Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

The Impact of the Ukraine Crisis on India’s Foreign Relations

  • Ambassador (Retd.) Jitendra Nath Misra

    By: Ambassador (Retd.) Jitendra Nath Misra
    Venue: Tata Institute of Social Sciences
    Date: May 12, 2022

Professor Madhushree Sekhar, Dean, Office of International Affairs,
Faculty,
And Dear Students,


It is a great pleasure being at the venerable Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Let me first congratulate all of us on Azadi Ka Amrit Mahostav.

I thank Tata Institute of Social Sciences for inviting me to speak to- day on the impact of the Ukraine crisis on India’s foreign relations. I am very grateful to Professor Madhushree Sekhar for so graciously chairing this talk. I thank Mr. Abraham James for his troubles in organizing the logistics. I thank the Ministry of External Affairs, and Mr. Arpit Jain in particular, for asking me to deliver this talk. Thank you, XP Division and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, for your generous hospitality.

India’s refusal to condemn Russia by name for the war in Ukraine has drawn criticism. What we heard in the media were calls on India to do the right thing, not to be on the wrong side of history, and so on.

This is the wrong kind of discussion. From experience I can say that governments tend to be more real than prescriptive, and in this particular instance India’s partners have been real in their understanding of what India has actually said and done.

And what is the reality? It is that, far from supporting Russia, India has made strong statements of concern about Russia’s actions, albeit without naming Russia. For this, India has won the understanding, if not outright support, of its partners, without jeopardising ties to Russia.

As a rising power with growing agency, confronting India would have been problematic even if India had not deployed the skilful diplomacy it has.

For example, with an economy worth 1. 7 trillion dollars, half the size of India’s, it would have been difficult for Russia to ignore India’s demand for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to evacuate its civilians.

In war taking (or not taking) sides is and equally thankless task. India has taken its own side. Since one can’t tilt towards both sides at the same time, India has stood steady in its own space.

What has India said and done?

In Prime Minister Modi’s calls with Presidents Putin and Zelenskyy on 24 and 26 February, and Foreign Secretary Shringla’s media interaction on 25 February, India called for "dialogue,” "cessation of violence,” and "safety” and "safe exit and return” of Indian nationals, choosing careful language. After completion of evacuation of Indian students, India shifted its position, making references to the "UN Charter,” "international law,” and "sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” In his telephonic conversation with President Putin on 7th March, Prime Minister Modi expressed "deep concern” for the safety and security of Indian students and pointedly refrained from thanking him for helping on this. In contrast, on the same day he thanked President Zelenskyy for Ukraine’s help in securing the safe exit of Indians.

How did India’s partners view India’s position?

Despite a slight tilt towards Ukraine India won Russia’s approval of its "independent” position, while the U.S. duly acknowledged the "evolution” of India’s position, terming India’s relationship with Russia "distinct” and "okay.” The U.S. State Department recalled a cable asking American diplomats to take their Indian and Emirati counterparts to task for their countries’ "neutral” stand on Ukraine placing them in "Russia’s camp.” The U.S. praised India’s "very strong statements” on killing of civilians in Ukraine, its call for "independent investigation” of the killings, and its "humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine.”

Likewise, the U.K. praised India’s "forceful” condemnation of the killings of civilians in Bucha, while acknowledging India’s "historic relationship” with Russia. India mentioned Russia for the first time in a joint statement with Germany, followed by those with Denmark and France. "There will be no winner in this war,” Prime Minister Modi said in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. "All countries have different levels of engagement with Russia … I'm respectful of that,” Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said.

India enjoyed media support.

Despite negative views, there was also substantial media support for India. The New York Times stated that India would need to weigh against "geostrategic considerations, particularly with the relationship to China,” while Foreign Policy sympathised with India’s "difficult diplomatic position.” AP noted India was "reducing its dependency on Russian arms and diversifying its defence procurements.” Time asserted: "the U.S. can’t afford to lose India.”

Underlying these statements is recognition that India’s defence ties with Russia are logical, an insurance against Chinese pressure on India. If you can’t do the job by yourself, at least let others help you do it.

As U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at the 2+ 2 ministerial meeting with India in April: "India’s relationship with Russia has developed over decades at a time when the United States was not able to be a partner to India. Times have changed. Today we are able and willing to be a partner of choice with India across virtually every realm – commerce, technology, education, and security.”

