Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now in its second month, and India’s position has come under greater scrutiny. And, for more reasons than one, expounded India’s Russia dilemma which has been growing over the last few years.
We must, first of all, understand India’s position clearly, considering how it has reacted to various situations throughout the decades, especially when it comes to condemnation. India has repeatedly abstained from UNSC and UNGA resolutions condemning Russia. This has been wrongly interpreted as tacit approval of Russia and India standing on the wrong side of history.
It has been India’s position since the 1950s that condemnation does not lead to a solution. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, India’s then defence minister George Fernandes said – “There is, in New Delhi’s understanding, no need to antagonise the US by using words like condemn to describe the American military action.”
In the current situation, India’s position before the war was for “all parties” to use the Minsk Agreements as a basis for finding a negotiated settlement that considered the “legitimate security interests” of all parties. India’s position evolved after the Russian invasion, calling for all member states to obey the UN Charter, international law, and respect sovereignty and territorial integrity. India’s diplomatic language was a clear disapproval of Russia’s invasion.
India’s statement on China’s invasion of Ladakh in 2020 is also relevant as context. Beijing was not condemned by India. Post Galwan clash in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed, India’s foreign minister conveyed “protest in the strongest terms of the violent face-off”. The MEA statement read – “We remain firmly convinced of the need for maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue. At the same time … we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
India’s statement regarding China’s invasion of its own territory and its statement regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are similar. Even if they ignore their hypocrisy and selective amnesia regarding their own past actions, people in the West would benefit from understanding this, before harshly judging India’s commitment to democracy, international regulation, sovereignty or territorial integrity.
Demonising India Won’t Help
There was a lot of backlash on social media about India buying only 3 million barrels of oil from Russia – less than its daily oil requirements. Europe continued to import billions of dollars of oil and gas even as Russia was razing cities in Ukraine, and refused to embargo that, keeping SWIFT transactions open.
Most Western analysts are unaware of how things are on the other side. Demonising India will not help. Eighty-five per cent of India’s oil requirements are imported, which makes up 32 per cent of all its imports, the highest among major economies. Every dollar of price increases hurts. Sixty per cent of cooking oil is imported. Half of all Indians are farmers and need fertiliser, cheap fuel, etc. COVID-19 has hurt the economy and millions have fallen into poverty. The West may be able to withstand high oil prices, but India cannot. India will therefore strive for the best deals. For context, even as India has been in a border dispute with China for nearly two years now, its import and trade deficit with Beijing has grown, since banning imports will only hurt the Indian economy. Judging India through the lens of the First World is fallacious.
The international community must not only understand India’s diplomatic language, but also see its actions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken on two occasions with the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, urging a ceasefire and dialogue. India declared humanitarian support for Ukraine as soon as the conflict broke out, and the first shipment of aid arrived in the first week, and more followed. However, India abstained from the recent vote on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.
India and China cannot be grouped together either. While China abstained from UN voting, it repeated Russia’s talking points. At the recent meeting between Indian and Chinese foreign ministers, it was apparent that India and China had divergent views on Ukraine.
India’s Russian Dependence
The same way India did not condemn the Iraq invasion of the United States, it has very good reasons to avoid antagonising Russia. Over the past five decades, India has relied heavily on Russian weapons. According to the latest SIPRI reports, despite attempts to diversify, nearly half of India’s weapons requirements are still fulfilled by Russia.
Apart from weapons dependency, India is continuously in need of spare parts, maintenance and upgrades for all the systems it has imported from Russia. While India has imported military hardware worth $20 billion from the US in the last 15 years, most of it is transport and surveillance aircraft. All of India’s war fighting equipment is Russian – tanks, multi-barrel rocket launchers, infantry fighting vehicles, air defence systems, fighter aircraft, attack and transport helicopters, its lone aircraft carrier along with its fighter aircraft and helicopters, submarines, warships etc.
