India has yet again abstained from a United Nations vote against Russia. This was a historical vote in the UN General Assembly where 141 nations voted for the resolution against Russia, while 35 countries abstained and 5 voted against. It’s clear that no amount of sermonising, nagging or blackmailing will shake India’s firm stand. The clarity is rock solid.
A lot has happened since Russia started its military operation in Ukraine. India has called for an “immediate cessation of violence and hostilities,” and has shifted to asserting “the importance of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations” in diplomatic statements at the UN and in PM Narendra Modi’s phone calls with the leaders of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries. Clearly, India is no fan of President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, but it has also refrained from fulfilling the West’s flaming desire to humiliate Russia.
India’s abstention streak has remained consistent even as pressure mounts from the US-led West to give up its balancing position and join in the isolation of Russia. India, however, has remained unfazed and firm on its stand. It is not going to publicly condemn Russia. It is not going to discount Russia’s security concerns vis-à-vis Nato. And it is definitely not going to jump into the sanctions bogey. Such lucidity on the Indian side has unnerved the West, especially the United States, which at this point, is desperate to be seen as the global messiah that united the world against evil. But, if only things were that simple. They are far from it. India has decided to not encourage the Americans at this juncture. India’s clear message is that the West’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific does not come in exchange for India’s interference in Europe. Containing China is as much a necessity for the US-led West as it is for India. And besides, neither is the USA’s European smackdown with Russia moral nor is it far-sighted.
Nothing righteous about the West’s actions
Ukraine is fighting Russia all on its own after being propped up for years by the West, while the attack on Ukraine has united Nato countries which are looking to step up their defence budgets and shed their energy dependence on Russia. Rich nations like Sweden and Finland are considering a Nato membership now more than ever. So it looks like the USA’s longstanding goals in Europe have been met but even that has not warranted a united Nato response against Russia’s invasion. Ukraine is on the verge of losing its entire existence over the risks it confidently took with Western backing. Strategically, for Ukraine’s leadership, it was a bad call to lay it all bare before Russia, idealistically thinking that the West would have their back. Today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s acute idealism has indeed put Europe and the US in a spot when it comes to giving or denying Ukraine a European Union and a Nato membership. But at what cost? If there is no Ukraine, how will these memberships matter? This is Kyiv’s gravest miscalculation and the West played an outrageously irresponsible hand in it— leading Ukraine up the garden path and then deserting it leaving Ukrainian civilians to take up arms to aid their military. It all could have been avoided by realistically weighing the risks of poking the Russian bear in its backyard.
Nothing far-sighted either
The Biden Administration has been hell-bent on capping Russia’s rise from the ashes. Crippling sanctions have made Russia rely strongly on its defence exports. Apart from that, learning its lesson from the 1990-91 Gulf War, which sent oil prices through the roof and delved a huge blow to the Soviet economy and became the ultimate reason for the USSR’s collapse, Russia has become a powerful energy exporter, walking toe-to-toe and sometimes not with the OPEC. But Russia is far from being a challenge to the United States-led world order. Its $1.6 trillion economy dwarves in comparison with the USA’s nearly $25 trillion dollar economy. The ruble fares pathetically before the dollar. And its population, which is less than half that of the US, is in a steady decline. Russia is not the real challenge anymore. Instead of poking the Russian sphere of influence, the US must take up a real fight and train its guns at the Chinese Communist Party. China’s $15 trillion economy, its $3.25 trillion dollar reserves and its 1.4 billion strong population should warrant the kind of energy the US spends on Russia. China’s belligerent tactics in the South and East China Seas, its military buildup against India in the Himalayas and its regular air intrusions of Taiwan is where the United States-led global order is under attack. China not only plans to replace the United States at every level, but it also plans to and has the potential to trigger an end to the supremacy of the dollar. I say, Mr Biden, go get him— as you said in your first state of the union address.
Ignoring the Indo-Pacific is a myopic misstep that will cost the world dearly. All China is getting, however, is a lot of breathing space and a demonstration of a serious discrepancy between the West’s strong verbal posturing and its failure to inflict costs on belligerent powers. And China is taking notes.
Why India will stick to Russia
Despite India’s blooming relations with the west, be it economically, diplomatically or militarily, we are just not there yet when it comes to installing unswerving trust, especially in the United States. And even when we do, we might not be dumping Russia as we’ve been advised to by Western experts. But by then, the West too would acknowledge that it got its priorities wrong and that its focus should be on working with Indo-Pacific powers to corner China. At that point, India will continue its ties with Russia to ensure that the Russia-China nexus of convenience does not overrun India’s security in the region, just as New Delhi does today, by maintaining defence imports from Russia.
It is said that $15 billion worth of defence imports from Russia are still in the pipeline for India. Russia’s flagship S-400 Triumf missile system has been purchased by both India and China. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the West doubled down on sanctions, and Russia started selling its top-tier defence equipment to China. In fact, Sino-Russia economic ties took off unprecedentedly. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in the period between 2016-2020, 77% of China’s total arms imports were from Russia. In the same period, India sourced almost 50% of all its defence imports from Moscow. Matching up to China is not an easy game, and yet India has stood firm on its own to ensure that Russia always has an alternative and does not fall entirely in the lap of China. A friend in need is a friend indeed— always treading on thin ice economically, Russia strongly enforces this in its diplomatic relations with nations.
No doubt Russia owes India a big one this time. But it is this time-tested relationship that India would not throw away, even for trade-offs. Granted, India needs Russia to fight the China-Pakistan nexus on international forums. Despite its ties with China, Russia has backed India consistently at the UNSC, especially against Pakistan. Russia has mediated when there were casualties at the Eastern Ladakh border between India and China, and expedited arms sales to India in what was seen as a message to China. But most notably, without explicitly acknowledging the concerns of the “Indo-Pacific”, Russia is arming not just India but also ASEAN nations incensed by China. Russia is also set to become a renewed formidable power as the Arctic opens up, a region that China has its eyes on as well, paving the way for intense Russia-China competition in yet another domain, apart from Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
For India, Russia cannot and should not be antagonised. It is not just about weapons dependency or diplomatic trade-offs, but a far-reaching geopolitical great game of the 21st century.