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Indian Debates on the War in Ukraine: All Roads Lead to a Consensus

Indian Debates on the War in Ukraine: All Roads Lead to a Consensus
 Christophe Jaffrelot
Senior Fellow - India, Democracy and Populism

Two observations can be made regarding the debates about the war in Ukraine taking place in India’s public domain. First, only a very small number of actors are interested in the topic. Not only are ‘international’ sections of Indian newspapers few and far between, but they also focus their attention on India’s neighborhood. Second, a certain consensus has quickly emerged regarding the Ukraine crisis. This reality inhibits debate, even if important nuances in point of view do exist. The dominant consensus can be explained in many ways. Above all, it reflects a widespread view in New Delhi that India now occupies a central position on the political world stage and that it is a balancing power, able to relate equally with all parties to the conflict.

It is well known that the Indian government refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that it has repeatedly abstained in UN meetings including the Security Council, where it is present as a non-permanent member until next December. This stance, which is not a trivial one, was not met with any objection in the Indian parliament. The debate held in the lower house (the Lok Sabha, or People’s Assembly) on April 5, 2022 even saw the emergence of "a rare consensus in a country where the polity is sharply divided on most issues".

Russia: an unwavering partner?

Manish Tewari, one of the official spokespersons of the Indian National Congress-the biggest opposition party in the Lok Sabha-justified this "near unanimity" by the need for India to "maintain its strategic autonomy". This notion deserves closer analysis, as it refers to a very widespread view in India that Russia (and, by extension, the USSR) is a historical partner.

All Indian political forces tend to see Moscow as an "all-weather friend", to borrow the phrase generally applied to the Pakistani view of China.

All Indian political forces tend to see Moscow as an "all-weather friend", to borrow the phrase generally applied to the Pakistani view of China. Part of this is a myth, but many experts and actors believe it to be true. According to this narrative, the USSR and then Russia have always come to India’s aid when it needed it. Indeed, as early as 1957, this "long-term reliable partner" vetoed any resolution hostile to India’s position on Kashmir, as the Indian press reminds us over and over today.

However, the USSR abandoned India when China attacked it in 1962 (in his book JFK’s Forgotten Crisis, Bruce Riedel recalls that it was actually Kennedy who came to India’s rescue). The USSR remained neutral during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war and has long been opposed to India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

But as Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan points out, a key figure of India’s leading think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), points out these snags have been removed from the dominant narrative. Only the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty is evoked, ignoring a parallel reality of the time: the USSR’s efforts to dissuade India from waging war on Pakistan to help Bangladesh in its quest for independence. At the same time, the United States is perceived as a much less reliable partner than Russia. Was it not the US that deprived the Tarapur nuclear power plant of enriched uranium, to punish India for the nuclear tests launched by Indira Gandhi in 1974? Didn’t Nixon send an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal when India was helping Bangladesh gain its independence? Above all, weren’t Washington and Islamabad strategic partners from the 1950s to the 2000s? 

Indian dependence on Moscow

This allusion to the past is not the only factor almost unanimously agreed upon. Indian military dependence on Russia is also widely cited by observers to explain New Delhi’s neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis. In fact, according to estimates, most of the equipment of the Indian Armed Forces is of Russian origin. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), more than two-thirds of Indian arms orders have gone to Russia since 2000. Taking into account the arms already in stock since the Soviet era, the Stimson Center estimates the share of arms of Russian origin in the Indian arsenal to be 86% of the total. This is the case for almost all of the tanks (T-90 models), most of the fighter planes (whether Migs or Sukhois) and the submarines (mostly of the Kilo class).

This dependence can be explained in several ways. First, the USSR and then Russia agreed to sell India very sophisticated equipment, which it refused to sell to China until very recently. This notably includes the Su-35 fighter jet and, better still, the S-400 missile. Moscow has also approved transfers of advanced technologies and even engaged in co-productions on Indian soil, such as for the short-range missile BrahMos. 

Indian military dependence on Russia is also widely cited by observers to explain New Delhi’s neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis.

Second, not only did the USSR and Russia often present a better deal than the West - whose prices were prohibitive for India - but the ruble-to-rupee exchange rate favored bilateral trade between the two countries in general. From the 1970s to 1992, the Reserve Bank of India operated a ruble-rupee exchange program that India has recently considered reviving in order to circumvent Western sanctions. It apparently only stopped pursuing this plan because of American pressure.