Not explicitly condemning Russia has also much to do with India’s diplomatic culture.

India consistently argues that condemnation does not lead to solutions. In 2003, following the U.S invasion of Iraq, the then Defense Minister George Fernandes stated that there was "no need to antagonize the U.S. by using words like condemn.” With regard to Russia, it is likely that India has privately expressed opposition to the war in Ukraine. The past provides guidance. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 India publicly supported the U.S.S.R., but privately conveyed displeasure and tried to craft a regional response.

For sure, the Ukraine war complicates India’s ties with Russia.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2017–2021 Russia’s share of India’s defence imports was 46 per cent and India received 28 per cent of Russia’s defence exports. Even without sanctions, Russia will divert arms from exports to the Ukraine war, making it harder for India to procure Russian equipment. To meet shortages, Russia is reported to have asked China for military equipment. Consider that India’s defence manufacturing falls far short of its needs. India is faced with two hostile neighbours, China, and Pakistan. If Russia’s military supplies and technology transfers to India were halted without matching supplies from the West, the putative coalition to balance China would be put into jeopardy.

All too often we talk about India’s historic defence relationship with Russia. Legacy is merely warm air on cold facts; for example, during 1971, the Soviets acted in their own interests and initially didn’t even support India going to war with Pakistan. Former diplomat and author Chandrashekhar Dasgupta says that, to prevent Indian territorial gains in Kashmir, the Soviets "withheld a positive response to India’s new request for arms till after the Simla Summit.” As Soviet and American interests aligned, India declared a ceasefire after Pakistan’s defeat in the east, ending the war.

Would Russia then heed Indian advice regarding Ukraine? India’s offer to mediate and secure a peaceful resolution received American and Ukrainian support, but not Russia’s, which maintained control over the narrative. In welcoming India’s stand, Moscow merely made a statement. India attaches great importance to its relations with Russia, but it’s less clear how much importance Russia attaches to ties to India.

Yet, Russia helps India in ways the U.S. doesn’t, or can’t. Russia enjoys more leverage with China than the U.S. does. Russia is thought to have facilitated conversations between India and China’s foreign and defence ministers in Moscow in 2020 to ease tensions in Ladakh. It supported Jammu and Kashmir’s internal reorganization in 2019.

The U.S., too, pursues its own interests.

First, let us deal with sanctions.


The U.S. imposing sanctions on Russia will disrupt Russia’s defence supplies to India. Sanctions could jeopardise exports of S-400 missiles, leasing of Akula class submarines, manufacturing of A-203 rifles, and exports of the BrahMos missile by India. Foreign Secretary Shringla said "sanctions will impact our existing relationships,” but added it was too early to say how. In sanctioning India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the US would need to consider "geostrategic considerations, particularly with the relationship to China,” said James O’Brien, President Biden’s nominee in the State Department to oversee sanctions. However, this was before the Ukraine war, we don’t know what will happen in future.

Perhaps there will be a pause on sanctions considering US defence exports to India are increasing. From next to nothing in 2008, these rose to U.S. $ 15 billion in 2019. Between 2017-2021 the US is the third largest defence supplier to India, with 12 per cent of market share. Furthermore, ruthless enforcement of sanctions will increase Russian dependence on China, weakening the U.S.’s relationships with Russia and India. "We should be pivoting out of Europe to deal with China,” says the American scholar, John Mearsheimer. "The Russians are part of our balancing coalition against China.”

American officials might even have given hints that sanctions are meant to nudge India to buy more defence hardware from the U.S.

For example, Victoria Nuland, the Undersecretary for Political Affairs in the State Department told the Indian television channel NDTV: "We know about the historic relationship and defence relationship between India and Russia at a time when the US was not prepared to have that kind of relationship. But times have changed now." For good measure she added the U.S. was willing to be a strong "defence and security partners" of India. There had been an "evolution in India’s position,” she said, and the U.S. could provide "alternatives for India to make this transition” in its defence procurements. Undersecretary Nuland was echoing Secretary of State Blinken’s remarks at the 2+ 2 ministerial talks.

This is as broad a hint as any that the sanctions are an instrument to nudge India to procure more defence supplies from the U.S.

Now, the reason I’m talking of the sanctions issue is because it’s directly connected to the Ukraine war.

