The Russian invasion of Ukraine began more than two weeks ago. While Europe has felt the direct impact of the crisis on its borders, with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring in every day, India, like many other countries in the Indo-Pacific has also been indirectly affected. Irrespective of how India has positioned itself, the Ukraine crisis will have important implications.
The Indian reaction to the invasion of Ukraine is more nuanced than its 2014 response to the annexation of Crimea. Dr. C. Raja Mohan, one of India’s foremost strategic analysts, is clear in stating that “Delhi can’t forever view this critical region [Central Europe] through the prism of Russia’s conflict with the West. It must come to terms with its growing strategic significance,” while respecting the region’s “salience [and] independence.”
Considering India’s long-standing relations with Russia, New Delhi is likely to be impacted in several ways. So far, India has abstained on all the votes at the United Nations that condemned Russia, but retired Indian diplomats dispute the contention that India, in doing so, is favoring Russia. For example, former Indian envoy to the U.N. Syed Akbaruddin said that India’s abstention on critical votes at the U.N. does not mean support for Russia. Certainly, the explanations offered by the Indian ambassador at the U.N. have evolved to become more critical of Russia, at least implicitly. Although refusing to directly name Russia, India has reiterated the importance of the U.N. Charter and the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all U.N. member states.
India will be under considerable pressure from the West to take a more direct stand against Russia and new compulsions will come into play in balancing its relations with the U.S. and Russia moving forward. For example, P.S. Raghavan, former ambassador to Russia and ex-chairman of National Security Advisory Board, argued that India faces pressure on relations with both Russia and the U.S. and it will be challenging: “We had this in the past, too, from 2014 onwards and we have managed to keep our two relationships separate. So, this will be a continuous challenge at the political level.” Other retired diplomats maintained a similar stand. Former Ambassador N. Parthasarathi, for instance, said that India is having to find a balance in its reaction in order to “not displease any of them [the U.S. and West, as well as Russia] and maintain their trust.”
Even those like Pankaj Saran, former deputy national security adviser and a former ambassador to Russia, who appeared at times to justify the Russian invasion, concede the difficulties India faces in managing these relations: “We have had to face a lot of fire from both of them [Russia and China] about this growth in the relationship with the U.S.” Another former Indian ambassador to Russia, Venkatesh Verma, also acknowledged that Russia crossed a huge “red line” with its military invasion of Ukraine but argues that there have been “miscalculations” on all sides – the West miscalculating Russian weakness and Russia making a miscalculation about the West’s swift response. He also applauded the Indian stand as “a perfect blend of realism, pragmatism, and tactical flexibility. India’s abstention at the UNSC ensures diplomatic maneuverability.”
Another broad concern is about China-Russia relations: a Russia that is sanctioned and isolated by the West will be forced to grow closer to China, which will impact Indian national security.
However, New Delhi also has an appreciation of the need for the U.S. in managing China and the broader Indo-Pacific security dynamics. Therefore, some diplomats have argued that India “needs to balance its reaction as it needs U.S. friendship, especially given the threat to Indian borders from China and its attempts to dominate the South China Sea.” Shyam Saran, a former head of India’s foreign service, wrote that “the nightmare scenario for India would be if the US decides that it confronts a greater threat from Russia and that this justifies a strategic accommodation with China.” This would essentially mean that the U.S. “concede[s] Chinese dominance in Asia while safeguarding its European flank. This may well secure China’s unipolar moment but US obsession with Russia may obscure this eventuality.” This would also mean that India will be on its own fighting China and, of course, Beijing’s all-weather friend, Pakistan, with neither the U.S. nor Russia on New Delhi’s side.
A general view is that this crisis will impact the Indian economy, which is barely coming out of the economic crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic, especially considering the impact of rising oil prices. There are concerns also that the economic sanctions imposed on Russia will have spillover effects across different sectors. A more serious worry is about the heavy Indian dependence on Russian military hardware. India has made serious efforts to diversify its defense suppliers to the point where SIPRI notes that the “overall decrease in Russia’s arms exports between 2011–15 and 2016–20 was almost entirely attributable to a 53 per cent drop in its arms exports to India.” This reduction has brought down “its [Russian] share of total Indian arms imports from 70 to 49 per cent.”
An immediate Indian concern is about possible delays to the S-400 Triumf air defense system. The S-400 delivery to India started only in December and India worries that the arrival of the remaining hardware could be affected. A longer term concern is how the current crisis has restricted India’s maneuvering space for purchase of Russian equipment. The sanctions that have cut off Russia from the international banking system, SWIFT, have also been of concern because it would complicate India’s payments to Russia.
The S-400s are not the only pieces of equipment that will be affected. The 2019 India-Russia agreement for leasing of additional nuclear submarines may be affected too. There could also be other effects on maintenance, repair, and overhaul, as well as upgrades and timely availability of spares and components.
Further, Russia’s plans to sell four Admiral Grigorovich Project 1135.6M stealth frigates – two to be built in Russia and two indigenously developed through a transfer of technology arrangement – could also be affected. India is also in the negotiation phase for a couple of other defense items, including an additional 18 Su-30 fighter jets, 21 MiG-29s, joint production of Ka-226 light utility helicopters, and purchase of light tanks. A deal signed in December 2021 for the supply of 20,000 Kalashnikov AK-203 7.62×39 mm assault rifles could also run into rough weather. How the war and the sanctions on Russia might impact the planned export of BrahMos cruise missiles to the Philippines is equally unclear. Analysts fear the deal “would be imperiled and could be scrapped.”
In all, India’s strategic situation has now become even more complicated than it was just two weeks ago.