According to a study, 86 per cent of the equipment, weapons and platforms currently in military service in India is of Russian origin. For the Navy, it is more than 41 per cent while two-thirds of the IAF’s equipment is of Russian origin. The figure for the Army is a whopping 90 per cent, by assigning country of origin to around 10,000 pieces of military hardware.
To reduce this dependency, which limits India’s strategic autonomy, it will take decades of effort, largely indigenous. Up until then, India will remain heavily dependent on Russia for its spare parts, despite American efforts to provide alternative sources.
The reality is that India is currently embroiled in a conflict with China on the Himalayan front, a conflict with explosive potential. Russian supplies are vital to India’s large deployment along its border, which forced Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to rush to Moscow after the Galwan clash.
India’s Russian Dilemma
However, this is where India’s dilemmas over Russia mount. In recent years, Russia has grown increasingly dependent on China which is of serious concern for India. After annexing Crimea, trade between Russia and China more than doubled between 2015 and 2021, growing from $64 billion to $146 billion. In comparison, trade between India and Russia amounts to about $8 billion, mainly in weapons. Security cooperation has also increased, with regular complex military exercises including joint strategic bomber patrols and naval exercises, which include exercises in the Indian Ocean, which is India’s backyard.
The Russian president has praised China and China-Russia relations on several occasions. He said Russia-China comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination can be called a model of efficient cooperation between countries in the 21st century. That Russia is China’s number one partner and that they are even developing certain high-tech weapons together. In 2019, Putin announced helping China develop missile early warning systems. This undermines India’s nuclear deterrence against China, which is completely based on ballistic missiles. In August 2021, the two countries’ armies held a military drill in China during which they used a joint command and control system for the first time, echoing Nato’s approach.
Before Putin went to war in Ukraine, he went to Beijing, where he effectively accepted Russia as a junior partner of China. Russia and China declared – relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation. Prior to this, the Russian ambassador to the UK said that the West is pushing Russia closer to China. It is not the way great powers speak. For India to tell that China’s policies are driving it to the West is inconceivable.
As a result of China’s influence on Russia, India faces the possibility of its supply of spare parts and ammunition being denied or delayed. Furthermore, China may be able to exploit the weaknesses in India’s defences by using the data it has gleaned from Russian weapons like the S-400 that it has acquired and other information it can extract from it.
This has been made worse by Putin’s war, as harsh sanctions have made Russia more dependent on China. Russia said it’s counting on China to help it withstand Western sanctions. Russia reportedly asked China for supplies after its war plans went awry. As a result of attrition and a need for fresh supplies, Russia is in no position to help India, if China decides to take advantage of the situation and attack India. Even in the future, Russia, having suffered massive losses, will first consider what it needs rather than help India.
Russia’s actions and the reactions of India’s friends, security and trading partners in the West have put a lot of pressure on how India manages its relations between the two. India’s primary goal is its national development, and in order to do this, it must trade, attract investments, and acquire technology. It also needs to play a key role in the global supply chain rebalancing. India has over $200 billion in trade with the West, its biggest source of Foreign Direct Investment, and the West supports India’s rise. China wants to prevent India’s rise so that it can establish hegemony in the region. Russia is not what the USSR was for India.
Strategic autonomy is sacred to India. But strategic autonomy is a means to achieve development and security goals. The stance is not something to flaunt or hold as a millstone around our neck that hinders India’s development and security goals. And it should not be held hostage to past sentiments. The discussion of strategic autonomy in India is invariably related to its relationship with Russia. Moreover, Russia has placed its strategic autonomy at the doorsteps of China, India’s number one enemy. When China invaded India in 2020, India’s Western friends not only provided supplies and vital intelligence but also made statements in support of New Delhi. But Russia did not.
It is possible that India’s position might further evolve if the war in Ukraine continues. As it maintains its current position, India’s thinking is likely to keep in mind its weapons dependency, the likelihood of a resolution, and a possible regime change in Russia at some point, which could change the relationship between the West and Russia. There is no question that the key contest of the 21st century is fought in the Indo-Pacific, and India’s role is pivotal for the West.
Yusuf Unjhawala is Editor, Indian Defence Forum. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.