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Responding to American Criticism of India’s Stance on Russia-Ukraine Conflict
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Kanwal Sibal | Date:07 Jun , 2022 1 Comment
Kanwal Sibal
is the former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

If western governments are ready to accommodate India by balancing their longer term interest in keeping it within their “democratic” fold with their shorter term interest in drawing India into the circle of “democratic” states condemning Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, America’s “India experts” are being encouraged or have taken upon themselves to keep flagging the issue of India’s “neutral” position on the conflict to mould public opinion against it.

Causing India-Russia ties to breakdown would serve crucial western geopolitical ends. Russia’s effort for years to create alternative political groupings such as the Russia-India-China dialogue, BRICS, the SCO as part of promoting multipolarity would effectively collapse. The division between “democracies” and “autocracies” would become neater, as India’s membership of these groups as the world’s largest democracy clouds it. Opposition to Russia and China, designated as US adversaries, could be organised ideologically more coherently. The US would make major military gains in India were India-Russia defence ties to wither. Hence the open calls to India to reduce its defence dependence on Russia, questioning its reliability as a future supplier because of its need to replenish stocks exhausted in Ukraine, besides the poor performance of Russian military equipment exposed during this conflict.

India’s strategic autonomy (which the US doesn’t support even in Europe) depends on maintaining ties with all powers, including those hostile to each other. That will get constricted if India-Russia ties begin to crumble. If Russia-China ties become even stronger and India’s importance to Russia diminishes- which it will if India is seen as effectively joining the western camp- that too will reduce India’s ability to protect its interests in a fracturing world.

A recent article in Foreign Affairs journal of the US Council of Foreign Relations by an “India expert” argues that India has “the last best chance” to become a great power by choosing the West over Russia the Ukraine conflict. This assumes India’s destiny is in the hands of the West, that no political, economic and security mutualities exist between the two in the evolving global situation. Such a view seems to derive more from hubris than reality. To project the Ukraine conflict as central to the future of the global community is a throwback to a past era of western imperialism.

All this while, the discourse has been that global power has shifted eastwards to Asia, away from the transatlantic area, and that international power balances will be shaped there in the future. Russia was already being treated condescendingly as a regional power with nothing to offer to the world. Suddenly, the contest with Russia in Ukraine has become central even to India’s future!

It remains to be seen if the “West” will remain united as the cost of its Ukraine policy begins to bite Europe in particular. The sentiment in the rest of the world could well become increasingly bitter towards the West too, as it would be increasingly seen as inflicting on them an unacceptable price for its failure since 1945 to build a security architecture in Europe that includes Russia.

How “India’s neutrality over the war in Ukraine has exposed its vulnerability” is not clear. We are not part of this conflict. Our ties with Russia have a strategic dimension that go beyond the military, and reducing them to only that is shoddy analysis. To claim that Russia is attempting “to re-create its erstwhile empire” (that consisted of the Central Asian states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, the Baltic States) is just empty rhetoric, as is comparing the relations between Russia and Ukraine with those of colonised India and Britain.

Likewise, it is absurd to compare the Russia-Ukraine territorial issues to the India-China territorial dispute. These territories have never been part of China; no Chinese have ever lived in them; nor are these areas becoming operational platforms for a military alliance. India has long standing traditional ties with Russia. To say India “feels caught in a vise grip by Moscow” shows faulty understanding of India by someone who handled India in the US National Security Council under Trump.

To claim India is concerned about Putin not being “shy about cutting trade with states that condemn his invasion” is playing with facts. Russia has continued supplying oil and gas to Europe and the US until they cut off supplies themselves or refused to pay in rubles. India’s approach is criticised as “shortsighted and risky”, as it “ignores the dangerous precedent that Russia’s reckless behaviour is setting in other parts of the world”. Really? What precedents did western interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan create? Also, the recognition of Kosovo that is contrary to UN resolutions? China will make its own profit and loss calculations about military interventions anywhere.

China’s actions in the South China and East China Seas and in Ladakh precede Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine. How our position on Ukraine gives diplomatic cover to China “to also ignore Russia’s bad behaviour” is inventing an argument. To argue that “although criticising the invasion might worsen relations with Russia, refusing to take a stand could alienate an even more powerful country: the United States”, suggests that India has not taken a stand. It has, and that stand is not to choose sides on an issue where the rights and wrongs are mixed, and that India will act in its national interest.

That national interest is not aligned with America’s interest to isolate Russia, cause its economic collapse, weaken it militarily permanently and bring about regime change. That the US is arming Ukraine with more and more advanced weapons with the clear aim to prolong the war and impose increasing costs on Russia is not a policy India, which wants a ceasefire and diplomatic efforts to find a solution, can endorse.

