[This is an excerpt from an article in THe Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
India’s anxieties regarding criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
India and Russia have very strong ties dating back to the time of the Soviet Union. The path dependence of India-Soviet Union collaboration during the Cold War and past and contemporary geopolitical alignments has also strengthened the strategic partnership. Both countries are wary of a rising China and China’s encroachment in their historical spheres of influence. However, both have adopted different strategies to contend with China’s rise. India has aligned itself closely with the US and like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific such as Japan, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam which have also faced the brunt of China’s aggression and assertive behaviour. It has reactivated the Quad (comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia) and strengthened defence and strategic cooperation with its strategic partners on a bilateral, trilateral and multilateral basis (Pant & Saha; Verma & Papa).
Russia on the other hand has adopted a strategy of regional hedging in Central Asia/Eurasia and global alignment with China to counter US hegemony (Korolev). Although Russia–China relations have strengthened significantly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia and China are reluctant allies (Korolev & Portyakov). US–China rivalry and rising tensions between the two countries over Taiwan, the South China Sea and the East China Sea have also pushed China closer to Russia. Moscow has shared high level technology and co-developed and provided advanced military equipment to China and the two countries have regularly conducted regular military exercises.
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In India’s calculations, Russia is important for curbing China’s bellicosity along the disputed border. In 2017, Russia played an important role in diffusing the crisis in Doklam, which brought India and China to the verge of war (Lalwani et al). Moscow also played a significant role in mitigating tensions between India and China during the ongoing border stand-off. Moscow’s close ties with both the countries led to the ‘Moscow Agreement’ in September 2020 according to which China agreed to withdraw its forces from South Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh (Basu). Moscow has continued to supply sophisticated arms and military equipment to New Delhi during the border standoff to ensure that the latter is able to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
With Russia’s increasing reliance on China after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, analysts expect Beijing to have considerable leverage over Moscow, and Beijing might be able to influence Moscow’s relations with strategic partners such as India and Vietnam (Gabuev). India is concerned that if it is critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia will move closer to China, and strengthening Russia–China relations will pose a strategic and security challenge for India. The burgeoning Russia–China relations also negatively impact India’s options of acquiring military equipment because China will have increasing leverage over Russia and may force the latter to not provide spare parts, sophisticated arms and equipment, and advanced technology to India. The problem will be more acute if under pressure from China, Russia is slow in providing or stops providing spare parts during an India–China conflict/war. Moreover, after the acquisition and knowledge of advanced weapons from Russia, China might be able to ascertain and exploit the weaknesses in India’s defence. It is extremely difficult for New Delhi to reduce such risks. This is because Moscow will be alerted even before India attempts to diversify procurement from Russia with Moscow denying spare parts and maintenance services needed by India. Moreover, India is concerned that Russian sales of latest technology and advanced military equipment to China will further widen the military gap to India’s disadvantage (Lalwani et al).
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India is also concerned that Russia may strengthen relations with Pakistan if India is critical of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Since 2015, Russia–Pakistan relations have witnessed an upward trend with Russia selling attack and transport helicopters to Islamabad. There have also been discussions about the sale of air defence systems and main battle tanks to Pakistan. The two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2015 after Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pakistan in 2014. The two countries have also conducted annual military exercises since 2016, the latest one, Druzhba-VI, in 2021 in Krasnodar in southern Russia. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister visited Pakistan in 2021 after a nine-year interval in anticipation of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, visited Russia and met Putin on 24 February 2022. This highlights the growing political, diplomatic and defence ties between the two countries (Menon & Rumer).
India is more anxious about the strengthening Russia–Pakistan relations than the burgeoning Russia–China relations because New Delhi perceives Islamabad as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty and national security. Any Russian sale of weapons to Islamabad is likely to embolden Islamabad, may affect the balance of power in South Asia and adversely affect regional stability. Pakistan may also feel encouraged to increase its support for NSAs to achieve foreign and security policy goals and ambitions especially against India and Indian interests in the region and beyond. Moscow might also be unwilling to provide diplomatic and political support to India in international fora, especially in the UNSC, with respect to Kashmir, Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism and other issues (Lalwani et al).
Raj Verma is Associate Professor of International Relations and Foreign Policy, Huaqiao University, Xiamen, China/ Head of Research, Intellisa Institute, Guangzhou, China.