Stay neutral in Russia’s war. India’s caution follows the principle of international relations

JFear generated by the global outbursts of the Covid-19 pandemic looks set to be replaced by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, it holds the potential to deepen the ongoing global geopolitical confrontation between the United States and its allies on one side and the China-Russia combination on the other. The repercussions of the invasion and the response to them – although largely confined to economic sanctions at present – ​​will have global ramifications and India cannot remain unmoved.

India’s actions and statement during the discussion on the UN Security Council resolution, which sought to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, indicates that New Delhi still views it as a problem between NATO and Russia which must be resolved through dialogue. He abstained in the vote, saying: “It is a regret that diplomacy has been abandoned. For these reasons, India chose to abstain from the resolution.

Considering that the invasion flagrantly violates international laws, India’s neutrality can also be seen as leaning towards Russia. Ahead of the vote, President Vladimir Putin had spoken with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US officials had also reached out to India. Being coveted for support from both sides is what India should take note of, as it provides insight into both opportunities and challenges, and could help shape India’s foreign policy postures to deal with the upcoming geopolitical turbulence.

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Towards a cooperative relationship

The preference for dealing with military aggression through economic sanctions may provide limited relief as to the possibilities of a future war between NATO and Russia. However, India cannot escape the economic impact of rising oil prices and several other commodities, including agricultural products like refined oil. India has refrained from raising fuel prices despite the global rise in oil prices, mainly due to the ongoing parliamentary elections. It will have to prepare for further inflation and the struggling economy can be expected to face additional headwinds.

India’s reliance on Russia and the United States to bolster its military preparations can be expected to be exploited by both Moscow and Washington to pressure New Delhi in terms of alignments on disputed issues between them. Currently, both are willing to supply weapons and military equipment, but retain the ability, to varying degrees, to withhold spare parts and maintenance support. This strategic vulnerability is not easily resolved in the short term and will play an inevitable role in shaping India’s foreign policies on the issues and, more importantly, shaping its national security strategy.

Building cooperative relationships based on common interests will continue to be the foundation for shaping India’s strategy. In a world that is slipping more and more into coalition mode, accompanied by a frantic arms race, India must come to terms with transversal relations and the contradictions that flow from them. India therefore finds itself in various political machinations that involve nations on either side of the global political divide. Recently renewed interest in the India-Australia-US-Japan Quad has signaled a shift in New Delhi’s policy towards a cooperative relationship with Washington and its allies. This maintains a difficult balance with India’s membership of BRICS, SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and RIC.

In terms of grand strategy, India’s interests are best served if it does not get involved in what is essentially fighting between various nations. India should not see the contemporary global rotation as an ideological confrontation between liberalism and authoritarianism. Instead, as long as the international system is based on Westphalian sovereignty, any attempt at domination aimed at undermining India’s sovereignty must be the central concern. The contemporary worsening of relations with China is currently besieged by Beijing’s attempt to dominate political and geographical spaces that are perceived in India as a violation of the principle of sovereignty.

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Walking a tightrope

The possibility that the United States, Russia and China are aware of India’s alignment on various international issues may be indicative of India’s relative weight on global geopolitical scales. It is possibly derived from the endowments of India’s geography, size, population, economic and strategic means which include its nuclear weapons.

The worsening of US-Russian relations and the growing closeness between Russia and China have a major impact on India’s foreign strategy. While calls to join or move closer to the US-led bloc are likely to gain traction in India’s foreign policy discourse, caution should be exercised in taking this route.

Prudence stems from the first principle of international relations that there are no permanent friends or enemies. This principle, if adopted, supports the idea that India’s preference for strategic partnerships is better suited than engaging in an alliance relationship. In an alliance, a nation engages in fighting the battles of others and weakens its ability to maintain strategic autonomy. On the other hand, the cornerstone of a strategic partnership is context. Therefore, India can team up with China on climate change, with the United States on nuclear proliferation, and remain neutral on Ukraine. India’s multi-alignments as a strategy involving tightrope walking can perhaps best be described as that of being celibate/celibate leading a politically promiscuous existence.

The situation in Ukraine continues to unfold and Russia has surprisingly put its nuclear forces on high alert. For India, this provides enough signals that in matters of war, help from friends and partners comes best in forms that cannot provide relief to confront the power of military force where violence can kill, destroy or maim. The formation and building of India’s military power must therefore be independent of political calls to avoid violence and diplomatic attempts to maintain peace. Such appeals may fall on deaf ears and diplomacy may fail.

For India, an effective army as the sword of political leadership is an imperative and not a choice that may depend on foreign policy initiatives or the goodwill of others. Friends can help sharpen the sword, but expecting them to fight for us is unrealistic. The war in Ukraine speaks loud and clear of such a reality. India must take over.

Lt. Gen. (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retired) is Director of the Strategic Studies Program at Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, secretariat of the National Security Council. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)