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India’s stand on Ukraine explained

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Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director working at the center for new American Security called “CNAS” and viewed by many including this author as a friend of India. Her views should be “weighed in” as an input for future policy formulation for Indian and US policymakers. Having worked for NSC, CIA, State Department, Indo-Pacific, and South Asia, she brings considerable experience to bear into her deliberations and thoughts as to what is important to American and Indian interests and future policy formulation towards South Asia.

She has a particular focus on US-India Strategic Relations, Quad, and counter-terrorism. She does provide a fresh and long-term view that state department mandarins often miss. She has a good understanding of China’s impulses and ambitions. She wrote in a recent article that was featured in the Foreign Affairs publication “India’s Last best chance”.

She wrote: “India’s neutrality over the war in Ukraine has exposed its vulnerability. New Delhi depends on Russia for military supplies, and so, even though Russia is blatantly violating Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty in an attempt to re-create its erstwhile empire, India has opted to stay silent. It has done so even though India, as a former colony, knows all too well what it’s like to be the victim of imperialism. It has done so even though its territorial integrity is threatened by another authoritarian power—namely, China.

India, it seems, feels caught in a vise grip by Moscow.” Just over a month ago, Wendy Sherman, assistant secretary of State after India’s visit testified in U.S. Congress that “we got to help India to wean away from her dependencies on soviet military hardware”. In her coordinating effort, the USA encouraged all EU diplomats to pay proper attention to India’s concerns and needs and several of them came to Delhi to meet Prime Minister Modi.

Ms. Curtis added “To some extent, New Delhi’s concerns are understandable. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been shy about cutting trade with states that condemn his invasion. But viewed more broadly, New Delhi’s approach is shortsighted and risky. It ignores the dangerous precedent that Russia’s reckless behavior is set in other parts of the world. It provides diplomatic cover to China—Moscow’s most conspicuous international backer—to also ignore Russia’s bad behavior.”

India’s views on the democracies and shared values are identical to the USA as both share a multiethnic, multilanguage society bound by the same values of freedom of Press, free speech, and fundamental human rights to name just a few. Both countries believe that the democracies around the world should be promoted. There are many areas where both countries have a shared vision such as terrorism, public health safety, bioweapons, and nuclear weapons. Then why do both countries have differing perceptions of the Ukrainian conflict? One obvious answer is India’s geographical location. India does not have a choice to pick her neighbors, but they are given to her. Other Part of the answer lies in the fact that Ukraine which was once part of the Soviet Union has a complicated history between herself and Russia. Sharing a border with a powerful neighbor is a challenge that India also experiences.

What led Russia to take such a step that is regarded as “abnormal” in the post-cold war era? What happened between XI and Putin at the Olympic meeting? These questions still need answers and remain unanalyzed among policy analysts? Did Putin count on XI to follow suit by launching a similar move against Taiwan? The big power anxieties arising out of Geopolitical competition are also an element adding to this complexity.

Since India is facing dual military challenges at both borders, that is Pakistan and China, India will require a cautious and measured response to the Ukrainian crisis that occurred suddenly without warning during the raging Pandemic. At the very least, India fears that the complete isolation of either Ukraine or Russia will produce unintended consequences such as a stronger alliance with China as Russian Ambassador put it “There is no upper limit with Russia-China” alliance. India cannot afford to ignore this aspect. Even this angle cannot be ignored by NATO and USA.

In the past, when Russia claimed and annexed Crimea, the world remained silent and assumed that Crimea was historically part of Czarists Russia as claimed by Russia. However, Ukrainians remained concerned, despite Ukrainian Born Nikita Khrushchev and his predecessors reorganized the Soviet union’s provinces by gifting Crimea back to Ukraine. Further demand by Russia to implement the Minsk agreement regarding the two eastern provinces of Ukraine was kept in abeyance. 2014 Maidan uprising that resulted in the overthrow of the legally elected government of Ukraine may have made the situation more complicated and raised security concern of Russians that was previously absent during preceding years when Ukraine was an independent democratic neutral country.

