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Invoking Diffidence on the Russian War on Ukraine: An Indian Perspective

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

Ravi Dutt Bajpai | 8 March 2022

Russia's military assault on Ukraine has drawn profuse and fierce verbal assault from almost all quarters, yet, some countries, specifically China and India, have refrained from joining the chorus denouncing Russian belligerence. Given that all the major powers in world politics have ruled out a military counter-offensive to take on Russian aggression, all their energies are devoted to engaging in talkfests, orations, sermons and homilies. The verbal posturing in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and other global platforms only highlight these institutions' inefficacy in honouring their mandate, unless that mandate is to pronounce lofty words and pompous speeches.

While some South Asian states, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, abstained in the UNGA vote against Russian unilateralism, the two most notable abstentions came from Russia’s Asian neighbours, China and India. China has its own strategic calculus and is seen as a credible challenger to the existing hegemonic order, and hence its actions are considered rational. The Chinese approach should also be seen vis-à-vis the normative discourse on the sanctity and inviolability of the United Nations that applies to all the member states except the five permanent members of the Security Council.

On the other hand, India has spent the last three decades as an aspiring power willing to forge alliances with the US and its allies. In various circles, India’s continued refusal to join Russia’s condemnation is seen as irrational, enigmatic or worse, opportunistic. The prevalent logic goes that once the major Western powers have declared Russia the offender, all middle-powers, swing states, and aspirational nations must fall in line and whole-heartedly endorse the hegemon’s verdict. Evidently, India and other such states should uphold putative Western values while the major Western powers embrace their national interests. Somehow, it is challenging for Western nations to appreciate that, like China, India too can have its own agency and strategic calculus. Nevertheless, India’s continued reluctance to censure Russia should be seen in this and historical contexts.

Given the prevalence of Eurocentric discourses, the loss of the British empire is attributed to the calamitous Second World War, while indigenous independence movements and anti-colonial struggles are but auxiliary props in such a depiction. Like other colonised nations across the globe, India too offered vigorous resistance to colonial rule; most of the eminent leaders of this movement were inspired by socialism. Jawaharlal Nehru visited Russia in 1927 to participate in the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution and narrated his vision for this bilateral relation: ‘Ordinarily, Russia and India should live as the best of neighbours with the fewest points of friction. The continuing friction that we see today is between England and Russia, not between Russia and India’ (Nehru 1928, p.131). Apart from Nehru, several of the leading opposition leaders in independent India were ideologically socialist if not devoutly Marxists, including Ram Manohar Lohia, Narendra Dev, and Jay Prakash Narayan. One can safely assume that except the current political party heading the Indian government or its predecessors, the Bhartiya Jan Sangha or its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, always opposed the Marxist ideology and consequently were cold towards the Soviets. Indeed, the affinity for Russians is so deeply ingrained in Indian foreign policy that no political party can wish it away.

Independent India was more closely aligned in its foreign and economic policies with the socialist bloc led by the USSR than the Americans. In the heydays after its independence, its first Prime Minister, Nehru, the renowned internationalist, imagined the United Nations as the epitome of global governance and as the final arbiter of international disputes. He decided unilaterally to take the issue of Pakistani aggression in Kashmir to the United Nations, dragging a strictly bilateral issue to an international forum that made it into an intractable quagmire ever since. Nehru also wished to maintain the sanctity of the UN while seeking to appease the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by instructing India’s permanent representative not to support any resolution condemning the PLA’s takeover of Tibet in 1950. India was one of the most active states mediating during the Korean war, a strenuous and expensive diplomatic campaign that eventually spoilt its relations with almost all the parties. Undaunted by such setbacks, Nehru sought to maintain the impartiality, inclusivity and efficacy of the UN as a genuine world body and spurned American overtures offering India to take PRC's seat as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Should one consider the voting behaviour at the United Nations as an indicator of the strength of relations among states? The Soviets used the veto power on at least six different occasions to prevent the approval of resolutions unfavourable to India. It may be informative to know that the United States was either the primary sponsor or the supporter of these resolutions on each of these six occasions. Five of the six resolutions were related to tensions between India and Pakistan. In 1961, one resolution prevented India from taking over the erstwhile Portuguese colonies in Goa, Daman and Diu. India, on its part, has refused to join the Western condemnation of the Soviet military actions (invasions) in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979), and Crimea (2014).

In the immediate aftermath of the 1962 war with China, India found a sympathetic American President in John F. Kennedy, who offered some military assistance to bolster India's defence. However, this offer was a one-off and did not evolve into a durable or substantial association. During the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, the Soviet-India friendship morphed into a de-facto military alliance. The overt diplomacy from the USSR not only emboldened India to stand defiantly against nuclear coercion from the US but also dissuaded China from interfering in this military confrontation. India received the most generous diplomatic support from the Soviets after its first nuclear test in 1974. Despite their reservations about violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Soviets offered to provide heavy water for Indian nuclear reactors once the United States and Canada stopped their supply to India.

In the post-Cold War era, India discarded its putative socialist model and embraced the neoliberal economic model, and in the changed world order, sought rapprochement with the American bloc. Indeed, the rise of China as a credible challenger to the American hegemonic order has made India a valuable ally for the USA; one may see an upsurge in bonhomie and a greater engagement between two of the largest democracies. However, India continues to rely on Russia for military equipment; various estimates put the share of Russian military equipment between 60 to 85 per cent of India's entire military hardware. More than any other arms manufacturer, Russia has readily shared their advanced technology and expertise with India, making it the most viable option for arms procurement.

Given India's large population and its much-extolled demographic dividend, the competition to acquire a professional degree in Medicine or Engineering still ranks very high. The lack of adequate institutions has forced thousands of students to pursue higher education outside India. China, Russia and Ukraine have emerged as the most popular destinations for aspiring doctors; around 20,000 Indian students are enrolled in different courses in Ukraine. The Indian government is keen to bring back students stuck in Ukraine. Indeed, the Indian Prime Minister has made the rescue operation a top priority and a high-profile public relations exercise; hence India would like to avoid any announcements seen as detrimental to these efforts.

America's track record of using states as disposable resources is long and perfidious; the examples include Japan, Korea, Philippines, Pakistan and Arab states. The US approach is not just instrumental but resembles a mercenary. How NATO beckoned to Ukraine and how they have left it to fend for itself will not inspire much confidence in any country hoping to be rescued by NATO in an adverse situation. China must feel emboldened to unilaterally settle all its border disputes, including those concerning Taiwan, the South China Sea, and India. The two-front war, in the form of simultaneous attacks by Pakistan and China, has been the perpetual worst-case scenario for the Indian strategic community. India cannot risk antagonising Russia, its durable arms supplier and time-tested friend, while faced with increasing hostility on two fronts.

Eventually, Russia may relearn the same lessons it had learnt in Afghanistan in the 1980s or America in the 2000s – Putin may meet the eventual fate of all other dictators, and Russia may surrender any remnants of its global/regional/local clout. India may find itself rudderless once again, just like it did in the immediate aftermath of the post-Soviet era. However, India currently finds itself in a bind; should Putin's Ukraine misadventure drag on, NATO's abdication of all responsibility may enthuse an already restive China to stroke troubles across the Sino-Indian border. Indeed, by abstaining from the UNGA vote, India does not lock in any security guarantee from Russia vis-à-vis the dreaded Chinese aggression. Nonetheless, Indian policymakers imagine having an ambivalent Russia in this triad as a better option than having a firm China-Russia axis.


Ravi Dutt Bajpai is a Researcher at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden and a Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School, Australian National University Canberra.


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