Ukraine crisis not some distant trouble in faraway land; it will present India with toxic choices and deep-seated consequences

Washington’s preoccupation with Russia in Europe is also detrimental to India because it takes away America’s attention from the Indo-Pacific and the challenge posed by China

Sreemoy Talukdar January 13, 2022 21:21:10 IST
Ukraine crisis not some distant trouble in faraway land; it will present India with toxic choices and deep-seated consequences

Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces walks on a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near to Avdiivka, Donetsk, southeastern Ukraine, on 8 January, 2022. AFP/ Anatolii Stepanov

The post-Cold War security order of Europe is undergoing a profound challenge. There is, however, very little interest in India over the developments. This is curious, because the geopolitical waves being created in Europe will inevitably come crashing on Indian shores — more so because the actor in the thick of it all is Russia, a country that increasingly thinks of itself as a great power, and shares ties that are consequential for India’s national security.

When Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived in India last month — only the second time he had embarked on a foreign trip in 2021 — signs of a palpable urgency from both sides to address the issues plaguing the bilateral relationship were evident.

It manifested itself in the inaugural 2+2 dialogue, the number of wide-ranging agreements, protocols and deals that were struck and the (albeit nascent) attempts to shift the levers of bilateral economic engagement from government-to-government to more private sector participation. There was talk of boosting bilateral trade to $30 billion and investments by $50 billion by 2025.

India’s decision to go ahead with the procurement of Russian S-400 air defence system — the first tranche of which was delivered in December — despite American resistance and threat of sanctions adds to the sense of mutual resolve.

On his part, Putin called India a “great power”, a “friendly” country and a “time-tested friend”. Despite divergence positions on global developments, India and Russia share a historical partnership that hasn’t faced any serious internal challenges.

If anything, there’s a still a lot of residual goodwill and trust among the publics in both sides.

As Dmitri Trenin, a former army man and director of Carnegie Moscow Centre, points out: “ordinary Russians see India as a reliably friendly country with which their own nation has a virtually problem-free relationship. For their part, most Indians regard Russia as a proven friend that in the course of India’s seventy-five years of independence has never caused their country strategic harm.”

China’s meteoric rise as a presumptive superpower has upended the existing order, and not just in Asia. Concurrently, Russia’s deteriorating relations with the United States have introduced a series of profound structural challenges to the India-Russia “special and privileged strategic partnership” that cannot be addressed merely by adding more adjectives to bilateral ties.

As New Delhi’s own ties with Washington charted a rapid progress, driven by their shared concerns over China, Moscow has moved closer to Beijing driven by shared interests in Eurasia. Notwithstanding mutual historical grievances, the increasingly entrenched and synergetic ties between Russia and China are due to the fact that both see Eurasia as their strategic backyard and are keen on developing their respective spheres of influence. That hasn’t brewed a competition between the two, rather a dovetailing of interests egged on by the challenges posed by the US and its NATO alliance partners to their objectives.

In a nutshell, while there has been no major friction between India and Russia — apart from a general drift in ties as a result of a lack of common goal — bilateral relationship has been greatly affected by India’s tilt towards the US, policy frameworks arising out of that cooperation, Russia’s courting of China and Moscow’s tendency to keep India out of its vision of Centra Asian security architecture.

A layer of complexity has been added to the ties due to America’s recognition of China as its peer competitor and plummeting ties with Moscow, and a progressively powerful Beijing’s defiance of America’s global dominance and frameworks.

To be fair to Modi and Putin, both leaders appear aware of the scale of the challenge at hand, are realistic about the degree to which these trends can be reversed but have nevertheless shown an earnestness to arrest the drift, renovate the legacy relationship and place it within a geopolitical context that is vastly different from the Cold War-era.

The maiden 2+2 dialogue framework, that India had reserved so far for its Quad partners, a series of engagements just in the last year itself  or here that include Modi’s call with Putin last August or his address at Eastern Economic Forum in September point to the importance India attaches to the partnership with Russia.

And there are reasons. Though India has been trying to diversify its arms procurement with an increasing focus on domestic production, the legacy remains overwhelmingly Russian.

That creates own set of complications.