These events including a recent “clarion call” to unite the world’s democracies against Russia met rising skeptics within the USA and Europe. These contradictions undoubtedly weigh on many countries’ minds. No country wants to see the emergence or enlargement of worldwide conflict and escalation that can plunge the world’s economy into an economic meltdown leading to a humanitarian disaster. The timing for the conflict during the ravaging Pandemic is most unfortunate.

India has unequivocally condemned the use of force as a method to change the geographical boundaries of the post-cold war or World War -2. This was the sole motivating factor to join the American-led Indo-Pacific Quad as India recognized that the emerging Power like the Republic of China is circumventing the international rule-based order. China was unintentionally empowered and enabled during the cold war era to douse the fire created by Vietnam War. Same China is now positioned to threaten the rules-based world order, peace, and security in the Indo-pacific region that India is now focused on. Being a small power, India has no ability or influence to project power beyond the Indian ocean. This is the reality that Indian policymakers have to contend with and cannot afford any retaliatory measures employed by anyone either (USA or Russia) due to her neutrality in a remote conflict.

India did abstain and adopted neutrality due to its dependence on the large inventory of foreign imported arms that includes arms from Russia as well as the west as pointed out by Ms. Curtis. Due to difficulty in securing spares from Russia on a timely basis, India is diversifying her sources that include various east European countries such as Ukraine, Poland, France, Italy, United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, and domestic sources. The mix of arms imports has changed significantly and India is far away from the dedicated single source as it was in the 1970s. Still, the modernization of arms requires huge investment and resources and India lacks the speed and financial resources to complete this task in a short duration without additional help. It took China 40 years to advance herself to emerge as a leading technological and military powerhouse, while India had to focus on food independence, infrastructure, health sectors, and containing terrorism coming from across the border in a noisy democratic setup.

The potential adverse fallout due to the Ukraine war is the order placed with Ukraine worth approximately one billion dollars for the upgrading of the turbine engines for the Indian air force’s Twin-engine AN-32. The 60 IAF twin-engine An-32s are needed to ferry material, cargo, and personnel to Ladakh where Indian armed forces are standing eyeball to eyeball with China’s armed forces. It appears that as of this date, this vital center of the aerospace complex is spared but the longer this war goes on, this creates additional risk as Russia itself will be busy replacing her lost arms. The need of the hour is to bring both sides to negotiating table. Perhaps, behind the scene effort by India may have spared this facility from Russian missiles but we don’t have any precise information that why this facility was spared but not the facility like the Azov steel plant. However, the Indian Airforce’s ability will be hampered if India did not find alternate sources because without workers the Ukrainian plants cannot manufacture upgraded spares. What India is conveying to the world is that if the Ukrainian economy hurts then everyone is the loser.

The thoughts must have run through Indian policy makers’ minds that what actions India should take based on current reality and not the past relationship that will bring a cessation of hostility and direct negotiation between two parties. India concluded that she has no influence either with Russia or Ukraine to cease hostilities at this time in the current environment. Other countries also tried but the outcome was the same. The huge differences that exist between the two sides cannot be bridged yet.

Does the total isolation of Russia will either benefit the west or India in the Indo-Pacific theater? The answer is less clear. This may bring China and Russia closer adding a new security dimension averse to the interest of the west and India. Henry Kissinger recently weighed in and ask western policymakers not to inflame the fire. It appears that Indian policymakers had the same line of thinking. Henry Kissinger warned that the isolation of Russia will create more instability in Europe and that is not a desirable outcome. Therefore, a way should be found to defuse the crisis. This describes the perceptions difference among statesmen, columnists, and policymakers.

In addition to this war, the world’s longest and most difficult pandemic that started at Wuhan lab has not been brought under control, and supply chain disruptions are everywhere with the shortage of food, commodities, Baby diapers, and soaring inflation. These factors have affected the entire world and recession risk is rising. Jamie Dimon of J. P. Morgan says ‘brace yourself for an economic hurricane caused by the Fed and Ukraine war.

The major portion of Hydrocarbon fuel in India is allocated for cooking food to reduce pollution and the next consumption sector is transportation for India’s developing economy. India when compared to Europe only buys 1 to 2 percent of her fuel requirement from Russia. India has complied with Iran sanctions at the risk of angering traditional supplier Iran who is India’s friendly neighbor.

