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India's Russia Links Put Ukraine Condemnation on Hold
Biden to decide on India sanctions for Russia missile system order
By: John Elliott
“If Modi speaks to Putin, we are hopeful he will respond,” Igor Polikha, the Ukrainian ambassador to Delhi said on February 24 as Russian troops massed on his country’s borders, ready to strike.
“We are highly appreciative of India’s deep understanding of the current situation as well as the reasons that led to it. We expect India to support Russia at the UN Security Council,” Russia’s Charge d’affaires Roman Babushkin said in Delhi on February 25.
Neither diplomat had his way as India negotiated its approach for a UN Security Council meeting on the evening of the 25th. Vladimir Putin of course did not withdraw his massed armies as Polikha hoped, nor did India vote in favor of the Ukraine invasion as Russia wanted.
Instead, India abstained, as it is expected to do in a meeting of the full UN General Assembly. China and the UAE also abstained on the 25th from the UN draft resolution. “Deploring in the strongest terms Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” the resolution called on Russia to “immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine.”
India took its position despite US President Joe Biden saying that “any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had urged India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to accept “the importance of a strong collective response to Russian aggression.”
India’s stance will disappoint and annoy the US and other western powers, but the reality is that India has no choice but to maintain tolerable relations with Russia. In Washington a State Department spokesman seemed to recognize that on February 25 when he said, “India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we’ve with Russia that is okay.” It remains to be seen how long that line lasts as sanctions increase.
In terms of history, Russia is seen as a long-term diplomatic supporter of international issues in the United Nations and elsewhere. On economics, it now accounts for 60 percent of India’s defense orders, but the support dates from the Soviet Union supplying low-cost (and low efficiency) steelworks, power projects, and infrastructure for India’s developing economy. A banker friend remembers in 1982 traveling by car to an aluminum project in Orissa and seeing a signboard saying, “ No Foreigners, Indians and Russians only!”
The US, on the other hand, which has wooed India for the past 20 years with growing success, is seen warily as a fair-weather friend that wants India’s support now as a buffer against China but can’t be wholly relied on if priorities change or India steps out of line.
‘Pragmatic tightrope walk’
“India’s stand on Ukraine is shaped by its national interest. It should continue to do so — ‘with us or against us’ doesn’t work,” said the Indian Express in an editorial headline after the UN vote. The Business Standard said “India’s Ukraine move balances its principles with its interests” on a “pragmatic tightrope walk.”
“Both the US and Russia are essential partners for India; neither can replace the other,” Shivshankar Menon, a former foreign secretary and national security adviser, told me. Explaining why India cannot manage without the US, he said “Russia cannot substitute for the market, the civilian technologies, the education, and the financial system that the US offers India access to, all of which are essential for India’s transformation.”
The refusal to step away from Russia is something that the US, UK, and other western countries will have to learn to live with, at least for now, though international public opinion will inevitably swing against India for not condemning Putin’s brutal invasion. India is seen internationally as a robust tolerant democracy despite its chaotic politics and growing Hindu nationalism. The view abroad is therefore that it shouldn’t be fence-sitting when Russia is breaching Ukraine’s national sovereignty – something that India accuses China of breaching on their disputed Himalayan border.
There is some concern in India about the line it is taking. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran noted in the Indian Express on February 26 that “there is a rising level of discomfort among Russia’s friends who have chosen to look the other way.” He reckoned that “the geopolitical calculations that led to artful ambiguity in reactions to the Russian invasion are now shifting so as not to be stranded on the wrong side of the fence.” He added that “the Indian statement explaining its vote of abstention comes fairly close to criticizing Russia’s resort to arms.”
Saran was reflecting liberal opinion in India, which is concerned about the government not speaking out and regrets that India will be heavily criticized. The Congress Party is broadly backing the government line, but Shashi Tharoor, a leading Congress MP and former senior UN official, echoed Saran’s point and said on television that India had “placed itself on the wrong side of history.” Mainstream concerns however are more localized about its own tensions with China and Pakistan at a time of an escalating world crisis.
The Cold War
The diplomatic relationship with Russia goes back to the Cold War when the US sided with Pakistan rather than India, notably over Kashmir and the creation in 1971 of Bangladesh that India supported. Richard Nixon, who once called Indians “slippery treacherous people,” ordered US ships to the Bay of Bengal in support of what was then East Pakistan. That has never been forgotten in Delhi.
I remember Indira Gandhi saying when she was prime minister in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union had never let India down. That contrasted with the US, which had done more than any other country to damage India strategically over 60 years (till relations began to improve 15 to 20 years ago). I was told some time ago by Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to Moscow that US high technology sanctions were “curbing the development of India’s strategic capabilities” till a nuclear deal was struck with the US in 2008.
