On January 1st 2023, Dr. S. Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs of India, visited Austria on his two-nation tour to Cyprus and Austria. He made a public statement where he mentioned India’s “deep” concern about the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. He added that India continues to believe that dialogues are the only way out of this situation and that violence will not lead both sides anywhere regarding a solution. It is important to note here that despite being a year since the crisis, India has not condemned Russia directly.
The advent of the Ukraine crisis saw the world getting polarised between two blocs. One was the Western block led by the United States, where all major European players and a few Asian democratic powers stood behind Washington to oppose the Russian invasion. The second bloc was of the countries which supported Russia and, not surprisingly, the Communist party-led regimes and the ones which would usually oppose the United States in most global matters. However, a third group of countries preferred to stay neutral, and India was the major highlight among them.
To understand India’s stance, one must peek into the history of New Delhi’s diplomatic relations with the world. Since its independence in 1947, India has always preferred non-alignment as the driving principle of foreign policy. The Soviet Union came to rescue India several times, be it international resolutions about Kashmir or wars against Pakistan. As the Indian establishment prefers to say, the Soviet Union was India’s only all-weather friend for decades. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia also emerged as a trustworthy partner for New Delhi with respect to defence modernisation and several other fronts. Hence, it was imperative for India not to join the condemnation and sanctioning of Russia.
In the present context, there is an additional dimension concerning the geopolitical calculations of India. The U.S.-India partnership is thriving like never before on many important issues such as trade, defence and international cooperation. The U.S. is convinced that India’s active participation is crucial to keep aggressive China in check in the Indo-Pacific. However, India’s abstention from voting at the United Nations against the common consensus of the U.S. allies and the partners are perceived by the Americans as a point of disagreement for the U.S.-India relationship.
This evident neutrality has certainly disappointed Washington. It hints towards the strong opinion of differences between the two strategic partners. However, New Delhi looks at its stance in a more justified way. This phenomenon can be understood through three critical determinants. The first is dependency of India on Russian arms. So far, Russia has been one of India’s largest arms suppliers, and even through the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, many deals and supplies are in the pipeline. The second reason is a pro-Russia approach in the Indian bureaucracy, which is deeply embedded at the institutional level. The third reason is the shared orientation towards multi-polarity. Another major reason is also New Delhi’s energy dependency on Moscow. This issue has often cropped up in the West’s criticism of India. The West, especially Europe, has problems with India’s purchase of Russian oil. India has benefitted considerably from the discounted prices of Russian oil. This has made Russia India’s seventh-largest trading partner in the past few months. So, India’s oil purchases have helped Russia, especially when European Union member-states are diversifying from Russian energy supplies. All these factors play a decisive role in India’s cautious approach towards the Ukraine situation, also known as “strategic ambivalence”.
In the post-Cold War geopolitics, India’s foreign policy is mainly encircled around the notion of ‘strategic autonomy’, especially with its relations with the U.S. and the West. However, in the current scenario, it has been argued that India’s inability to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over his actions in the Ukraine conflict highlights the limitations on India’s strategic autonomy due to its reliance on Russia for weapon supplies. Restructuring India’s strategic autonomy is likely to be gradual, given the extent of this dependence.
On the other hand, the U.S. moves in the past few months have deeply unsettled New Delhi’s policy elites. Biden administration’s $450 million to help Pakistan refurbish its F-16s, Pakistan’s Army Chief receiving a guard of honour in the Pentagon by the U.S. forces, and the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan,  Donald Blome’s visit to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in October 2022 along with referring to it as “Azad” (free) Jammu and Kashmir” has disappointed India. Few policymakers are reading this move as an American riposte to India’s stance on the Ukraine issue. However, it is no surprise that on repeated intervals, the U.S. has felt the need to reset the relations with Pakistan, and considering all the above equations, India must be cautious of its approach further while aligning itself with the U.S. and the West.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.