As MIT professor Vipin Narang writes in The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, “In peacetime, India’s force posture readiness is critically dependent on maintenance and spare parts from Russia. In a protracted conflict, moreover, Russia could cripple India’s military services by withholding replacements and spares. This means India cannot realistically unwind its relationship with Moscow for at least decades, while these platforms continue to serve as the backbone of Indian military power.”

Relatedly, Russia’s flexibility in collaborating with New Delhi’s ‘Make In India’ strategy when it comes to defence equipment also helps maintain Moscow’s salience.

Ties with Russia are also an important component of India’s diversification of foreign policy strategy that relies on developing ties with a wide basket of partners to achieve maximum benefits and preserve policy space.

Faced with an aggressive China that seeks to undermine India’s rise, New Delhi also sees Russia as a crucial part of the solution. Despite facing frequent scepticism on its policy of continuing with different forums such as SCO, RIC and BRICS — that are said to be overlapping, ineffectual and even subversive towards Indian grand strategy — New Delhi has persisted with these frameworks, especially ones such as RIC (Russia, India, China), despite emerging policy differences because it considers forums such as these important to shape the China-Russia dynamic.

The importance of this dynamic has increased with the rising graph of China’s dominance in Asia. Given the growing strategic synergy between Moscow and Beijing, New Delhi considers maintenance and betterment of ties with Russia as imperative to manage its relationship with China. For instance, during the 2+2 defence and foreign ministerial dialogue, India mentioned “extraordinary militarisation” in its neighbourhood and “unprovoked aggression” along its northern border as some of its chief challenges.

A Moscow that is increasingly reliant on China and aligned with security and economic dimensions will be less amenable to India’s overtures on China. As Brookings Institution scholar Tanvi Madan writes in War on the Rocks, “For Delhi, a Russia that treats China as a rival helps shape the regional balance of power in a way that could keep Beijing from dominating. In its experience, when China and Russia have been distant, India has benefited. On the other hand, when Beijing and Moscow have been close — as they were during the initial years of the Cold War — it has caused complications for India.”

Amid these emerging dynamics, legacy partnerships and India’s own quest for space to facilitate its rise, it has been carefully calibrating its ties with Russia, often at the cost of overlooking some provocations, such as Moscow’s bitter criticism of Indo-Pacific strategy or Russia’s moves to develop security ties with Pakistan.

All these careful calibrations, however, are at risk from the crisis unfolding at the heart of Europe. If Russia’s rivalry with the West intensifies further, and there is every chance it will, the trajectory of Russia-China relationship will head further in a direction that would be more disadvantageous for India.

The Ukraine crisis, that has seen Russia amassing around 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, has been a long time coming.

At the heart of the crisis lies Russia’s effort to determine the future security order in Europe, and US-led West’s determination in not allowing that to happen. The issue is structural, and hence beyond cosmetic solutions. Russia perceives itself as a country that is growing out of its weaknesses and post-Cold War humiliation into a great power that must secure for itself the necessary spheres of influence and security interests, and is willing to shape the current security architecture even with force, if needed, to make that happen. That Russian resolve has ran into Western interests and principles that see Putin’s moves as intimidatory and aimed at “neutering” NATO.

Conversely, threatened by what it calls NATO’s expansion into the east — a move that has its roots in 2008 at NATO’s Bucharest summit when then US president George W Bush pushed for Ukraine and Georgia to be inducted into the NATO fold  — Putin wants concrete guarantees from the West that Ukraine or other former Soviet states will never be allowed to join NATO, and the alliance’s military deployments will be withdrawn from countries in Eastern and Central Europe that joined NATO after 1997.

These demands have been dismissed by the US during Monday’s talks as unrealistic and a “non-starter” because “not a single ally inside the NATO alliance is willing to budge or negotiate anything as it relates to NATO’s open-door policy”.

While a few rounds of talks are still left, Wednesday’s discussions between Russia and NATO have added to the fatalism. Russia has indicated that it will quickly take a decision whether more talks are worthwhile, while NATO has admitted that “there are significant differences” between itself and Russia, even though it called the talks a “positive sign”.

For now, a precarious stalemate continues with any rapprochement looking unlikely. While the West considers Russia’s diplomatic moves as half-hearted and a “ruse” to invade Ukraine — with US secretary of state Tony Blinken accusing Russia of “gaslighting” the world — Putin believes that the threat on Russia’s western border is “rising”, and while he has denied any plans to invade Biden, the Russian president has nevertheless threatened to take appropriate “military-technical measures” if his demands are not met.

