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India Has Its Own Ideas About Russia and Ukraine

New Delhi likes the idea of a sphere of influence—but has good reasons to worry about a European conflict.

Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
C. Raja Mohan
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Modi and Putin in Russia
Modi and Putin in Russia
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 4, 2019. MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP via Getty Images

India’s decision to abstain from the procedural vote on Ukraine at the United Nations Security Council on Jan. 31 reminded many observers of India’s presumed instinct to sit on the fence. But India’s decision to avoid entangling itself in the standoff between Russia and the West was driven by far more complex reasons than any attachment to its old ideology of nonalignment. India has a much greater interest in the faraway European crisis than appearances suggest. That’s because Ukraine raises important questions about power and principle that deeply affect India’s security—and highlight the dependence of Asia’s security on stability in Europe.

To be sure, India likes the idea of a sphere of influence that Russia is said to be seeking in Eastern Europe. Preserving India’s South Asian sphere of influence—a view of the country’s role inherited from the British Raj—has been one of more enduring elements of independent India’s foreign policy.

Yet, at the same time, New Delhi can’t buy into Moscow’s promotion by military means of what the latter considers self-determination in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The parallels between how Russia sees Crimea and Donbass on the one hand and how Pakistan views Indian-administered Kashmir on the other hand can be argued. But Moscow undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the name of shared history and culture—and backing militants to achieve its objectives—generates deep discomfort in New Delhi.

India’s decision to abstain from the procedural vote on Ukraine at the United Nations Security Council on Jan. 31 reminded many observers of India’s presumed instinct to sit on the fence. But India’s decision to avoid entangling itself in the standoff between Russia and the West was driven by far more complex reasons than any attachment to its old ideology of nonalignment. India has a much greater interest in the faraway European crisis than appearances suggest. That’s because Ukraine raises important questions about power and principle that deeply affect India’s security—and highlight the dependence of Asia’s security on stability in Europe.

To be sure, India likes the idea of a sphere of influence that Russia is said to be seeking in Eastern Europe. Preserving India’s South Asian sphere of influence—a view of the country’s role inherited from the British Raj—has been one of more enduring elements of independent India’s foreign policy.

Yet, at the same time, New Delhi can’t buy into Moscow’s promotion by military means of what the latter considers self-determination in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The parallels between how Russia sees Crimea and Donbass on the one hand and how Pakistan views Indian-administered Kashmir on the other hand can be argued. But Moscow undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the name of shared history and culture—and backing militants to achieve its objectives—generates deep discomfort in New Delhi.

On the face of it, India has no dog in the Ukraine fight. It is a proverbial quarrel about a faraway country New Delhi has no capacity to influence. However, India’s abstention in the Security Council, backed by a call for “quiet and constructive diplomacy,” was based on an important recognition: There will be serious consequences for India—both in the near and long term—if it comes to military blows over Ukraine.

For one, an escalation would likely wreak havoc in global oil and gas markets, where Russian companies play an enormous role. The resulting upsurge in prices is bound to undermine reemerging confidence about India’s economy, which is forecast to grow by 9 percent this year. Rising oil prices could also cast a shadow over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prospects in upcoming state elections; high inflation has always triggered political volatility in India.

Naturally, some in the Washington commentariat find India’s balancing act between the United States and Russia unacceptable.

That the Ukraine question pits India’s long-standing partner Russia against its new Western friends is creating further unease. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed New Delhi to hold onto its past relationship with Moscow while expanding its ties with Washington. But growing U.S.-Russian tensions, which could see the United States imposing sanctions on India for acquiring S-400 air defense missiles from Russia, have begun to constrict India’s room for maneuvering between the major powers. Any escalation of the crisis over Ukraine would further squeeze India’s position.

As Indian strategic engagement with the United States has grown in recent years, the Modi government has shifted its reaction to developments in Ukraine ever so slightly. In 2014, the government of then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talked about Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine; today, the Modi government underlines the “legitimate security interests of all countries” in Ukraine.

Naturally, some in the Washington commentariat find India’s careful balancing act between the United States and Russia unacceptable. These voices want India to join the Beltway chorus on international issues and demonstrate its fealty to a strategic partnership with the United States. This is utterly unrealistic.

Many in New Delhi are perplexed by the idea that India’s position on Ukraine could be such a concern in Washington—all the more so when it is obvious even from afar that the West’s real problem lies in Berlin. At a moment when Washington cannot even convince Germany—a leading NATO ally the United States has pledged to defend—to join the West’s position on Russia, it would be bizarre for the White House to take umbrage at India’s approach to Ukraine. Questioned about India’s approach to the Russia crisis, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington’s ties with New Delhi stand on their own merit.

P.S. Raghavan, a former Indian diplomat, explained India’s position on Ukraine as one of pragmatic realism: “New Delhi would not want to distance itself from one strategic partner under pressure from the other, as these partners could tomorrow resolve the issue between them, and where would that leave India’s position?” he said.

Some in New Delhi raise a skeptical eyebrow when they hear the thundering Western denunciation of Russian’s claim for a sphere of influence. They have not forgotten the long U.S. tradition of constructing its own such spheres. Moscow has long argued that expanding the European Union and NATO is about constructing a Western sphere of influence at Russia’s expense.

As a country with great-power ambitions and a tradition of pursuing regional dominance, India has no reason to raise moral objections to spheres of influence. Taking the expansive reach of the British Raj as their cue, Indian prime ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru to Modi never stopped objecting to foreign influence in India’s neighborhood, let alone foreign intervention in India’s disputes with its neighbors. Today, that includes fending off Chinese efforts to undermine India’s primacy in the subcontinent. Although India has not been able to stop Pakistan from cultivating deep strategic ties with China, it now strives to prevent similar outcomes elsewhere in South Asia.

Renewed warfare in Europe will make it harder to construct peace and security in Asia.

That said, New Delhi has little sympathy for Moscow’s effort to legitimize Crimea’s annexation through a referendum or its support for so-called independent republics in Ukraine. It’s easy to see why: Shortly after Russia organized the referendum in Crimea in March 2014, a Pakistan-backed separatist group in Kashmir called on New Delhi for a similar referendum to assess the will of the Kashmiri people. India, which had just referred to Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Crimea, quickly corrected itself to emphasize its consistent position on “unity and territorial integrity” of nations. India’s rejection of Russia’s view on territorial integrity could conceivably get more vocal if Russia moves to recognize the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

Realists in New Delhi might agree with the proposition that spheres of influence are not only inevitable but also a sensible way of managing major-power relations today. But the question is really about finding mutually acceptable accommodations between great powers. On self-determination, pragmatists in New Delhi know the world does not operate on the basis of legal norms and precedents but according to the balance of power between competing forces at any given time.

New Delhi can live with a potential settlement between Russia and the West on security in Eastern Europe, even if it comes at Ukraine’s expense. In fact, India’s stakes in such a settlement have never been higher. Renewed warfare in Europe will make it harder to construct peace and security in Asia, which have already been destabilized by China’s rapid rise and growing assertiveness.

It is precisely for that reason that New Delhi was pleased to see U.S. President Joe Biden take the initiative early in his term to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A stable relationship with Moscow would allow Washington to focus on challenges in Asia—to India’s likely benefit. Modi’s advisors see Putin now trying to take advantage but hope he will not overplay his hand. For the moment, despite all the talk of an imminent war in Ukraine, India’s hope that Russia and the West reach an accommodation is still alive.

C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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