Our foreign policy cannot become hostage to US priorities and preferences that clash with those of India, especially on issues that are not central to their bilateral ties but are based purely on America’s power play.

To say “The prospect of upsetting Washington should be particularly concerning for Indian policymakers”, is to treat India as beholden to Washington’s moods and whims. It is not as if the US does not upset India with many of its decisions, including on Afghanistan, but a balance of interests has to be struck in any mature relationship.

Yes, the “United States has become one of New Delhi’s most important partners” but that is based on mutuality of interests, and linking it to India’s China challenge alone is misreading the situation. India does not expect a US that quit Afghanistan in disgrace to get involved in India’s border dispute with China, with which the US has far more dense ties than with India. The US courts India to add to a ring of deterrence against China, not to engage in a military conflict with it. If ever the US does get involved in such a conflict it will be in the western Pacific, not in the Himalayas. The US will render valuable diplomatic and material and intelligence related help in case of a conflict with China, but not beyond that.

To suggest that for the moment the US is tolerating India’s neutral position but that its patience is not endless is to treat India as an errant child which will be spanked if it becomes too troublesome. That such a view is articulated by even those considered friendly and understanding towards India shows how much a sense of entitlement has entered the US policy making machinery.

Indian policymakers have not, as the expert says, “calculated that their country is so central to U.S. efforts to counterbalance China that India will remain immune to a potential backlash”. They rely on America’s rational assessment of its own national interest and the geopolitical viability of its strategy of curbing China’s expansionism without India as a partner in the Indo-Pacific and the Quad. The US will do no favours to India unless it is in its national interest. After all, it sanctioned India’s democracy for decades on issues strategically vital for India. India has no illusions.

Yes, the US will have an upper hand because of its power but India will also play to its strengths. It is not clear why after treating Russia and China as adversaries, the US will add India to that list. To argue that “the longer Russia prosecutes its war without India changing its position, the more likely the United States will be to view India as an unreliable partner” raises two questions. What is the responsibility of the US, UK and EU in prolonging the conflict? Is it Russia alone? How reliable has the US been as India’s partner even after the nuclear deal? It has toyed with a G2 with China and handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban with Pakistan’s cooperation, and left enormous amounts of weapons behind, all of which endangers India’s security. It has also interfered in India’s internal affairs on many issues. Why should ultimately India “have to pick between Russia and the West”. What is the basis of this threat?

That “The United States and its allies can offer India more—diplomatically, financially, and militarily—than can Russia” is correct but why should India to have choose the West. India has much more to offer to the US in several ways than Pakistan but has the US chosen India and discarded Pakistan all these years and even now? Will the US choose between India and China, even when China counters the US diplomatically and militarily, abuses it constantly and seeks to replace it as the world’s foremost power?

Our ties with the US serve a much wider range of India interests. Russia serves a narrower range of interests. The US cannot replace our geopolitical interests in continental Asia (we are an Asian power and have equities in Asia) as Russia can, besides access to certain critical technologies and cooperation in nuclear and space sectors on the same terms. We need to maintain ties of confidence with Russia so that it does not drift entirely towards China and sees no need to keep India on its side to balance its ties with Beijing. To say India “has little to lose by throwing its lot in with the United States and Europe and it ought to use Russia’s invasion as an opportunity to boldly shift away from Moscow” is presumptuous advice. Why have the US and Europe waited for the Ukraine conflict to see the virtues of India throwing its lot with them and not before ?

To say that “India is something of an outlier among the world’s democracies” when it comes to the Ukrainian conflict is to use the democracy argument cynically and hypocritically. It is western democracies that waged war against Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, not to mention many earlier ones. India did not support these wars either. How is Ukraine different? The military allies of the US are actively supporting it in Ukraine, but India is not one.

To argue that India has “even supported Moscow” is distorting facts. India has limited economic ties with Russia in any case, but even these have been disrupted by sanctions, creating payment issues. India, which imports 85% of its oil, has been severely hit by the spike in oil prices caused by western sanctions on Russian oil and gas. India consumes 4.7 million barrels of oil a day. Importing 700,000 barrels a day in April meets only a very small portion of India’s one day requirements. Europe has imported about $ 23 billion of fossil fuels per month from Russia since the Ukraine conflict began. Why should India not buy discounted Russian oil? India is not bound by US or European sanctions. Even the Saudis are not cooperating with the US, which has now made overtures also to Venezuela to control rising oil prices at the pump for American consumers.