Russia and the triumph of plurilateralism over non-alignment

Beyond the references to the past and India’s dependence on Russia, the Ukrainian crisis offers an entry point into the world vision cultivated by Indian elites, regardless of their political orientation. All of them wish to see the emergence of a multipolar world that can give India more room for maneuver, even as a middle power. Only a relatively balanced distribution of power around the world will allow India to play one side against the other to maximize its interests. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar has dubbed this strategic thinking "plurilateralism". In his book. In his book The India Way, he summed up this notion in one sentence: "It is time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbors in, extend the neighborhood and expand traditional constituencies of support". Jaishankar does not rule out any collaboration, not even with China - I will get back to this further down.

From this perspective, a strong Russia is important because it adds a pillar to the multipolar world that New Delhi wants to see. This is all the more true as Russia is too far away from India geographically to pose any threat to the latter. Happymon Jacob, an expert at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research (CSDR), a think tank that is in no way close to the Narendra Modi government, explains that "an aggressive Russia is a problem for the United States and the West, not for India". He adds that "India’s problem is China, and it needs both the United States/the West and Russia to deal with the China problem".

A strong Russia is important because it adds a pillar to the world order (or disorder) that New Delhi wants to see.

Shivshankar Menon, former head of Indian diplomacy and former national security adviser to Manmohan Singh, does not dispute this vision. Menon points out that "the dynamic of multiple affiliations and partnerships is the norm in Asia". For most Indian experts, working with countries as alien to each other as Russia and the United States to defend their interests against a third nation is a good method. 

At the very least, they want to avoid a weakening that would lead Moscow to move even closer to China, especially as Russia has already become highly dependent on China.

Here, there is clearly a major gap between the non-alignment à la  Jawaharlal Nehru and the plurilateralism of Narendra Modi, of which Jaishankar, a bitter critic of Nehru-style non-alignment, is the main advocate. In the eyes of India’s first prime minister, non-alignment was a form of "pragmatic idealism" aimed at promoting a third way for the sake of peace between the Eastern and Western blocs. This position earned him such international prestige that the United Nations mandated him to mediate in the Korean and Indochinese conflicts in the 1950s. Today, Happymon Jacob considers that  while "New Delhi is uniquely placed to undertake some much-needed mediation between the rival sides, [...] it has chosen to stay on the margins and do no more than the unavoidable minimum". The difference with the 1950s is significant because the current form of neutrality is more passive and sustained by realpolitik.

Justifying the Russian invasion: expressions of Indian anti-Western sentiment

The final explanation for India’s attitude in the Ukrainian affair, evident in the foreign policy debates taking place in the country, is more heterogeneous. It takes us back to India’s critical view of the West mentioned in the first section on the question of US reliability. This time, however, it is less about realpolitik and more about ideology and values, and less about neutrality than about support for Russia against Western discourses. In fact, this narrative goes as far as justifying the invasion of Ukraine. As Jacob writes, "one is increasingly hearing subtle, though indirect, justifications of the Russian military actions from the doyens of the Indian strategic community". On what grounds do Indian experts justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Three main arguments are advanced—and this is where the debate becomes less homogeneous.

Firstly, pundits readily put Russia and the West in the same basket when it comes to military expansionism. Veteran Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon, who is not susceptible of pro-government sympathies, denounces the hypocrisy that Asia (and thus India) has been on the receiving end of in the past: "As shocked as Western policymakers profess to be by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they might remember that such behavior is neither unprecedented nor representative of a real change in the norms of state behavior in Europe and the world. For one, such a violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity is something that Asia has seen and experienced in the past at the hands of major powers. The long list of outside interventions and invasions (including the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Vietnam War), of ongoing proxy wars and 'frozen' conflicts in which casualties mount daily, is proof that major powers are content to pay lip service to norms about sovereignty and territorial conflict even as those norms are repeatedly breached."

In other words, the West is not justified in denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, given its own misdeeds of the same nature. This discourse feeds on the memory of British imperialism; indeed, it cannot be forgotten that contemporary India remains a post-colonial country. This may also explain India’s traditional ideological proximity to Moscow, from the USSR to present-day Russia. As Pillai reminds us: "The deep Indian strategic empathy toward Russia is rooted in India’s post-colonial heritage, a strong and understandable anti-Western sentiment that is largely the consequence of British colonial rule."

The West is not justified in denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, given its own misdeeds of the same nature. 