It is understandable that for now both sides are relying on diplomacy, but it isn’t clear how a solution will emerge when negotiating positions are so stiff. Putin, who had on earlier occasions dismissed the salience of Ukraine as a republic in its own right, is driven by a sense of revanchism. He wants to constitute former USSR republics into an exclusive sphere of Russian influence, whereas the US and NATO want to discuss Russia’s “provocative” behaviour that they say has precipitated this crisis.

If a “pan-European security order that includes Russia and reduces the risks of crises and confrontations on the continent” were to emerge, as Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon write in Politico, that will involve some compromises. And that is where the problem lies. An off-ramp will be difficult for Putin since he has painted himself into a corner, and any overture on Washington’s part will have serious domestic repercussions for US president Joe Biden who is sure to eb designated by his rivals and critics as “weak.”

On the contrary, facing plummeting ratings, Biden will be tempted to talk tough on Russia and a section of American natsec community will only be too happy to goad him on, judging by the tone and tenor of some articles that are being written. For instance, in a recent column, Evelyn Farkas, who had served as deputy assistant secretary of defence in the Obama administration, has called for “war against Russia over Ukraine”.

War or not, the US has promised crippling sanctions against Russia if Putin raids Ukraine, that may include cutting off Moscow from the SWIFT system that rules global financial network resulting in paralysing Russian banking system to “imposing an embargo on American-made or American-designed technology needed for defence-related and consumer industries, and (even) arming insurgents in Ukraine who would conduct what would amount to a guerrilla war.”

An article in The New York Times, that has since been criticized by the Russian side for setting the “wrong atmosphere” for talks, further says that US will also target Russia with technology sanctions that would focus on “Putin’s favoured industries — particularly aerospace and arms, which are major producers of revenue for the Russian government. The focus would be on Russian-built fighter aircraft, antiaircraft systems, anti-satellite systems, space systems and emerging technologies.”

A Russia at odds with the West is bad enough for India, a Russia at war with US is worse. Short of war, even western sanctions on Russia may pose deep challenges for India. As scholar Tanvi Madan outlined in a recent thread, there are several reasons why India would hope fervently for a rapid de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis.

One, a further intensification of the crisis may force India to choose sides. If Putin chooses to raid Ukraine, even if it is a piecemeal or incremental effort, India would be faced with a dilemma. If New Delhi chooses to stay silent — as it did during Russia’s annexation of Crimean Peninsula in 2014 — it will be seen as an endorsement of Putin’s move (at least Moscow will take it so) and India’s burgeoning strategic ties with the US may get affected. As Tanvi Madan writes on Twitter, “it will bring India-US contradictions on Russia to the fore, even as their convergences on China have been growing.”

Conversely, speaking out publicly will be taken as an affront by Russia, and it will have a bearing on the Russia-China dynamic that is of great importance for India.

Prolonging of the crisis, even if it doesn’t escalate, creates problems for India because antagonism between US and Russia pushes Moscow closer to Beijing. This doesn’t help India because a tightening of a Sino-Russian axis is less useful for India in countering the malevolent tactics of China in Asia. For instance, amid heightened border tension in June 2020, India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh had gone to Moscow to press for an expedited delivery of the S400 air defence system — a request that was favourably taken by Russia. Under altered circumstances, Russia may not appear amenable to such requests.

Washington’s preoccupation with Russia in Europe is also detrimental to India because it distracts America from the Indo-Pacific and the challenge posed by China.​

These difficulties come along with the more obvious ones that a Russian defence sector, sanctioned further by the West, will mean for India that is still heavily dependent on Russian equipment and plans to procure a lot more Russian weaponry and systems.

The crisis has unfolded at a time when Russia is delivering the S400 air defence systems to India. So far, the US has been unwilling to impose the CAATSA sanctions on India — a position that has bipartisan support in Washington — but this position may change if circumstances are altered.

To sum up, the Ukrainian crisis is not some distant trouble in a faraway land for India. Its unfolding, escalation and intensification will have real time and deep-seated consequences.


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