Russia-Ukraine Crisis: India’s Concerns and Options

 By Anuradha Oinam
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India’s decision to abstain from the Russia-Ukraine crisis suggests that it is employing its balancing act vis-à-vis both the countries. Situating its neutral position, the crisis remains a litmus test for India to introspect its balanced foreign policy vis-à-vis Moscow due to its regional geopolitical conditions and, at the same time, open new windows for other partners including the West. The paper elucidates India’s concerns and takeaways from the ongoing geopolitical change, especially from Russia-Ukraine Crisis. Further, it analyses the increasing Sino-Russian friendship and how it concerns India’s security environment.

Geopolitical Change and India’s Concerns

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is likely to affect the global world order drastically.  Twenty days before the Ukraine crisis, an elaborate and lengthy Joint Statement titled ‘International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development’ was concluded between President Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing on 4 February 2022 [[i]]. Among the various underlying issues, the key focus was on three ‘No’s: 1) No limits in their friendship; 2) No ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation and 3) Not aim against third world countries[[ii]]. It is critical to evaluate if these are concerns for India. Or, is it directed to the same in any form?

Tracing back to history, Russia and China shared a murky and complex relationship even though they were against the U.S. unipolarity during the Cold War. The seeds of friendship were sown in 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev met Deng Xiaoping during his visit to Beijing [[iii]] and progressively improved their bilateral relations including trade and other spheres. The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a successor of the ‘Shanghai Five’ shared a common platform to bolster the Sino-Russian ties. In addition, the signing of the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001[[iv]], followed by the Crimean crisis in 2014, became a turning point for Russia to move closer to China when the former declined its relation with the U.S., NATO, and Europe.  The marker of their friendship is the tremendous increase in their trade. Since 2016, its net value has increased from $50 billion to over $147 billion [[v]] and in 2022, the signing of the Sino-Russia Joint Statement has elevated their relations.

From a ‘mistrust, frosty relationship with doctrinal differences’ [[vi]] during the Cold War period to a limitless friendship in 2022 could be a concern for India, given India’s longstanding relationship with Russia, and China being its adversary. Russia has been an old friend and historical ally of India and a defence equipment supplier in crucial times. Concurrently, India and Russia upgraded their bilateral strategic partnership to a ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’ in 2010, which focused on cooperating in ‘political, security, defence, trade and economy, science and technology, and culture’ [[vii]]. In addition, both the countries continued their joint ventures in various summits, such as manufacturing Ka-226T helicopters and JV-Indo-Russian Rifles Pvt. Ltd to produce AK Series Assault Rifles at Ordnance Factory Korwa and hypersonic BrahMos-II [[viii]] likely to be tested soon. India imports its defence equipments from Russia (46%), France (27%) and U.S. (12%) [[ix]].

However, after the Galwan standoff in 2020, India’s military hardware purchases have been diversified in order to reduce overdependence on one or two countries and moving towards Atmanibhar Bharat or Self-Reliant India [[x]] approach. Nevertheless, it is the best interest of India to maintain its long-lasting relationship with Russia,

Given the fact that India has territorial boundary disputes with China as the latter aspires to capture more territory in Aksai Chin, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, and Arunachal Pradesh. The unforgettable 1962 war and a series of standoffs, including the Doklam and Galwan incident, indicate that China is meticulously using its expansionist policy. The frequent border skirmishes and India’s diplomatic boycott in February 2022 from attending its government delegations to Beijing Winter Olympics after People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chose one soldier, who was involved in the Galwan incident to be a torchbearer was the reason behind India’s decision. India has a predicament with China’s New Border Law, adopted in October 2021. This New Law applies to the Chinese 22,000 km long land border with fourteen countries, including India’s Aksai Chin [[xi]].  Most importantly, under this New Law, it aims to legitimise more Indian territories by renaming places and constructing villages in Arunachal Pradesh [[xii]] as a part of Tibet’s Five Finger policy. Therefore, having a balanced relationship with Russia will enable India to combat any major threat emerging from a possible axis between China, Pakistan, Taliban-led Afghanistan, and Russia [[xiii]].

Key Take Aways

India’s neutral position on the Ukraine crisis exemplified its independent foreign policy with national interest as the topmost priority. India opted Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as its post-independent foreign policy at the same time, maintaining a good rapport with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. From friendship to partnership, India realises that Russia cannot be the sole provider of defence equipment if further sanctions are being imposed by other states due to the simmering crisis. Yet, India needs to maintain a healthy relationship with Russia for if Russia moves closer to China it will be detrimental for India’s security. In addition, India’s dependency on Russia is not only limited to defence equipment and technology. India also imports crude oil and edible oil from Russia. For instance, India’s willingness to buy 15 million barrels of oil from Russia at discounted prices ($ 35 per barrel) [[xiv]] indicates India’s need for oil import. Yet, India needs diversification of its import source to reduce its overdependence on one country.

