Why India's neutral stance in the Russia-Ukraine war works

Indian academic Amrita Jash is of the view that unlike China, India has managed to stay on the right side of international opinion despite abstaining from the UN resolution condemning Russia. This is because it is valued as an important piece of the puzzle in the reshaping of the 21st century world order. Moreover, it has stuck to a non-reactionary position and stayed clear of an obvious tilt towards Russia or the US and its allies. By the same token though, will India’s usefulness in the power game be diminished by its inability to move any further to either side?
People in a busy street in Mumbai, India, 12 April 2022. (Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters)
People in a busy street in Mumbai, India, 12 April 2022. (Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters)

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has brought about a sea change in world politics not seen since the end of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War bipolar world. In current times, the shift is evidenced by states rethinking the military option and increasing their defence spending, as Germany, Sweden, Denmark and others have done. Conventional warfare is relevant once more amid the new jargon of “cyber, electronic and information warfare” in a multipolar world. 

Not only that, Ukraine’s counter to Russia’s firepower has further proven that the ultimate goal of a state is survival, and self-help is the only choice. While global powers have imposed economic and financial sanctions on Russia, the fact remains that “no country is ready to fight” for Ukraine. US President Joe Biden clearly stated that Washington will not fight Moscow in Ukraine as a direct confrontation between NATO and the Kremlin would trigger World War III. But the question remains: Have the sanctions been effective in deterring Moscow from undertaking its “special military operation” against Kyiv? With the war already in its second month, the answer remains “no”. 

Pragmatism in a multipolar world

The crux of the issue is that the 21st century world is a multipolar one where there is greater interdependence amongst states and the axiom that there are “no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests” holds true.

What is noteworthy is that both India and China abstained from the UN vote condemning Russia. 

A case in point is India. New Delhi made its position on the Ukraine issue very clear by refraining from taking sides and calling for a peaceful resolution of the dispute through dialogue. New Delhi has neither condemned Russia nor joined in the UN resolutions against Russia, and has not sided with the diplomatic coalition against Russia.

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India's ambassador to the UN T.S. Tirumurti addresses the UNSC during a meeting at the UN Headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, New York, US, 5 April 2022. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Not siding with the majority is indeed a tough choice, but a pragmatic one for New Delhi in ensuring that its interests vis-à-vis Russia, Ukraine, the US or the EU are not jeopardised. For instance, India was able to carry out a successful evacuation of Indian citizens from Ukraine under its mission of Operation Ganga via its diplomatic channels with Ukraine and Russia and operating evacuation flights from European countries such as Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia and Poland. Moreover, it is mindful that its access to fuel from Russia at cheaper rates also safeguards its energy concerns under the looming dangers of the hike in crude oil prices.

India stands neutral in its stance but is independent in its decision-making. What is noteworthy is that both India and China abstained from the UN vote condemning Russia. However, unlike New Delhi, Beijing has called the US “the culprit” whose actions of “pouring oil on the flame” are “irresponsible and immoral’. Its position has been that the Ukraine crisis is a result of “historical complex historical context” and that Russia has “legitimate security concerns”. Besides, Beijing has also backed Russia’s accusations against the US of running a bioweapons operation in Ukraine. Furthermore, just a few days prior to the crisis in Ukraine, Beijing and Russia jointly affirmed that their friendship has “no limits” and that “there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation”. All this has made the international community wary of China’s position on the Ukraine crisis.

In contrast, New Delhi’s non-reactionary position has had a catalytic effect on the international diplomatic circle, in terms of garnering favourable reactions that focus on India’s humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and its stance of choosing diplomacy and dialogue over choosing any side. This has allowed New Delhi to reiterate that it can no longer be seen or treated as playing second fiddle to any country and is an important player on the world stage amid great power rivalry. 

India courted by world leaders

This is evident from the high-level visits to and interactions with New Delhi in the last fifteen days, namely the visits by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenger, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (a virtual meeting), US undersecretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, Oman Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamood Albusaidi, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, EU special envoy for the Indo-Pacific Gabriele Visentin, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, German foreign and security policy adviser Jens Plötner, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, US deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.

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India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are seen before their meeting in New Delhi, India, 31 March 2022. (@DrSJaishankar/ Twitter/Handout via Reuters)

These visits are mainly aimed at convincing India to join the coalition in condemning Russia. Thus far, India has maintained its neutral position but its suitors are well aware that if India shifts its position, the coalition’s position will only be stronger given the latter’s strong ties with Russia. 

Undoubtedly, of all diplomatic engagements, it is the Russian foreign minister’s visit to India amidst the Russia-Ukraine crisis that is most significant. While Lavrov’s visit to China was an expected outcome given the “no limits” partnership between Moscow and Beijing, his visit to India highlights the continued strength of the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between the two countries.

Russia is also the most important supplier of defence equipment to India, accounting for around 70% of India’s defence hardware.

This is evident from Washington’s harsh warning to India suggesting that Delhi should not expect Moscow to come to its rescue if China violates the Line of Actual Control (LAC) once again. Here, it is important to note that India since its independence in 1947 has been single-handedly fighting the security challenges on the two fronts of its territory — China and Pakistan, without any rescue help from any external party, which also includes the US. 

Maintaining an independent stance

Second, India’s defence ties with Russia are not just old but also strong. India is the largest export recipient of Russian arms (2017-2021). Besides the acquisition of the S-400 Triumf air defence missile system from Russia, the joint venture on BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles has significantly added to India’s defensive posture against China along the LAC. Hence, India is able not to depend on any country in its dealings with China on the border. Besides, Russia is also the most important supplier of defence equipment to India, accounting for around 70% of India’s defence hardware.

As the diplomatic visits show, India is not a player that can be isolated and ignored. Its presence is desired on the diplomatic high tables despite its stance on the Russia-Ukraine crisis...

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India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are seen before their meeting in New Delhi, India, 1 April 2022. (@DrSJaishankar/Twitter/Handout via Reuters)

India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine crisis is independent and based on pragmatic choices dictated by the national interest. As rightly noted by US State Department spokesman Ned Price: “Different countries are going to have their own relationship with the Russian Federation. It’s a fact of history. It's a fact of geography. That is not something that we [the US] are seeking to change.”

By not taking a reactionary position but a responsive one, India has proven its weight amid great power politics. As the diplomatic visits show, India is not a player that can be isolated and ignored. Its presence is desired on the diplomatic high tables despite its stance on the Russia-Ukraine crisis as evinced by the recent signing of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement between India and Australia. Besides, India is going to hold the G20 presidency in 2023, a role that will be significant as the global order realigns and reshapes. All in all, India’s geographical position and its independent foreign policy choices mean that New Delhi matters in a 21st century world order now more than ever.

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