Sibal takes a more pro-Moscow line than many of his peers. What he says however illustrates the legacy of history behind India’s current wish to remain at least partially non-aligned, with a tilt to Russia, while it has been growing closer to the US. It has been buying America’s defense equipment and has joined it in the counter-China link-up called The Quad along with Japan and Australia.
It has, however, refused to allow the US to dictate policy on issues that it sees as being in the nation’s interest. It has insisted for example on maintaining diplomatic relations with Myanmar and Iran, moves that have been reluctantly accepted by successive American presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.
While history may be becoming less significant in the Russia relationship, India continues to be tied by large scale defense orders that amount to a priority catalog of dependency. Ajai Shukla, a former army colonel and now a defense analyst and columnist, estimates that India has defense orders totaling some US$15 billion with Russia, which for years has accounted for 50-60 percent of the country’s defense imports (India imports 70 percent of its defense equipment because it has failed to develop a manufacturing capability).
The orders include a US$5.43 billion missile defense system, the S-400, with deliveries underway. There is a US$3 billion order for four frigates, plus two to be made in India (complicated by the engines coming from Ukraine, which also has a continuing contract for upgrading military transport aircraft).
Then there is a US$3 billion contract to lease a Russian nuclear attack submarine for 10 years from 2025 and plans for an Indian factory to manufacture at least 750,000 AK-203 Kalashnikov rifles for the Indian Army. The Indian Air Force wants to buy and upgrade 21 MiG-29 fighters lying unused in Russia, and maybe build 18 Sukhoi-30MKI fighters plus 200 light helicopters worth about US$2 billion, says Shukla.
The list is endless stretching far into the future. India has been trying to reduce this reliance. The US would be eager to replace some of the existing orders, but it is not willing to co-produce and co-develop advanced defense technologies with India in the way that Russia has, for example, on nuclear submarines, fighter jets and missiles.
The US has pressed India to buy missile systems made by America’s Raytheon or Lockheed Martin instead of Russia’s S-400, but Delhi has refused to switch. A decision is pending from Biden on whether to impose sanctions on India under America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). There seemed a chance he would find a way to excuse India, but the S-400 constitutes a “significant transaction” under the Act and there is now a real risk that Biden will refuse a waiver. That could cause serious disruption to US-India ties.
India might face more sanctions and will also have problems making payments to Russia now that banking is being blocked. Reuters has reported that it is considering reviving an old rupee-ruble payment mechanism for trade that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union because sanctions could disrupt vital supplies of Russian fertilizer.
Putin, Xi – and Imran
Relations with Russia have been complicated by Moscow growing closer to China and also, at a different level of importance, to Pakistan. There is rapport between Putin and Xi Jinping, China’s tough and ambitious president, and it seemed at first that Putin expected support for his Ukraine adventure.
But Xi is a cautious leader and he has his own battles to fight internationally, especially with the US. This has led to what a Financial Times headline called China’s “pro-Russia neutrality” after China abstained on the UN security council resolution
According to China’s Xinhua news agency, Xi told Putin during a telephone conversation on February 26 that China supported Russia’s and Ukraine’s resolving the issue through negotiation – which fell far short of endorsing the invasion and verged on opposing it.
China is however expected to offer Russia help over sanctions, with increased commodities trade arranged through state-owned banks that have less trouble circumventing US sanctions. “Look to North Korea for reference: All trade with them is banned under international sanctions and yet China accounts for 95 percent of their foreign trade,” a US analyst told the FT.
That could lead to Putin becoming indebted to Xi, which would give the Chinese president an added pressure point against India. Relations between India and China are at a low point. Troops have been facing each other for two years in the Himalayas after serious clashes with fatalities in 2020.
India’s tortuous relationship with Pakistan, which is actively supported and armed by China, could also be affected. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, clearly enjoyed parading last week through Beijing and then Moscow, meeting Xi and Putin, while the Ukraine crisis was developing.
After India’s abstention, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Modi and sought India’s “political support.” Modi is reported to have expressed “deep anguish” over the loss of life and property, and to have reiterated India’s call for “immediate cessation of violence” and return to dialogue, indicating the furthest that India would go in condemning Putin.
Since then, Putin has escalated the crisis with attacks on Ukraine and putting nuclear forces on alert. This means that India will find it increasingly difficult to stand on the sidelines, calling for peace talks and an end to hostilities, at a time when other leading nations are imposing heavy sanctions. Despite that, India has a strong case for its current stance.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.