Meanwhile, India has improved its strategic defence partnership with the U.S by signing a series of agreements such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in September 2018, and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020 [[xv]]. More thrust is required to ensure a more robust Indo-U.S. relationship. In addition, India needs to collaborate with the U.S./West AUKUS and QUAD to balance China in Indo-pacific [[xvi]].

Conclusion

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis is still unfolding and will have global geopolitical and geo-economics impacts including on India. As of now, India has portrayed a balanced approach, which is aimed at securing its national interest. Further, it requires a pragmatic approach and a balancing act vis-à-vis Russia and the U.S. With China, India will have to settle its boundary disputes through negotiations at the soonest. India should further focus on schemes like ‘Atmanibhar Bharat Abhiyan’ and ‘Make in India’ programs and extend them to promote the indigenisation of defence equipment with the help of public-private partnerships.  In addition, diversification of arms imports must be focused and further impetus needs to be given to strengthening with its immediate neighbours. Deeply engaging with extended neighbours will also be India’s interest.

After abstaining at UNSC and UNGA meetings, India condemned Bucha’s incident and asked for an independent probe into the matter. In addition, India has provided humanitarian aid and basic needs including medical equipment, medicines, and other necessary materials to Ukraine. Condemnation of Bucha’s incident seems India’s first strong statement after the crisis. Is this decision aimed to further balance its attitude towards crisis? If so, it again exemplifies that New Delhi is focussing on its national interest. Only time will tell whether India’s decision was influenced by geopolitical realities emerging out of crisis.

Endnotes

[i]  “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development (2022)”,China Aerospace Studies Institution, available at https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Translations/2022-02-04%20China%20Russia%20joint%20statement%20International%20Relations%20Entering%20a%20New%20Era.pdf, accessed on 23 March 2022

[ii] Ted Snider (2022), “Breaking down that Putin-Xi joint statement on a ‘new era’”, Responsible Statecraft, available at https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/02/12/breaking-down-that-putin-xi-joint-statement-on-a-new-era/, accessed on 5 March 2022

[iii]Nirupama Subramanian (2022), “Explained: The China-Russia Relationship”, Indian Express, Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-the-china-russia-relationship-ukraine-putin-xi-jingping-7763398/, accessed on 6 April 2022

[iv] “Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation (2001), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, available at https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/200107/t20010724_679026.html, accessed on 12 April 2022

[v] Nirupama Subramanian (2022), “Explained: The China-Russia Relationship”, Indian Express, Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-the-china-russia-relationship-ukraine-putin-xi-jingping-7763398/, accessed on 6 April 2022

[vi] ibid

[vii] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury (2020), “India-Russia strategic partnership: Constant factor in volatile world” The Economic Times, Available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-russia-strategic-partnership-constant-factor-in-volatile-world/articleshow/78478780.cms?from=mdr, accessed on 28 March 2020

[viii] Ibid                            

[ix] “Trends in International Arms Transfer”, SIPRI Fact Sheet, available at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/fs_2203_at_2021.pdf, accessed on 5 April 2022

[x] “Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan Self-Reliant India”, Invest India National Investment Promotion and Facilitation Agency, available at https://www.investindia.gov.in/atmanirbhar-bharat-abhiyaan, accessed on 12 April 2022

[xi] Udayvir Ahuja (2021), “China’s new border law: A concern for India”, available at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/chinas-new-border-law/ accessed on 25 March 2022

[xii] Anuradha Oinam (2022), “China’s Renaming Politics and Territorial Claims at India’s Northeastern State, Arunachal Pradesh: An Assessment”,  available at https://www.claws.in/chinas-renaming-politics-and-territorial-claims-at-indias-northeastern-state-arunachal-pradesh-an-assessment/, accessed on 3 April 2022

[xiii] Happymon Jacob (2022), “The Anatomy of India’s Ukraine Dilemma”,  The Hindu, available at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-anatomy-of-indias-ukraine-dilemma/article65090424.ece, accessed on 5 April 2022

[xiv] Harsh V. Pant (2022), “India and the balancing act on Ukraine”, ORF, available at https://www-orfonline-org.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.orfonline.org/research/india-and-the-balancing-act-on-ukraine/?amp, accessed on 12 April 2022

[xv] Shubhajit Roy (2020), “Explained: BECA, and the importance of 3 foundational pacts of India-US defence cooperation”, The Indian Express, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/beca-india-us-trade-agreements-rajnath-singh-mike-pompeo-6906637/ accessed on 12 April 2022

[xvi] N xiv