Secondly, some Indian observers justify the Russian intervention of Ukraine as a logical response to NATO’s expansion to 'Russia’s doorstep'. This is notably the case of another former Indian foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, a former ambassador to Moscow after a stint in Paris. In his view, "the West is well aware of Russia’s concerns and knows the potential dangers of keeping NATO's doors open to Ukraine's membership, but it has gambled on the Russian sense of its weakness". In other words, the invasion of Ukraine is an understandable reaction from a country that sees itself as besieged by the West. Kanwal Sibal is the 'best-known member' of the Forum of Former Ambassadors of India (FOFA), a group reputedly close to the Modi government. Interestingly, he adds that "the separation of Ukraine - the historical core of the Slavic Russian state and its Orthodox character - has been traumatic for Russia". 

A third justification is advanced by some of the more extreme Hindu nationalists, who go even further and defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the name of comprehensible irredentism. On March 6, a Hindu Sena (Hindu Sena partisans) marched in New Delhi, chanting "Russia tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhare sath hain" ("Russia, you fight, we are with you"). The Hindu Sena wanted to show its support for the idea of "Akhand Russia", an analogy to the notion of "Akhand Bharat" or "reunited India",  a stated objective of Hindu nationalists who want to bring Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar back into the Indian fold.

The three justifications for Russia's invasion of Ukraine presented above may not all carry the same weight in the Indian public debate, but they each refer to what Ashley Tellis calls India's "ambivalence" toward the "liberal international order". In his words, "if the larger goal of preserving the order comes into conflict with particular Indian interests - as exemplified by the need to placate Russia despite its egregious violations of one of the order’s core rules, namely, prohibiting the use of force for territorial conquest - New Delhi will pursue its own equities". This analysis matches Jaishankar's worldview, and his book goes even further. The author presents the multilateral system set up by the West in 1945 as an order to be replaced - side-by-side with the Chinese if necessary - by another one recognizing the rise of emerging countries .


The analysis above highlights the reasons for which India has not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, ranging from the most obvious to the most complex. Other ideas that are more trivial but repeated ad nauseam include that this is a war "between Europeans on European soil" that "will not change the fundamental geopolitical dynamic in Asia", the new "center of gravity in the world economy", and if the West had failed India in Afghanistan, why would India come to its rescue in Europe?

Whatever the arguments invoked, India’s course of action is a gamble.

If the West had failed India in Afghanistan, why would India come to its rescue in Europe? Whatever the arguments invoked, India’s course of action is a gamble.

For the moment, the Modi government considers that its strategy of abstention has paid off. After all, as one of the think tanks closest to the government, the Vivekananda International Foundation, points out, "there has been a flurry of visits by top political leaders from many countries seeking India’s support". In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida came to New Delhi on March 19 with a promise of $42 billion in aid to India. On April 1, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited India to thank it for not taking sides in the Ukrainian affair. 

On April 5, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited New Delhi to propose the creation of a "Dialogue of Civilizations" between the two countries and an India-China Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum. On April 11, the US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Washington D.C. allowed India to make its case without creating any notable incident, despite the questions asked by journalists at the final press conference: Americans and Indians simply agreed to disagree. Ten days later, Boris Johnson also made a trip to India. The Ukrainian issue did not pose any diplomatic problem, as London’s priority was to strengthen Britain’s trade ties with India, which was also one of the central themes of Modi’s European tour (including visits to Germany and France) in early May. 

It is quite possible that India is now at the center of the international scene and that it can use this position to woo others as a balancing power or 'pivotal state'. This position may not be comfortable for long, however, if international relations become increasingly bipolarized and if a weakened Russia turns to China. Which side would India be on then? This is a question that seems not to have occurred to (almost) any of the contributors to India’s foreign policy debate. There is one exception: Manish Tewari, the Indian National Congress leader mentioned above, who does recognize this possibility. As he said recently, "a new iron curtain seems to be descending across the world. Unlike the iron curtain which had divided Europe between 1945 and 1989, this new iron curtain has the potential of actually dividing the world. Behind this iron curtain, may lie the great civilizations of Russia, China, Iran and their myriad allies - Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria and North Korea, to name a few. India does not have the luxury of sitting atop this new iron curtain as it did between 1946 and 1989 - the period between the First Asian Relations Conference and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has to choose if it wants to be seen in the company of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar or on the side of Western democracies however imperfect and hypocritical they may be. Moreover, we have aligned our interests increasingly with Western powers since 1991 [when India's economy was liberalized]". 

Indeed, the West has powerful levers and interests to bring about change in India. But will it mobilize these, given the country’s importance in the Western desire for a counterweight to China?



Copyright: Prakash SINGH / AFP

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