India needs time and foreign domestic investment equal to half the size of the Ukraine Package to develop domestic capabilities and innovations similar to the investment made in the state of Israel that will firm up our alliance of the democracies. This way India with its increased military capabilities can handle various regional challenges of instabilities and threats posed by China and spare the west the time, cost, and lives of their soldiers. India can do that herself. In recognizing that our long-range “values” reside with the democracies of the world, India canceled plans to upgrade Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft due to the Ukraine war and India also shelved plans to acquire 10 Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters, assuming that Russia will be too busy in meeting her requirement for lost arms.

France is an ally of the United States that disagreed with the United States on the Iraq War. To say to India that “either you are with us or against us” when we have different perceptions in a remote theater but identical views on the “Indo-pacific realm”, we are dealing with misplaced understanding. India cannot get involved in complicated issues between Ukraine and Russia due to India’s 50 years of close history with Russia and Ukraine, who were part of the Soviet Union sharing common nationality but are now at odds. Similarly, India has no business in getting involved in BREXIT disputes involving UK and EU. Ukraine is not and should not be the test case for defining the Indo-US relationship that was developed over a decade with hard work on both sides. Consistency in foreign policy is an important cornerstone of the United States’ foreign policies and its relations with the rest of the world. United states’ foreign policy on Ukraine has either changed or evolved abruptly in a short duration between Trump and Biden administrations. Former President Trump echoed that sentiment.

Among friends and allies, the security perception differs from time to time. India stood fast and invested heavily in Afghanistan to help defeat the terrorism responsible for 9-11 and Indian airline hijacking, however, India’s security concerns were not accommodated during the final phase of the Afghanistan withdrawal and India felt that the withdrawal vacuum was allowed to be filled up by other regional powers that are adverse to the interest of “democratic World”. Such hasty changes and the lack of consistency creates confusion among allies.

A country that is known to the world as the epicenter of terrorism for the last two decades and had tried to destabilize the neighboring states should be sanctioned and not accommodated. Similarly, the rising power of Asia which openly breaches the signed agreement that demarcated the “Line of Actual Control” with India needs an equal or more robust response from members of “Indo-Pacific security members” and the world at large. The inclusion of India as a permanent member of the security council and other multilateral bodies like the G7 and Nuclear Supply Group will enhance the mutual understanding and give India a voice and incentives to participate in a broader world stage of nations.

In that respect Ms. Curtis’s articulation of the two countries bypassing some regional differences is well articulated:
“All western democracies should signal to India that She is welcome as a partner to the West. if the United States wants to move New Delhi further into its camp and away from Moscow’s, it should take additional measures. Washington could give New Delhi even more access to sensitive U.S. technologies that would enhance Indian defense capabilities. It could also provide incentives to U.S. private companies to co-develop and co-produce additional high-tech military equipment in India. It might make its military gear more affordable for India. Recent media reports indicate Washington may be getting ready to take a step in this direction by providing a $500 million Foreign Military Financing package to incentivize India to purchase U.S. weapons. (Given India’s robust defense requirements, however, this is still a small amount.)”
“What Washington should not do is pressure India to criticize Russia. New Delhi strongly values having an independent foreign policy, and so it would bristle at being told how to act. But U.S. officials can be clear that they will offer India more help, more quickly, if the country reduces its reliance on Russian military systems.”

This is welcome advice from Ms. Curtis who understands India’s Geographic compulsions and security challenges. She suggests that the expenditures involving a large Military aid such as that provided to Ukraine can be avoided by building a stronger alliance but that also means empowering rising power like India with more help that is needed to develop internal capabilities. If this approach is proven successful with an oversight, you have created a strong champion of democracy in Asia that ultimately will save lives and treasure and keep Asia free. India has demonstrated that she can stand up to China. Therefore, it is wrong to equate the relationship as “first or last chance” because there has been a vacuum for some time in the formation of bipartisan foreign policy in Washington. The United States is always guided by its national interest like any other country regardless of the method of governance of a foreign country.

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