First Person | A Matter of No Choice

The Russia-Ukraine war has thrown Indian diplomatic calisthenics off-balance

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

As war rages in Ukraine with no signs of an early resolution, many analysts in India say that New Delhi should have taken a firmer position on this issue. Neutrality, they say, does not behove India’s stature as a major power.

Some suggest that India, with the legacy of Gandhi, should stand with the oppressed, in this case Ukraine. Others point to India’s historic relations with Russia to say that New Delhi should be seen standing with President Vladimir Putin as Soviet Union (Russia’s predecessor state) did with India during the 1971 Bangladesh war. This group of analysts use China’s statement in favour of Russia as an example of what New Delhi should have done.

The truth is that India’s ambivalence is borne out of helplessness, not strategic confusion, or cowardice. With little sense of history and a poor understanding of the present, the government of India has been blundering its way in the geopolitical arena in the hope that of all the punches it throws, at least some would hit the mark. Since it is all up to providence now, New Delhi’s foreign policy moves haphazardly in several directions in the hope of covering all bases.

The problem with most analysts is that they are ignoring the historical context of the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis, its importance from the perspective of both the United States and Russia, and its long-term implications for the bipolarity of the new world order which will become evident in the next few years.

The historical context first. Throughout modern history, Ukraine has been in the Russian sphere of influence—sometimes directly and sometimes as an autonomous protectorate. After the Russian revolution, Ukraine was annexed as part of the USSR. In those nearly 80 years of being one nation, there was a lot of collaboration in defence R&D and manufacturing. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union many former Soviet critical defence facilities remained in Ukraine, which fuelled latter’s economy. India itself has bought former Soviet defence equipment from Ukraine.

The early years of post-Soviet Russia were challenging, and there was nothing that Kremlin could do about the US’ or Nato machinations in the former Soviet states. However, once Putin came to power, he has been invoking both history and geography to insist that the West must not extend the boundaries of Nato until Ukraine. Putin’s engagement with Nato started on a cooperative note, building on the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security agreement signed in 1997. Russia and Nato even carried out a couple of military exercises in 2011. The reasoning was, with the end of the Cold War and dismantling of the Soviet empire, including its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, Europe had no threat from the east. If Nato’s objective was freedom and global peace, then Russia could be a partner in that. However, the mistrust of the Cold War remained, and even when nations like France and Germany favoured better ties with Russia, the US resisted. Of course, the Crimean crisis (referred to as annexation by the West and unification by Russia) put a huge strain on Europe’s engagement with Russia.

The trigger for the present crisis was Ukraine’s cohabiting with Nato under its present leadership. Ukraine military also carried out an exercise with Nato last September during which Nato missiles were deployed in the country. This was a far-cry from the earlier neutrality that Ukraine had espoused, and which Russia demanded from the country it considered in its area of influence. Having Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and the increasingly hostile west was critical for Putin. From Russia’s perspective, US-led Nato’s outreach to Ukraine was both a challenge to its stature as a nation, as well as a direct threat to its sovereignty. After all, who was Nato’s adversary in Europe, if not Russia.

However, the bigger picture here is not Ukraine—it is the United States and its position as the foremost power in the world. Today, China has not only challenged this position, it continues to push the US into ceding more geopolitical space to Beijing and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Given this, there are three reasons why the US has dug its heels on the Ukraine issue.

One, with Russia being a close partner of China, albeit a weaker one, the US believes that it can use this crisis to assert its position as the net security provider to the western world. With this assertiveness, it hopes that it will be able to send a message to China that the US will not hesitate to stand by its allies, whether in Europe or in Asia.

Two, by pulling ranks on Ukraine, the US wants to infuse new vigour into the moribund Nato. Not only will this bring the European nations in tighter US embrace, it will also retard the economic and energy cooperation between Russia and Europe.

Three, the expansion of Nato will also lead to a greater market share of US’ weapon systems, because the military alliance demands commonality of platforms. This will shrink Russia’s export market.

Casting Russia as the enemy of Europe once again reinforces US’ pre-eminence at least in the western world. Just as India, which worries calling China its main adversary and does shadowboxing through Pakistan, the US is doing the same. To test the depth of Chinese power and influence, it is flexing its muscles against Russia. Sure enough, China remains the ghostly overhang in the US-Russia battle of nerves over Ukraine.

And this ghost has put India in a very tight spot. It is not only the question of balancing its relations; it is about who can help it better in mollifying China. Putin has been on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fast dial on China. India cannot afford to change that.




Call us