolitic demands that India needs to take a nuanced stand, it must safeguard its strategic interests, including the critical Indo-Russian defence relationship. And don’t forget the West’s silence when Chinese forces made ingress into Indian territory recently.
Certainly if India has to opt between adhering to abstract and disembodied principles governing international relations on one hand and safeguarding own interests on the other, prudence demands that we lean towards the latter. Thus India should logically, and perhaps without any fear of retaliation, ignore the moral grandstandings and veiled warnings of the west, including the US. May be in the event of Chinese aggression Russia would not side with India, since it is a junior partner in Sino-Russia ‘no limits’ friendship, but we must understand that these are the imperatives of foreign policy, points of divergence will remain. For both China and Russia, the growing relations are grounded in common and shared hostility towards the US. Equally noteworthy is the fact that while India’s strategic and economic relationships with the US have deepened in the last two decades, our relations with Chinese kingdom are not exactly on best of terms. And it is no more the situation when the US used to lord over the whole world. Thus the US needs to be more accommodative, especially when the other two members of the Quad-Australia and Japan – have been more appreciative of the India’s stand.
Russia will definitely merge as a shrunken economy with diminished power, in face of financial and trade sanctions. But India cannot ignore the hypocrisy of treating Indian oil imports from Russia differently from similar imports by Europe. The US worldview is not necessarily shared by other nations, including India. The world is increasingly moving away from being unipolar, especially due to the incessant rise of China. Dollar dominance is under threat, nations are building their own digital architecture, and west based institutions, including even the financial platforms like SWIFT, are looked upon with disdain and violations. India needs to maintain a delicate balance, cultivating new friendship, without sacrificing the old ones, especially when it will continue to have long term external dependence in energy and military needs. Geopolitics is increasingly becoming more important. India must not be complacent, it must constantly calibrate its internal policy adjustments, maintain its external outreach, and keep its ambitions aligned with its capabilities. A true strategic partnership has to be based on mutuality of core interests. It is notable that while our abstentions don’t adversely affect the western interests, out voting against Russia may imperil us. Hence the unambiguous stand of the Indian government, calling for a complete cessation of violence, resolution of differences through dialogue, and recognition and protection of territorial integrity of nation states. But no sacrifice of India’s own national interests.
We must not forget the strong US support for India’s economic reforms since 1991 onwards and the eventual US-India nuclear deal. In recent years India and US have been on friendly terms. American companies have led foreign direct investment in India. However, the touchstone on our ties with the US should be far wider than the position we have taken on Ukraine.
India needs to persist with its balancing act. Indo-Russian ties could assume crucial importance in a very fluid geo-politcal order. India has adopted a neutral stance so far against Russian aggression. But it must constantly evaluate whether, and purely in terms of national interest calculations, costs of continued neutrality began to outweigh benefits from it. India need not forget that while India depends critically on Russian supply of arms, as the largest buyer from it, New Delhi too enjoys leverage over Mascow. Russia can ill afford to make arms supply scarce for India if it decides to take a more principled stand. Infact Russia needs Indian money even more given the cost of sanctions against it. Thus India does enjoy a bargaining power vis-à-vis both the west (in view of the fact that the EU nations continue to engage in both, sanctioning Russia on one hand and buying Russian energy on the other) and Russia (given its isolation in the world). India’s primary concern thus ought to be geopolitical implications on the conflict. Indian position must be purely guided by cold blooded calculation of national interests in face of future Russian, American, and Chinese moves in the background and foreground of ongoing conflict.
India can hardly afford to alienate the US which is its top trading partner and by far the largest export market. Indian companies and banks have more exposure in the US than elsewhere. It can hardly ignore its large student community in the US nor can it shut its eyes towards the significant presence of US technology and finance in India. Yet, US needs us as much as India requires friendship of India. The Quad has been basically formed to provide a strategic and economic counterforce to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive moves. Quad’s agenda is confined to Indo-pacific and the Chinese challenge, not security issues in the European theatre.
Thus India’s stand so far successfully qualifies the test of acting in national interests without sacrificing the mutuality of core interests of all stakeholders.