I have expressed views on forums like BBC, Swedish Radio, AP, and CNN News 18, that the U.S. needs to consider defence technology transfers to India to help reduce its dependence on Russia.

India’s efforts to diversify defence imports are "compromised by the fact that Russia has been willing to share advanced military technology with India while other countries have hesitated to do so,” says Aaditya Dave.

The West might indeed have begun policy adjustments to transfer military technology so India can better defend itself against China, though I can’t be sure.

The 2+ 2 ministerial meeting yielded "a project agreement to co-develop Air-Launched UAVs.” The ministers expressed willingness to consider "projects, such as a counter-unmanned aerial systems (UAS) system and an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform.” This is a significant first step.

There is a myth that India is continuing to undermine sanctions by purchasing defense equipment from Russia. SIPRI’s figures tell us that Russia’s share of total Indian arms imports fell from 69 per cent in 2012- 2016 to 46 per cent in 2017- 2021, as I mentioned earlier. Furthermore, according to SIPRI, there was a 47 per cent drop in Russian arms exports to India between 2012- 2016 and 2017- 2021.

China could be the gainer from the Ukraine war.

"Europe and the Indo- Pacific are now a single strategic system joined by the actions of Putin and Xi,” asserts Michael Shoebridge. The shift in the US focus to Europe away from the Indo-Pacific is perilous for an India that faces Chinese pressure. Weakening Russia undermines the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy. How does imposing sanctions over the S-400 missile deal help India deter China? Beijing could launch provocations in the South China Sea or even along the line of actual control with India.

In their joint statement of 4th February, China and Russia have resolved to resist "attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” meaning Taiwan and Ukraine. China might have nodded at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, if not encouraging it. Moscow’s economic dependence on China undermines the multipolarity India seeks. Dispersing power beyond the US and China is easier said than done.

This brings me to the impact of the Ukraine war on Quad.

The view that India’s commitment to the Quad is shaky is a myth.


As I have argued in remarks to BBC, it is the U.S., not India, that is shaky on Quad. Despite China’s objections to Quad, and its relentless territorial pressure on India to leave Quad, India attended the first in- person Quad summit at Washington, D.C. in September, 2021. India has resisted Russian pressure to leave Quad. At the Quad virtual summit in March, 2022, India did not hesitate to discuss Ukraine and the joint statement refers to it. India has not hesitated to issue joint statements during Prime Minister Modi’s summit with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and his virtual summit with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. These joint statements talk about the need to uphold the UN Charter and international law, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.

India, Japan, and Australia do not regard the European theatre as the core one for their security. NATO expansion and Russian opposition to it are not central to global security either. Just as India is concerned about Chinese pressure in Ladakh, Japan is concerned about Chinese pressure in the Senkaku/ Dioayu islands, and about Chinese- Russian naval exercises in the seas around Japan. Australia is concerned about Chinese trade pressure.

Quad is not the forum to discuss Ukraine. India is not a treaty ally of its other three Quad partners. As U.S. treaty allies Japan and Australia have other forums to coordinate with the U.S. on Ukraine.

The fact that India participated in a Quad virtual summit amid the Ukraine war is as far as India could have gone.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Ukraine war has made India better networked rather than isolated. Whether it’s the Quad virtual summit, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to India, the India- Australia virtual summit, the 2+ 2 ministerial meeting with the U.S., British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visits to India, or Prime Minister Modi’s visits to Denmark, Germany, and France, India is at the centre of the multiple conversations surrounding the war in Ukraine.

India can only tilt towards itself; this is a constant realisation and reminder. With the prospect of greater pressure from China, not only in Taiwan, but also in Ladakh- some say, China will draw lessons from Ukraine to declare Pakistan Occupied Kashmir independent at an opportune time in future- India needs to introspect on strategy and means. As the Himalayan snows melt, India must make a move of high deterrence value. India must relentlessly woo Russia as a moderating influence on China, and the US as a countervailing partner.

Paradoxically, instead of worsening India’s ties with the West the war in Ukraine holds the promise of deepening defence cooperation. Unstated but clear is the recognition that India needs the West’s help to deploy China- facing capabilities, though this must be a medium and long- term project, rather than a short- term one.

Thank you very much.

I’ll now take questions, and comments, too, would be welcome.