India's diplomatic tightrope act in Russia's war on Ukraine

India's diplomatic tightrope act in Russia's war on Ukraine
5 min read
28 Jun, 2022
India has played a clever diplomatic game by straddling both sides in the Russian invasion Ukraine. The strategy has proved successful, but with mounting pressure it's unclear how long New Delhi's tightrope walk will last, writes Syed Fazl-e-Haider.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the Konstantin Palace on June 1, 2017 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. [Getty]

In the midst of the Russia-West rivalry playing out in Ukraine, there is a win-win situation for India, who has been playing on both sides of the wicket, simultaneously pursuing a policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.

Despite being a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue alliance, colloquially known as the Quad, with the United States, Japan, and Australia, India has maintained strong relations with Russia underpinned by arms and energy deals worth billions of dollars.

Quad is billed as an anti-China and anti-Russia alliance. Barring India, all the Quad countries have vehemently condemned Russia's invasion and aggression against Ukraine and imposed crippling sanctions against Moscow.

"War and conflicts create both challenges and opportunities, and in the case of Ukraine, India has taken full advantage of the opportunities"

But despite US pressure, India has not yet condemned Moscow's war against Ukraine and it even abstained from voting at the United Nations on a resolution condemning the invasion and demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Ironically, India has so far adopted a stance similar to that of China or its arch rival Pakistan when it comes to Ukraine. In other words, the Quad seems divided over the Ukraine war just because of New Delhi's ambiguous stand on Russia's invasion.

War and conflicts create both challenges and opportunities, and in the case of Ukraine, India has taken full advantage of the opportunities. For instance, New Delhi timely availed the opportunity of cheap Russian oil as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Despite sanctions slapped by the Western world against Moscow, India continues to amass stockpiles of cheap Russian crude.

In April, the heavily-sanctioned Russia became India's fourth-largest oil provider. Taking maximum advantage of cheap oil from Russia, India's state-run refiners, including Indian Oil Corp and Hindustan Petroleum, are now negotiating six-month contracts with the Kremlin to increase imports of Russian oil at discounts.

Similarly, the value of India's imports from Russia was three times higher during the period between February 24 (when Russia invaded Ukraine) and May 26 than the same period last year, pushing India's total goods imports from Russia during that period to $6.4 billion compared with $1.99 billion in the same period last year.

In this sense, India has been a key beneficiary of the trade and financial sanctions imposed by the US and European countries on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. In fact, the sanctions have opened up numerous avenues for Indian businesses across various sectors of the Russian economy, including foods, ceramics and chemicals.

Perspectives

Russia is also India’s biggest arms supplier, adding further reasons to why New Delhi has avoided antagonising Moscow. How can New Delhi spoil its relations with Moscow at a time when its deliveries of defence equipment are due from Russia?

The deliveries of Russia's long-range S-400 ground-to-air missile defence system to India began in December 2021 when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India. The two countries signed a 10-year defence technical cooperation agreement during the Putin-Modi summit in New Delhi. 

The broad sanctions targeting Russia’s defence sector have had a knock-off effect on India’s defence imports. India cannot afford further delays in delivery of Russian weapons and defence equipment at a time when it simultaneously faces grave security challenges on its border with both China and Pakistan.

"But what is commendable about India’s response is that, instead of rushing to profess loyalty to either side or bowing to US pressure, it safeguarded its economic and strategic interests by playing both sides"

Indian and Chinese forces have been locked in a border standoff since 2020 in the Himalayan region. In June 2020, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed  in a violent fist fight with the Chinese troops on Himalayan border.

Moreover, India faces a volatile situation on the Kashmir border with its arch rival Pakistan, which has moved closer to Russia. India is still without an easy fix to the complicated situation posing enormous challenges on its security front.

US President Joe Biden has criticised India over its shaky response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and declared India an exception among Washington's allies. The U.S has warned India of imposing sanctions on New Delhi for buying oil and weapons from Moscow and also suggested to voluntarily disengage from Russia. Critics in the US are in favour of tightening the squeeze on New Delhi for its purchase of weapons and oil imports from Russia.

Senator Bob Menendez, who heads the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, criticised India and said, “They go buy oil from Russia. They buy the S-400 [anti-missile system]. They abstain at the United Nations [on votes criticising Russia]....But they are a member of the Quad. So, at some point messages that we send globally here are inconsistent. When we say we’re ‘troubled’ and ‘disappointed,’ that doesn’t cut it.”

Last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on a European tour and during his meetings with several Western leaders, he only called for an immediate end to hostilities in Ukraine without explicitly condemning Russia, contrary to the expectations of some European leaders and to the disapproval of many.

But what is commendable about India’s response is that, instead of rushing to profess loyalty to either side or bowing to US pressure, it safeguarded its economic and strategic interests by playing both sides.

Virtually sandwiched between its allies and rivals, and with strong relations with both Quad allies and Russia, both sides seem to be tightening their squeeze on New Delhi to choose its camp.

For now, the big question remains: how long can India afford to walk on a diplomatic tightrope between the West and Russia over conflict in Ukraine?

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including 'Economic Development of Balochistan'.

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