The New Delhi-Moscow Diplomacy and the Ukraine War

The world wants to see how far India has moved from Modi’s counsel to Putin that ‘now is not the time for war’.

India startles the US and China by making Russia its first destination after Prime Minister Modi’s third stint in power. The world wants to see how far India has moved from Modi’s counsel to Putin that ‘now is not the time for war’. Ukrainian president Zelensky has called Modi’s meeting with Putin, “a huge disappointment”. India’s Russia visits always have the Russo-Chinese partnership at the centre. After the hot water between India and China over the complex borders and China’s BRI project, India has been dealing quite incisively with China over different platforms, be it the SCO meeting, BRICS, or the recent Panchsheel celebrations by China. In the changing global geostrategic ambit, India’s has been following a nuanced foreign policy approach, as evidenced by its decision to keep a respectful distance from China in recent multilateral and minilateral engagements.

India has approached these summits with a judicious mix of involvement and reaffirmation of its own strategic goals. While these organisations have more pro-China states registered that don’t serve Indian interests, India has been committed to defending its strategic interests and security landscape. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen not to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) annual summit in Astana. Previously, the G20 summit in Delhi was not attended by Chinese President Xi, and India had called it a virtual SCO meeting only.

The Ukraine War and India

Not much has changed between India and Ukraine, though Prime Minister Modi recently even met President Zelensky on the side lines of the G7 summit in Italy (NDTV World, 2024). India’s visit to Russia doesn’t offer much to the Ukrainian side, as it is unlikely to challenge the Russian position in the two-year-old war. Rather, India appears to have broadened its sphere of interaction with Russia and turned it into a significant partner in the twentieth century. India also expects Russia to play an intermediary between the East and West. The Russian significance also lies in India’s crucial border engagement with China when the Russia and China have declared themselves allies above all.

After the Ukraine crisis, the trade between India and Russia has increased surprisingly, when the West has been pushing the states to withdraw cooperation with Russia and get UN measures implemented against Russia. The Indian Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Vinay Mohan Kwatra holds that the India-Russia trade saw a significant surge to around $65 billion during the 2023–24 fiscal year, mostly driven by robust energy collaboration. This has risen by around 30 percent from $49.36 billion in 2022–23. Currently, almost 40 percent of India’s oil imports are sourced from Russia. India ranks third among first five largest Russian trade partners. However, Russia’s estrangement from Western countries and growing alliance with Beijing have had an impact on Moscow’s longstanding relationship with New Delhi, which needs to narrow down this distance.

Since India and Russia have a strong history of diplomatic and strategic ties and cooperation dating back to the Cold War era, the Modi-Putin meeting may not offer an unexpected outcome. It may emphasise the continuation and deepening of their military and strategic relationship, covering various sectors such as defence, energy, space, and technology. Defence remains a cornerstone of the relationship with India being a major purchaser of Russian defence equipment. Economic cooperation between India and Russia is also crucial, with discussions on ongoing defence contracts, joint production ventures, and technology transfer. Both leaders are likely to discuss ways to enhance bilateral trade and investment and explore new sectors like energy, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture. Oil and Nord-Stream supply diplomacy may secure a space in the dialogue. India and Russia also cooperate closely on regional and global issues, such as counter-terrorism, Afghanistan’s stability, and multilateral forums like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, though India has been following a different path recently. Russia may abridge the gulf here and ensure more Indian activism at these forums.

Panchsheel Revisited

Recently, on June 29, 2024, China celebrated the 70th Panchsheel anniversary, a milestone in Sino-Indian history that turned sour within a decade. While Xi appreciated Nehru-Zhao-en-Li’s vision and sought Indian participation too, India didn’t take the invitation seriously. India’s decision to ignore China’s invitation to Beijing has stemmed from factors like diplomatic tensions, strategic considerations, or internal policies. It might reflect India’s stance on bilateral relations, regional dynamics, or global geopolitics. In his ongoing efforts to increase his power in the Global South amidst its rivalry with the West, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasised the importance of the Panchsheel Agreement in settling contemporary international disputes. “Touting China as a force for peace, justice, and development, Xi also called for better communication and cooperation to counter “iron curtains of confrontation” amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and Beijing’s deepening rivalry with the US-led West.” (South China Post, 2024). China’s love for Panchsheel is not difficult to understand. It has used the principles as a shield to camouflage its plans over decades, as it has had disputes with more than two dozen states. Now that its BRI is having a tough time, it seeks the help of the global south, and ‘panchsheel principles’ appear handy here. In order to address strategic competition with the United States and Europe, Beijing has placed a high value on strengthening relationships with the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which otherwise too are drifting away from western influence.

However, China’s diplomatic rhetoric has seen condemnation from many corners. The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has challenged China’s assertion of “neutrality” and charged it with turning into “an instrument in the hands of Putin. This happened after China’s diplomat in France, Lu Shaye, last year raised doubts about the independence of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Although Beijing clarified that the statements were the personal expression of the diplomat, they laid open the China-Russia understanding.

The Indian Choice

Indian foreign policy has seen several new trends recently. It startled the world with its silence on Russian aggression against Ukraine. Against the wish of the west it went for continued import of oil from Russia. This showed how important Russia is for India. However, India’s foreign policy of ‘multiple engagements and rational distancing’ might land it in troubled waters, as it happened in the fifties and sixties of the last century, when India remained partnerless to the detriment of its borders. In a time when the US and West are greatly interested in Indian growth as a world power, both economic and military, this act of balancing may keep it at a fair distance of benefit against the border stalemate with China. The US observation about Modi’s visit could be assessed from the statement of Matthew Miller, State Department Spokesperson, that “India is a strategic partner with whom we engage in a full and frank dialogue. And that includes our concerns about their relationship with Russia (Business Standard, 2024). This shows how keen the US is over Modi’s Moscow visit.

The US has clearly identified China as a strategic and economic adversary, and as a result, the roles of QUAD, AUKUS, and India have gained more significance in its involvement in Asian and Indo-Pacific issues. Indian and American interests are currently highly aligned, with both countries collaborating on various important matters. These include addressing China’s increasing influence, counterterrorism efforts, nuclear non-proliferation, defence cooperation, peacekeeping operations, climate change mitigation, cyber security, healthcare, agriculture, education, technology, and space exploration (Thakur, 2023). Now it is up to the South Block to see how to balance the two opposite poles while keeping its national interests secure, which of course, if China continues to remain stubborn, expects more from the US and the west. The US presidential elections also have a significant appeal to this new Indian thinking.

Prof. Harish K. Thakur
Prof. Harish K. Thakur
Department of Political Science HP University, Shimla, 171005