India’s pragmatic policy of principled neutrality towards the Ukrainian conflict is responsible for turbocharging its rise as a globally significant great power. Delhi’s approach is one whereby it neither supports nor opposes any party to what’s indisputably evolved into a Russian-NATO proxy war in that former Soviet Republic. In practice, this has seen it comprehensively expand economic ties with Russia in parallel with retaining military ones with the U.S. while providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
The end effect is that India’s balancing act between Russia and the U.S. resulted in it becoming the kingmaker in what can nowadays be described as the New Cold War. This worldwide competition refers to the struggle between what Russian experts describe as the U.S.-led West’s Golden Billion and the jointly BRICS- and SCO-led Global Majority (popularly known as the Global South of which their country and India are part) over the direction of the global systemic transition.
The Golden Billion wants to retain the trappings of unipolarity in the face of the full-spectrum paradigm-changing process that are presently unfolding across the world while the Global Majority envisages reforming International Relations so that they’re more democratic, equal, and just. The Ukrainian conflict can thus be conceptualized as a top proxy war in the New Cold War since its outcome will disproportionately determine the direction of the global systemic transition for the indefinite future.
India is geostrategically unique in the sense that it has a foot in both de facto blocs. Its mutually beneficial economic ties with the Golden Billion have recently evolved to take on a military dimension with respect to India’s close cooperation with the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific, but it’s still the world’s largest developing country and has therefore innate interests in facilitating multipolarity, just like its peers in the Global Majority. This explains why its leadership has sought to balance between both.
Principled neutrality has reaped grand strategic dividends over the past nine months as evidenced by the two following facts: White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre praised India for its indispensable role in bringing all parties together for November’s G20 joint statement while the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s report later that same month proved that its economy has grown at literally twice the pace of China’s this year.
The first outcome was the direct result of India pragmatically balancing between the Golden Billion and the Global Majority, or between the U.S. and Russia in particular, while the second was due to India rebuffing unprecedented U.S. pressure to distance itself from Russia and thus ensuring reliable imports of fertilizer and fuel. Scaling up its purchase of those two allowed India to avert the commodities crisis that is presently afflicting many of its Global Majority peers and sustain its rapid growth.
The diplomatic and economic dividends derived from the pragmatic policy of principled neutrality have been tremendously beneficial for India. As the author foresaw in early June, India has indeed become the irreplaceable balancing force in the global systemic transition, which has imbued its leadership with the confidence that’s required to continue turbocharging its rise as a globally significant great power.
That last-mentioned observation was on full display after External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told the West in late November to “live with [India’s Russian policy]”, shortly after which new US charge d’affaires in Delhi Elizabeth Jones acknowledged that her host’s decision to continue purchasing oil from Moscow in defiance of the West’s price cap is “a sovereign [one]”. That second statement represented a conspicuous climbdown from the pressure that the U.S. put upon India hitherto.
Taken together with Jean-Pierre’s praise of India’s role at the G20 several weeks prior, it can be concluded that the U.S. is begrudgingly recognizing that its plot to coerce India into unilaterally conceding on its objective national interests by distancing itself from Russia has completely failed. There was never any credible chance that it would succeed in the first place, since India practices a truly independent foreign policy, yet American strategists ignored this objective observation until only recently.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was always aware of this, however, and even praised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his bravery in this respect during his appearance at the Valdai Club’s annual summit in late October. In the words of the Russian leader, “Prime Minister Modi is one of the few people in the world who are capable of pursuing an independent foreign policy in the interests of his people.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov added some crucial geopolitical details to his boss’s praise during a press conference on 1 December. In the top diplomat’s assessment, “They wanted to draw India into their anti-China and anti-Russia alliances, but India refused to join any alliance that was formed as a military-political bloc. New Delhi is only taking part in economic projects offered in the context of Indo-Pacific strategies.”
As can be seen, India’s pragmatic policy of principled neutrality towards the Ukrainian conflict successfully safeguarded its hard-earned strategic autonomy in the New Cold War, which in turn enabled it to become the irreplaceable balancing force in global affairs. Its diplomatic role is indispensable in helping the Golden Billion and the Global Majority reach agreements on issues of mutual concern at multilateral fora while its impressive economic rise continues unabated.
These factors have since combined to make India the apple of all key players’ eye, hence why they’re all seeking to comprehensively expand their relations with it. Although the timing was purely coincidental, it’s therefore fitting that India is next year’s G20 chairman since this global role perfectly epitomizes its newfound status as the kingmaker in international relations. With these unparalleled responsibilities in mind, everything that Prime Minister Modi wrote in his latest article on that subject makes more sense.
He vowed “to shape a new paradigm – of human-centric globalization” across the coming year, to which end India will champion the causes shared by its peers in the Global Majority such as climate, epidemiological, food, and fuel security with a view towards tangibly improving everyone’s lives. This aligns with the theme of “One Earth, One Family, One Future” (“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”) that will officially frame his country’s chairmanship, which strengthens its soft power across the world, too.
The past year has been one of fundamental change in international relations after the global systemic transition was unexpectedly accelerated as a result of the hitherto nearly eight-year-long Ukrainian conflict morphing into a Russian-NATO proxy war. Everyone was adversely affected by the chaotic processes catalyzed by this development with the exception of India, which relied on its pragmatic policy of principled neutrality to masterfully manage everything.
This South Asian state has since become a globally significant great power, a trajectory it’s expected to maintain after this course became entrenched as a result of India’s coincidental leadership of the G20 that followed worldwide recognition of its newfound balancing role. All key players are pining to comprehensively expand their relations with it, including Russia and the U.S., which is an enviable position that India will certainly leverage to maximize its strategic autonomy in the New Cold War.
The reader is encouraged to review one of the author’s recent pieces here that enumerated nearly four dozen analyses over the past year about Indian grand strategy if they endeavor to learn more about it.
From our partner RIAC