Ukraine Crisis: India Walking a Tightrope between Kremlin and Washington

Ukraine Crisis: India Walking a Tightrope between Kremlin and Washington

Author Name: Maham S. Gillani       28 Feb 2022     India

Russia has been gathering troops along its border with Ukraine over the course of the past year, stoking fears of imminent invasion. According to some reports, it has amassed about 130,000 troops along parts of its border with Ukraine. Kyiv and NATO leaders have dubbed it an act of aggression that could spiral into the largest military conflict on the soil of Europe since World War II. Kremlin has denied having any such plans, although it has not withdrawn forces from the border. Diplomatic talks between Russia and the United States and its allies to de-escalate the situation have, thus far, not yielded any results.

India, being a close partner of the US as well as Russia, has maintained a largely ambivalent position about the Ukraine crisis to ensure that it does not antagonise either one. It is for this reason that New Delhi abstained from a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vote to discuss the Russian military threat to Kyiv. India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a soft statement urging Russia to exercise restraint and called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis only in late January. It is also to be noted that New Delhi’s calculated response to the Ukraine crisis came after the US President Biden warned of the possibility of Russian military incursion into Ukraine in February.

This crisis has left New Delhi, which has strategic ties with both Washington and Kremlin, in a bind. It does not want to upset Russia, its longtime ally and trusted friend. India’s ties with Russia hark back to the early years of the Cold War. The two countries signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1971 that cemented their relations. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia entered into a new Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1993 and a bilateral Military-Technical Cooperation agreement in 1994 with India. Indo-Russia ties were upgraded to a ‘Strategic Alliance’ in 2000 during Russian President Putin’s visit. Moreover, Kremlin remains the top arms supplier to India. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia accounted for virtually half of India’s arms imports from 2016-2020. More recently, India purchased the S-400 missile defence system from Russia.

On the other end of the spectrum, the crisis has put pressure on New Delhi to join the coalition of states opposing Kremlin’s military mobilisation along the Ukrainian border. India’s security ties with the US have fortified over the past two decades. The two countries have signed four important strategic agreements since 2002—GSOMIA, LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA—bolstering their defence ties. India was also made part of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD)—an informal strategic alliance which also includes Japan and Australia—to counter China. In this context, India risks losing its newly found relevance in the US foreign policy calculus by staying neutral on the Ukraine crisis.

India’s tilt towards illiberalism—growing fascism, bigotry, and religious discrimination—under the Modi regime has already irked many in Washington and raised questions about the extent of shared values between the two states. Daniel Markey, Senior Advisor at USIP, has already voiced these concerns, ‘US policymakers should not assume US-India convergence on liberal aims, including India’s commitment to the defense of the liberal international order.’ An ambivalent position in the Ukraine crisis would further undermine the notion that a powerful India—backed by the US notwithstanding its slide into saffron terrorism— benefits the West. Thus, India is walking a tightrope and the more things escalate, the greater the challenge it will face in balancing relations between Russia and the US.

Kremlin’s military action in Ukraine would heavily undercut Indian interests for several reasons. Fresh Russian military intervention in Ukraine would push Kremlin closer to Beijing and make it more dependent on Chinese political support, technology, and market access. A tighter embrace of China and Russia would also undermine the multipolarity sought by India. Moreover, the Ukraine crisis is likely to distract the US from its efforts to counter growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific—a region which India views as a theatre for expansion— and compel it to shift resources and attention to Europe. Additionally, the West could also impose sanctions on Russia which would impinge upon India’s robust defence ties with Moscow.

A full-scale war would be the worst possible case for New Delhi as its ambivalent position would become an untenable one. For now, the US has not asked India to choose sides. However, it is given special concessions by the US primarily because Washington views Delhi as a potential bulwark against Beijing, and that might change if US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate, and India maintains a ‘neutral’ position.

Maham S. Gillani is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com

Image Source: Ukrainian President asks India's Modi for UN Security Council Support (2022, February 26),  Dawn.  https://www.dawn.com/news/1677207

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