India’s 3D Chess in the Ukraine War

Since the beginning, India has steered for a neutral course against the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From the outset, however, India’s stance on the Ukraine war looks more like subtly pro-Russian, a stance that signals an aloof, a realpolitik policy to look out for only its own interests above all else. While abstaining from successive UN votes condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine, New Delhi crude oil imports from Moscow have jumped over 50 times since the Ukraine war began, which have been causing the Western-led isolation strategy to fail, as recently becoming one of the biggest buyers of Russian oil, which making up for 10 per cent of all crude purchased from overseas, which was only 0.2 per cent before the war.

Even though sanction expectations, it was vast frustrating for the West, particularly the United States that India has further benefited from cheap Russian oil and coal since the outbreak of war, rather curbing or terminating its import. However, last week, Indian Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri said that “India will buy oil from wherever it has to for the simple reason that this kind of a discussion cannot be taken to the consuming population of India,” as stated that it is the government’s moral duty to provide energy to its people, also highlighting that India has not been told by anyone to stop buying oil from Russia.

The odd neutrality of New Delhi that have led it to steer clear of adjudicating the aggression and publicly condemning Moscow while contenting with urging respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states as well as cessation of violence and return to diplomacy and dialogue is explained by India’s perceptions of core national interests. Indeed, Delhi’s neutral position is mostly shaped by the question of how alienating Moscow might undercut Indian vital interests.

First and foremost, India’s principal focus is not to stuck in a two-front war scenario involving China and Pakistan, a war scenario India will lose. Evidently, the two-year-old lethal border clash showed once again India cannot yet tackle China. Even though there have been 16 rounds of high-military talks, significant military assets are still deployed along the Himalayan border. New Delhi purchased the S-400 missile defence system from Moscow with the expectation to give India strategic deterrence against China and Pakistan, despite strong opposition from Washington, and a significant proportion of Indian equipment, weapons and military platforms come from Russia. India’s dependence on Russian-origin military equipment is significant aspect of avoiding to alienate the Kremlin, the most valuable defence tie that because of being cheaper as well as good enough for New Delhi, although its diversification of arms purchases by buying more from countries like the United States, Israel, France and Italy. Moreover, Russia readily offers India the advanced defence technologies without heavy end-user constraints while the West, the United States has not shown any willingness to provide technology transfers to India, and also Russia is the only country that leases a nuclear submarine to the latter.

Obviously, Russia is viewed as having been a time-tested friend of India, while the United States as an uncertain partner in comparison, although the existence of precedential civil nuclear deal, and being supportive of Delhi during the Indo-Chinese war in 1962 unlike Russian ambivalence, and the more current, the convergence of rules-based Indo-Pacific views. The Soviet Union wielded its veto power or abstained from voting in the UNSC on India’s behalf on at least six occasions over Jammu and Kashmir; supported India amid the Indo-Pak war in 1971, while Washington pressured; displayed a consistent reticence to criticise New Delhi’s internal developments unlike the West.

Having said all this, according to Indian strategic calculations, the less Delhi engages the Kremlin, the more Beijing gets closer to the latter, and it is a foregone conclusion that the more Sino-Indian rivalry grows, the more China will wean Moscow from India. However, the deterioration of Russian-Western connections is a much more determinative factor of Moscow-Beijing closeness than the level of Indian engagement with Russia. The Indo-Western intimacy, meanwhile, is another motivation of Russia moving closer to China. On the other hand, Moscow would not will to simply become Beijing’s junior partner, a great motivation for Indo-Russian cooperation. India, hence, objectives to prevent Russian embrace to China as well as dalliance with Pakistan while balancing its Western links. Yet, New Delhi considers Russian-Pakistani cooperation as a mean to pressure India, even if it remains mostly symbolic. Strictly speaking, India has three main focus whatever happens in world politics: its China concern, its own room to manoeuvre in general, and being a great power that having a voice in multipolar world order.

Yet the remarks of Western leaders so far have already demonstrated that India will not be sidelined by its subtle neutrality. There is little doubt that even if India’s ultra-realist stance on Russian invasion of Ukraine, only expressing displeasure and calling for diplomacy, shows inconsistency with its rules-based Indo-Pacific objective, Washington that pivots India around strategic Indo-Pacific calculations would not leave the latter alone to balance China in its best interests, and so New Delhi could also seek to ensure the Kremlin’s support to deal with its Beijing concern by walking a tightrope of neutrality to shy away from blames in any way. Given this reality, literally, even if the United States occasionally chides India, Washington would not backtrack on its special treatment granted to New Delhi. Not surprisingly, then, Washington has implemented an India-specific waiver for CAATSA sanctions on its purchase of Russian S-400s, while imposed sanctions on Türkiye, by displaying once again US double-standard.

Dr. Duygu Cagla BAYRAM
Dr. Duygu Cagla BAYRAM
Dr. Duygu Çağla BAYRAM is Ankara-based India specialist. She has a PhD in Int’l Relations and is the author of New Course in Turbulent Waters: The Indo-Pacific Narrative and India (2021, in Turkish). Twitter: @DrCaglaBayram