Russia’s invasion of Ukraine coincided with a debate over whether to call US-China tensions “a new Cold War” and a “no limits” friendship between Russia and China.
As the United States raced to place sanctions on Moscow, many in the Global South found themselves caught in the crosshairs of a realignment against Russia. Among the non-committed, India is the largest democracy to strike its own path.
Russia has been one of India’s most steadfast diplomatic and defense partners and a weakened Russia would negate India’s preference for a multipolar global order in which it is an independent and influential pole.
Washington’s tendency to group China and Russia as an “authoritarian axis” that threatens the global order is not something to which India subscribes. India sees Russia as a close friend and China as an adversary, while the United States is hostile to both countries.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the contradiction between India and the United States is playing out openly. India and China have been more aligned on UN votes, with India abstaining on 11 UN votes to condemn Russia, withstanding intense pressure from its closest Western partners as well as unflattering international media and public opinion.
India could not be persuaded to join the US-led economic sanctions against Russia as it is generally against unilateral sanctions levied outside the United Nations.
New Delhi’s decision to accept Russia’s offer of deeply discounted oil is not entirely surprising, though Western officials and commentators have accused India of taking “sweet deals” from an otherwise diplomatically isolated Russia and indirectly funding Putin’s war machine.
The West’s pressure on India went from pure money to values by characterizing the conflict as between authoritarianism and democracy.
In a much-watched interaction between visiting British Foreign Minster Liz Truss and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Truss took a swipe at India’s neutral stance, stating that “it’s vitally important for freedom and democracy in Europe, that we challenge Putin, and we ensure that he loses in Ukraine.”
India’s strategic ties with the United States and its embrace of the Quad once suggested an increasing acceptance of the US-dominated liberal order and a weakening commitment to a multipolar world. India and China’s growing adversarial relations also pointed to the limits of their cooperation on global governance and reform.
But Ukraine shows that India’s desire for multipolarity remains. India continues to be a dissatisfied member of the liberal global order despite having made gains through that order. At the June 2022 Bratislava Forum, Jaishankar argued that “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that its problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems aren’t Europe’s problems.”
India is the only major power to have membership in organizations that are generally seen by the West as competitive, if not adversarial. Along with BRICS, it is part of the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Quad and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
This wide-ranging membership exemplifies India’s decision to represent and protect its foreign policymaking autonomy and pursue greater global power-sharing. The Russia-China statement — issued after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics — recognizes Indian autonomy and prioritizes the relations between the three big powers within the BRICS.
In a telling final paragraph, it stated that Russia and China “intend to develop cooperation within the ‘Russia-India-China format.’”
India’s decision to participate in the weeklong military drill hosted by Russia in September 2022 did not sit well with its Quad partners. The United States expressed its displeasure over India taking part in the drills, stating it has concerns about any country “exercising with Russia while Russia wages an unprovoked, brutal war against Ukraine.”
But US Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre added that “every participating country will make its own decisions”, suggesting that the United States would not interfere.
Japan strongly objected to the drills in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan, calling them “unacceptable.” In deference to Japan’s sensitivities, India elected to stay away from the maritime component of the Vostok exercises and did not send its warships.
The balancing act between Russia and the West seems to be paying off. There was a flurry of high-level visitors to New Delhi in March and April 2022, including the prime ministers of Japan and the United Kingdom, foreign ministers of China and Russia and a virtual summit with Australia’s prime minister.
But India’s foreign policy decisions are testing these partnerships and expectations. There are political minefields ahead for India and its partners.
NATO-Russia tensions will surely rise when Sweden and Finland’s requests for membership are taken up. An intensification of the Russia-Ukraine war might force India to choose between its Quad partners and Russia.
India’s earlier intention to achieve multipolarity through the BRICS will be even less tenable if Russia–China relations become ironclad. The notion of a more distributed power system will collide against the reality that closer ties with the United States may appear a better option for India.
At the beginning of the Russia–Ukraine war, India worried that China would gain an enfeebled and dependent Russia as a junior partner. New Delhi stood to lose Russia as a strong and reliable geopolitical partner.
Economically, the sanctions on Russia are setting off a process of de-dollarization that benefits China. The Ukraine conflict could deliver advantages to China that it could not have otherwise secured.
Indian policymakers are betting that Russia will not want to put all its eggs in one basket and that Russia will continue to respect India’s independence. A weakened Russia will still have veto power at the UN Security Council, where India has historically been a beneficiary.
India is betting that the level of convergence with the Quad members on China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific is strong enough for them to tolerate dissonance on other grounds. It is counting on its friends to realize that pressure to take sides is unlikely to produce results and may backfire.
India has consolidated its strategic autonomy without economic or strategic costs. Its Quad partners appear willing to tolerate differences — after all, there is no “Indo-Pacific” without “India.”
New Delhi has been able to set the terms of global engagement in the current geopolitical constellation. But depending on the outcome of the Ukraine war, India’s conception of the type of global order that guards its strategic autonomy may have to be reluctantly refined.
Deepa M Ollapally is Research Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Rising Powers Initiative at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.
This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.