Author: Stuti Bhatnagar, ANU
While largely a European conflict, Russia’s assault against Ukraine has significance for South Asia too. It has brought to light India’s status as a regional power and exposed its limitations when exercising this power. India has repeatedly abstained from voting against Russia in the United Nations and is yet to publicly condemn Russia for its attack on Ukraine.
In an explanation of its vote, India supported the international community’s call for a ‘cessation of violence and hostilities’ and ‘stressed the need for diplomacy and dialogue to resolve the crisis’. New Delhi is constrained by its relationship with Moscow and has geopolitical stakes in this crisis, explaining its cautious approach so far.
India and Russia have enjoyed a special relationship even prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While India practiced non-alignment, its relationship with the Soviet Union flourished, visible in agreements including the 1971 Treaty of Friendship. The Russia–India relationship was later reinforced through the 2010 Declaration on Strategic Partnership and the reiteration of the special relationship in President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India in 2021.
The India–Russia relationship is most visible in the defence sector. India has remained the main recipient of Russian arms, accounting for 23 per cent of Russia’s total arms exports in 2016–20. An estimated 60–85 per cent of India’s military hardware is Russian, including submarines, tanks and combat aircraft. In 2018, India signed a US$5 billion deal for the procurement of Russian S-400 missile defence systems and formalised the manufacturing and co-production of frigates and the AK-203 assault rifle.
These orders and deliveries are projected to lead to an increase in Russian arms exports in the next five years. Russia is also crucial to Indian energy concerns and is a primary supplier of civilian nuclear technology.
Politically, Russia has expressed support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council and remains a key partner within the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) forum. Russian support is also instrumental in India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
The strong bilateral ties have been expressed with high-profile visits, including Putin’s visit to India in December 2021 and Modi’s visit to Vladivostok in 2019 that led to the announcement of India’s Act Far East Policy — extending a line of credit worth US$1 billion.
India’s relationship with Russia has, however, left it in a difficult position owing to its developing partnership with the United States. The deal for Russian-made S-400 missiles placed India under the shadow of Washington’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
India and the United States are also involved in the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad). This has made India a critical part of the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific and exalted India towards a more proactive political position in the region.
India’s relations with Russia are complicated by China’s increasing presence in the region, particularly due to the recent downturn in India–China relations. India is keen to retain its friendship with Russia in order to work towards bilateral goals and to prevent Russia from aligning more closely with China. Russia played a constructive role in bringing Indian and Chinese leadership to an agreement after the 2020 border conflict in Ladakh. While not officially recognised as a mediator, it is important to identify Russia’s role in facilitating de-escalation.
India also has stakes in Ukraine due to defence deals, particularly the US$400 million contract to upgrade the Indian Air Force’s An-32 fleet. India is Ukraine’s largest export destination in the Asia Pacific, purchasing agricultural and metallurgical products, plastics and polymers. India also exports pharmaceuticals, machinery, chemicals and food products to Ukraine.
While salvaging its economic and military interests in Ukraine and Russia is important for India, the safety of Indian students in Ukraine has required urgent attention. In a tense rescue operation, India has brought back over 17,000 of its nationals from Ukraine as of 9 March 2022.
The need for India to diversify its arms exports and increase self-reliance in defence manufacturing has found a new voice in the current crises. While the Indian government has embarked on a number of initiatives — including Make in India in 2014 and the Aatmanirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) idea in 2020 — collaboration with Russia remains crucial. Sanctions on Russian imports would likely impact India’s defence industry and associated projects, such as the recently signed US$375 million BrahMos cruise missile contract between India and the Philippines, which requires vital components from Russia.
While India’s partners in the Quad and other Western states, including Ukraine, have expressed disappointment in New Delhi’s inability or unwillingness to condemn Russia, a broader understanding of Indian policy interests offers a better picture. The government is keen to continue on the stated path of ‘multipolarity’ to guide its international behaviour, particularly towards Russia, offering an opportunity for the ‘legitimate pursuit of flexibility without seeking exclusivity’.
The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the limitations of India’s power and brought into question its reliability as an Indo-Pacific actor. Given geopolitical concerns and strategic interests, India is likely to continue balancing its relationships with Russia and the West as it attempts to safeguard critical military and energy needs and to prevent China from acquiring a stronger position in the region.
Stuti Bhatnagar is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Asian Security) at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.
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