With Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, even distant India found itself facing certain challenges. The first and foremost problem is the evacuation of thousands of Indian citizens, mostly students, who are currently trying to flee the Russian assault. The second is that New Delhi is diplomatically trapped between two good partners: the West and Moscow, with the former expecting India to condemn Russian aggression and the latter hoping that India will stay neutral. This is the context behind New Delhi abstaining in the latest two U.N. draft resolutions that called for Russia to end its invasion. Here, however, I assume that the reader knows about these events from the press, and I will move on to my opinion on this – an opinion which many in the West may not like. The opinion is this: the West – Europe, North America, Australia – should not pressure India to condemn Russia.
This, however, does not mean that I believe the West should do nothing about India-Russia relations. Many methods of weakening Russian power must be used, but they need to be wise ones. In the case of New Delhi, the West must recognize Indian interests and work them into the equation.
Let me start with a very personal disclaimer. In current circumstances, it was extremely difficult for me to separate my personal opinions from the assessment of Indian policy. I am Polish and I am writing this sitting in Poland: a country where so many Ukrainians live, a country that is trying to help Ukraine in a number of ways, a country that has already accepted nearly half a million refugees from Ukraine. Thus, as far as my personal views are concerned, I wish that India would not only condemn Russia for attacking Ukraine, but, ideally, would join NATO and stop buying military hardware from Russia – the larger the anti-Russian front, the better. For years, many countries in our region, including my own, have warned about the looming Russian menace, and only a part of the audience in Western Europe listened. The awakening has happened only now, but at least it is taking place very quickly.
Why, therefore, when the chances of extending this chorus of voices critical of Putin have suddenly grown, do I recommend that Western governments not pressure India?
First, it is because I am aware that my opinions on this subject do not overlap with what the New Delhi government wants. As a Polish person, I want India to join the Western camp. As a person trying to follow Indian foreign policy, I know that New Delhi wants to remain outside any formal alliance. Second, it is because I am aware that sermonizing other governments does not work (and sometimes is counterproductive).
Western governments should not simply tell India what to do. Instead, they should offer cooperation with India in fields of mutual interest.
Before asking India to speak against Russia we, the West, must ask ourselves: Did we clearly stand on India’s side during the India-Pakistan tensions – for instance, in 2019? No. Did we clearly stand on India’s side during the India-Bhutan-China tensions in 2017, or India-China tensions in Ladakh in 2020? No.
On the other hand, it is very possible that in near future, India and large parts of the West will start speaking about China – in matters concerning security – in virtually the same ways, and will start to support each other more often against the PRC’s increasingly aggressive overtures. We can already see such convergence taking shape, particularly between India and countries like the U.S., France, Australia, and also Japan – but not between India as a West as a whole, and certainly not between India and European Union as a whole.
More importantly, even with China becoming the likely axis of West-India security cooperation, New Delhi will still have no interest in cooperating against Russia: a country which does not pose a danger to India, and which is still one of the main sources of military hardware for New Delhi’s armed forces. The West, in turn, will feel it has no interest in cooperating with India against Pakistan. Paradoxically, Pakistan was a foe when American forces were fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it was then that the West and India could have, but didn’t, cooperate against Pakistan, if not for the fact that at the same time Pakistan was a U.S. ally. Now, with people of Afghanistan abandoned to the Taliban, the West has neither a reason to cooperate with Pakistan nor act against it. This will only change in case Pakistan becomes a full-fledged Chinese ally and starts acting against the West. And yet, even then, such factors by themselves would not be a reason for New Delhi to abandon its partnership with Moscow.
Even while we, the West, need to counter Russian hegemony, today’s world is still largely based on what I could call “hedgemony” – many countries hedging their bets and working differently on various fronts, rather than a bipolar system. To list just some instances: the U.S. used to cooperate with both India and Pakistan, and sold military hardware to both at the same time. In turn, India buys military hardware from both the U.S. and Russia, and has good relations with both, even though Russia keeps selling military hardware to both India and China, while Pakistan, in turn, is buying it from China while still technically being a NATO partner country. This is not a simple binary situation, and pulling a country to one alliance in such complex web of relations is not easy.
The way forward is to find areas of convergence with New Delhi, rather than lecture India on the aspects on which we disagree. Even from the short summary above it is clear that the security interests of India and West are not convergent when it comes to Russia. But what they are convergent on is China: Both sides are concerned with Beijing’s territorial claims, cybersecurity threats, and the nature of some of China’s economic actions. There are various ways in which India and the West can, and should, cooperate.
Let me reiterate, however, that not pushing New Delhi to diplomatically condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not mean that the West should just ignore India-Russia relations. Discussing issues is not the same as exerting diplomatic influence. Presenting one’s perspective is not the same as telling another government what to do. While the New Delhi government remains neutral, a considerable number of Indian media have used the word “invasion” to describe what Moscow has done. Unluckily for the Russian-Indian partnership, this time the government of Vladimir Putin struck at a country where thousands of Indians study (probably even more than there are Indian students in Russia). It is clear for Indian media that Indian citizens are fleeing Russian attacks, and that it is other, neighboring countries – not Russia and not Belarus – which are hosting Indian citizens and helping them be evacuated. This is a perfect moment to highlight the aggressive nature of Putin’s actions.
More importantly, Russia does not have much to offer by way of trade when energy resources and military hardware are not counted. The goal, thus, should be to undermine Russian exports even further, weakening the economic foundations of Russian military might. Indo-Russian economic exchange is not actually at a very high level, and India-Russia cooperation mainly rests on the arms trade and energy (namely, Russian assistance in the construction of Indian nuclear reactors). In a recent text for Nikkei Asia, James Crabtree suggests, in a nutshell, that the West offer India what Russia has offered: military hardware, thereby reducing New Delhi’s dependence on Moscow.
In a certain way, this was exactly what has transpired over the past few years, even though Western companies and governments offered their products for commercial, not political, reasons. With most Russian equipment in the hands of the Indian Army growing old, and with the West being often able to offer more advanced systems, Russia has begun to face immense competition from the U.S. (and, to lesser extent, France and Israel). In luxurious bids which took place over the last decade, the Indian Army for instance chose the American Chinook helicopter over the Russian Mi-26, the Apache over the Mi-28, and the French Dassault Rafale fighter over the MiG-35.
But on other occasions, the West was not that forthcoming. India does not enjoy the status of a major non-NATO ally of the U.S., and Washington is reluctant to share its newer military technology with New Delhi. Moreover, the threat of U.S. CAATSA sanctions still looms over New Delhi for purchasing the Russian S-400 system. A second reason to focus on arms trade is China. In another instance of “hedgemony,” New Delhi is forced to accept that Russia keeps selling a lot of military hardware to China as well (and in some cases even more sophisticated machinery than what was on offer to India). Indians probably accept this only because Moscow sells to them as well, so it may be inferred that if Russia ceases to be a major supplier to India, New Delhi would be free to criticize Moscow’s dealings with Beijing.
The goal, thus, should be to come up with better offers for India. This is a far more constructive approach than diplomatic scolding, as it includes negotiating deals, and therefore recognizing the interests of both sides, not just those of one.