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India Navigates the Ukraine Conflict to its Gain
Taking advantage of a multipolar world
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Although the European continent is in the middle of a military conflict that has the potential to spread or become more deadly, not all states see it necessarily as a source of trouble. India is navigating the conflict in ways that maximize its national interests and enhance its international magnitude. Therefore, whereas the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has forced many states in and out of Europe to pick sides (Russia vs. NATO), India has been able to use both sides to its maximum advantage by deploying what some analysts call an ‘internationalist foreign policy.’
While we might read this ‘internationalism’ as a continuation of Jawahar Lal Nehru’s non-alignment, formulated in 1946, it is much more than that. In fact, it is a projection of India’s self-identity as a big power capable of navigating complex international scenarios through an autonomous foreign policy. But India, unlike its regional rivals China and Pakistan, has another advantage: it has a well-established history of deep – and strategic – relations with both Moscow and Washington. Pakistan, for instance, which has no history of well-established ties with Moscow, is struggling to get Russian gas and oil at discounted prices.
India, on the contrary, is not only purchasing gas and oil from Moscow at a discounted price, but it is doing so in spite of Washington’s pressure to cut off Russian sales. Despite Washington’s pressure, India has not only increased its purchase of Russian oil and gas but is also making money off it by re-exporting to countries that cannot directly purchase Russian oil because of US sanctions.
The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki reported in 2022 that of the total oil that Reliance Industries’ Jamnagar refinery received from Russia in May 2022, about 20 percent was left in cargoes for the Suez Canal, with Europe as a possible destination. That is a smart strategy insofar as India is not only providing cheap oil to its own people but also earning foreign exchange from it. It is also one key reason why India is growing its economy amid skyrocketing energy prices, again unlike its neighbors Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The recent predictions show the Indian economy growing at 7 percent in 2023, well in excess of its neighbor and rival China.
For the ruling BJP, this success in keeping the economy running is a big political success as well. There are two principal aspects that need consideration.
First, India, currently the second most populous country in the world, is expected to become the most populous, as all predictions point to India crossing China. This means India’s economic needs are increasing every day. In political terms, this is a challenge for the ruling BJP, which has embarked upon a journey to make India a great power.
In this context, if India were to pick a side in the Ukraine conflict, its ability to meet the challenge of growth would be negatively affected. Consider India supporting the US stance on Ukraine. Such a policy would deprive India of the cheap oil it is receiving from Russia. Establishing ties with Washington at the expense of its ties with Moscow could also impact India’s defense. It is a major buyer of Russian weapons and defense systems and is currently seeking to procure Russia’s S-400 air defense system, nuclear submarines, stealth frigates, and fighter jets.
Secondly, Modi’s politics revolve around the ideological idea of reviving a great Hindu India. If its economy were to slow – which could certainly happen if India were to tie too deeply with the crisis-ridden West and were to start purchasing expensive US oil – the BJP could lose its political and ideological appeal and unwittingly open up space for the opposition, especially the Indian National Congress, which is aggressively seeking to revive itself.
On the contrary, by purposefully projecting an autonomous foreign policy approach, the BJP is, in fact, reinforcing its whole idea of Hindu India as a great power. It can at least aspire to great power status when the global political system is multipolar rather than unipolar, as was the case after the fall of the Soviet Union when the United States achieved primacy.
Within a unipolar world, India’s great power prospects remain marginal and unfulfilled. Following US policy on Ukraine/Russia would reinforce the unipolar world order. However, within a multipolar world – as, in fact, it is today – India can project its status more openly and more confidently. In fact, India’s various officials led by foreign minister Jayashankar have been giving statements to this effect for a long time.
But this defiance has its limits. Most certainly, India needs Western support across many issues. For instance, the US remains a source of critical support for India against China.
If India were to become a great power and it requires an independent application of foreign policy, a successful materialization of this objective also requires maintaining a balance of power with China. How might India do that?
To do this, India needs the US, which is why it remains a willing member of the QUAD. Now, if India needs the US against China, the question is: why has Washington failed to use this need to pressure India into isolating Russia?
Indian policymakers, as well as those in Washington, understand that the need for cooperation against China is not one-sided. In fact, it is mutual. The US needs India against China as much as India needs the US against China. Deep strategic ties with India remain one of the key points of the US’s Indo-pacific strategy.
Therefore, whereas India’s refusal to condemn Russia and vote against it in the UN has allowed it to maintain its ties with Moscow, Modi’s potential rebuke of Putin at the G20 summit last year that “today’s era is not of war” has also allowed New Delhi to limit the extent of its support for Russia, at least rhetorically, and keep its ties with the US/Europe flexible and durable.
Again, for the BJP supporters, Modi’s ability to buy oil from Russia and at the same time rebuke Putin is unmistakable evidence of India’s strength as a great power. The better the message conveyed, the greater the electoral result.