Where does India fit into the Russo-Ukraine War?
There are a multitude of terms that have been coined to describe India’s geopolitical positioning in relation to the Russo-Ukraine War, from ‘strategic ambivalence’, to ‘omni-alignment’ and ‘proactive neutrality’. India’s foreign policy of strategic autonomy remains consistent and undeniable during the conflict. It has failed to outright condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
As an emerging and influential player in the world economy, and having close ties with both the West and Russia, what is India’s role in the Russo-Ukraine conflict?
Where does India stand?
India’s position on the Russo-Ukraine war is clear. They have never openly condemned Russia’s invasion of its former Soviet neighbour, notably in the G20 Comminiqué, and abstained from successive votes in the United Nations (UN) Security Council, and General Assembly on 12 October 2022. In the same vein, India has openly pushed for dialogue, diplomacy, and the cessation of hostilities since the beginning of the conflict. It wishes for a world order that remains consistent to international law and the UN charter of 1945. Ultimately, India advocates for territorial integrity and the sovereignty of all states.
For many in the West, most notably the United States (US), India’s stance on Russia’s actions is troubling. Not only does it mark a clear division between India and the US’s view on violating territorial sovereignty, but also that India remains subtly committed to its 50-year relationship with Russia through diplomatic neutrality. However, this diplomatic difference has not shaken their strategic cooperation in terms of commerce, technology sharing, academic institutions and security.
Despite the diplomatic controversy of refusing to openly condemn Russia, India plays a significant role in calling for the resumption of the Black Sea Initiative, measures to avoid civilian casualties, the avoidance of nuclear weapons and crucially, a ceasefire. In the eyes of the West, a small “win” occurred in September 2022 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit when Modi expressed public dissatisfaction by telling Putin that today's era was “not the era of war”. After all, India needs as much global stability as possible in order to thrive economically and geopolitically. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more concerned with the global spike in food and fuel prices as a direct consequence of the war.
India and Russia’s special relationship
In delving into the context of the “steady and time-tested” relationship between India and Russia, India’s decision to abstain from condemning becomes clear. From the genesis of their anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-West bonding during the Cold War, India has come to depend on, and benefit from Russia’s arms dealing, cheap gas and oil, and strategic diplomacy. Both have also been sceptical of the assertive Chinese sphere of influence since the late 1970s, and have assumed proactive positions to counter this through various dialogues and trade agreements.
Throughout the 20th century, the (then) Soviet Union used its veto powers to the benefit of protecting India after certain military advances and conflicts in Kashmir, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war and the annexation of Goa in 1961. India has returned this favour not only during the Ukraine war, but also formerly during the likes of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1989 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Additionally, a genuine concern of India is that by publicly condemning Russia, it would only alienate them further from the international community. This would only compromise India’s own security, as Russia would possibly turn east to deepen ties with China and Pakistan. A bolstered Pakistan would certainly affect the balance of power in South Asia and directly threaten New Delhi militarily, especially in the Kashmir region. India wants to ensure that a Chinese-Russian partnership does not end up in a Chinese-dominated exchange whereby India becomes marginalised and has its advanced technology, military equipment and arms deals sidelined. Russia needs a degree of strength in order to reinforce multipolarity in Asia and resist Chinese hegemony.
Moscow’s arms trade and military exports have allowed India to continually enforce its territorial integrity. Up to 60 per cent of India’s defence equipment and technologies originate from Russia as of 2023, equating to an estimated $13 billion in the past five years alone. Additionally, as the third-largest consumer of oil in the world, India has ramped up the purchasing of discounted gas since the beginning of the conflict. From 2022, India imported 33 times more crude oil than from the previous year. Therefore, as India’s material demands run at an all-time high, condemning such a pivotal partner would be an act of self-sabotage’, especially when the US is not a decisive replacement.
How close are India and Ukraine?
As an aspiring player on the world stage, India’s proactive neutrality for Ukraine takes the form of verbal support for peace and humanitarian aid. In May of this year, Modi met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the G7 summit in Japan, assuring him that India would do “everything it can” to help bring an end to the war. New Delhi has worked closely with Kyiv in affected war zones to provide humanitarian assistance and critical participation in rescue operations for civilians like ‘Operation Ganga’, rescuing 22,500 Indians and nationals from surrounding countries.
The G20 Summit and related events were an opportune time to emphasise the crisis in Ukraine. Yet, despite the hopes from Ukrainian officials that India would play a larger role as a mediator as G20 President, no invite was extended to Vladimir Zelenskyy to the Summit. Despite it being seen as exclusion by many in the West, India claimed that no invites could be extended to non-G20 members.
However, this occurred at a point in the conflict where no ceasefire and negotiations would likely eventuate into anything meaningful. When a stalemate occurs, or when both sides are ready to meet at the negotiating table with true intent, India’s role may be more impactful then. After all, India has the confidence of Russia, Western powers and the large part of the Global South, and is a growing power committed to resolution through negotiations and global institutions. Senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Rick Russow, emphasised India’s influence by stating they are one of a few powers that can “pick up the phone and talk to leadership in both the United States and Russia on the same day”.
The effects of the war on the Global South is an important factor that shapes India’s role in the Ukraine conflict. As the self-proclaimed “voice of the Global South”, India’s calls for peace are in lockstep with the central issues and pressures - like inflation, energy prices, weak national currencies and food security - that are profoundly impacting these countries post COVID-19. Indeed, to many developing economies, the war in Ukraine is distracting the West from addressing these crippling issues, and further exacerbating its devastating effects.
Despite US and NATO efforts to achieve universal condemnation of Russia amongst nonaligned Global South states in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, many developing countries find themselves in the same situation as New Delhi. They must take into account the relationships and material reliance that many African, Latin American and Central Asian states have with Russia. Many states loyal to the ethos of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) still depend on Russia’s imports or have a rosy view of the Soviet Union’s successor, which acted as a symbol against European and American neo-colonial oppression during the 20th century.
Overall, India’s approach to the Russian war in Ukraine is much more about self-interest and an 'India first'-style foreign policy. It is likely that India will not have to pick a side between the West and Russia in the near future. New Delhi will ensure its strategic partnerships and autonomy remains intact, all while maintaining its principled diplomatic stance of dialogue and peace until the end of the war.
India also hopes to maintain its intermediary role in a multipolar world order as it ascends to great power status. By pursuing their own geopolitical interests without entangling alignments, India can leverage its beneficial relationships and bounce between poles. Their stance on the war will certainly keep the Global South ‘onside’ through drawing attention to the issues that trouble these states.
India is therefore untroubled by taking a diplomatic hit on its image from the West in order to maintain its longstanding relationship with Russia. It is doubtful India will ever publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and give up its tradition of strategic neutrality, as the geopolitical ramifications of further alienating Russia are too great.
Lachie Kappa graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations), with an emphasis on History and French studies. He has developed an interest in analysing security and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific and Francosphere