The EU has made an exception for Hungary and Slovakia, for instance, for purchase of Russian oil despite the EU decision to sanction Russian oil. Far richer Europe is far less dependent on Russian oil and gas than India is. Targeting India for buying limited quantities of Russian oil is perverse and does not strengthen confidence and trust in the West in Indian policy makers.

“For now, U.S. officials have been tolerant of India’s behaviour” is offensive in substance and tone. To say that “as Russian atrocities mount and India continues to import large amounts of Russian crude oil and gas, Washington may begin to see New Delhi as an enabler”. The US is still buying uranium from Russia to avoid disruptions in domestic electricity supplies. The US is an exporter of oil and gas, and so it gains a lot from high energy prices. The losers are countries like India, which makes sanctimonious homilies from an American scholar jarring. How will India buying small quantities of Russian oil amount to “facilitating Russia’s invasion”? It is China that buys huge quantities of Russian oil that is doing this facilitation, as also the huge payments being made by Europe to Russia for gas imports. A sense of proportion is needed.

If India doesn’t turn to non-Russian military suppliers, the US, the expert says, will not increase “its transfer of sophisticated defence technologies to New Delhi, since Washington cannot expose its high-tech equipment to Russian systems”. Has the US transferred any such technologies to India till now? The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) has been a damp squib so far. The expert visualises the US sanctioning India under CAATSA, and “Indian officials could be hit with restrictions on access to U.S. loans from U.S. financial institutions and prohibitions on bank transactions subject to U.S. jurisdictions, among other sanctions”. If that happens it will be a big blow to India-US ties and set back the ties for a long time. It will be for the US to make that choice.

India “curtailing dependence on Russian military gear” is projected as “the right move for moral reasons”. Will increasing dependence on the US instead be morally right? Why bring in morality in military deals? The usual arguments about Russia being less able to assist the Indian military because Russia will have fewer high-quality weapons to sell, and will need to focus more on replenishing its own military stocks, particularly as it loses access to critical Western technologies, are being unnecessarily trotted out as if we are not assessing all this ourselves. If that happens India will have good reason to look elsewhere, but it will naturally flow from a real situation on the ground not under duress by a third party.

Whether Russia has become far less dependable politically compared to the past by, for example, recent overtures to Pakistan, with Lavrov visiting Islamabad, and pledging to construct a $2.5 billion gas pipeline is nothing as compared to US military ties with Pakistan, restoring IMET, and close cooperation with Pakistan to enable US withdrawal from Afghanistan and hand over the country to the Taliban.

The US has been more alarmed by the release of Beijing and Moscow’s historic joint manifesto, announced on February 4, following a meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping than India. It was directed principally at the US, though it was not comforting for India either. Russia has been neutral on the India-China confrontation in Ladakh. India did not turn to Moscow for diplomatic assistance (as is being claimed) hoping that Russia could defuse tensions and prevent an all-out conflict. India did not need Russian intervention, nor sought it. India and China have held 15 rounds of military level talks and meetings also at Defence and Foreign Ministers level to defuse the situation on the ground. The Chinese Foreign Minister has come to India recently at his initiative to probe India’s thinking, with the BRICS virtual summit to be chaired by Xi Jinping in mind.

Washington no doubt helped India with material and intelligence support on the occasion of the Ladakh aggression and India has genuinely appreciated this. To say that it “publicly vowed to stand with India in the country’s efforts to protect its territorial sovereignty” is greatly exaggerating US willingness to get directly embroiled in an India-China conflict.

If, as is said, “The U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, released in mid-February, made clear that India plays a critical role in Washington’s efforts to compete with Beijing”, it is all the more reason not to make Ukraine an issue between the US and India. That India is “welcome to partner with the West” is a patronising formulation. India too would welcome the US to partner with it in mutual interest. If, as the article says, Washington were to give New Delhi even more access to sensitive U.S. technologies that would enhance Indian defence capabilities, incentivise U.S. private companies to co-develop and co-produce additional high-tech military equipment in India and makes its military gear more affordable for India, that would be welcome. But providing a $500 million Foreign Military Financing package to incentivise India to purchase U.S. weapons is treating India whose defence budget is the third largest in the world with callous disrespect.

To use the Quad to make India cooperate on Ukraine would be a serious mistake. The Quad’s agenda is focussed on the Indo-Pacific and the China challenge in various domains. It was never directed at Russia. Issues of food shortages etc because of the Ukraine crisis have no place on the Quad agenda. The formulation that “India wants to be engaged, not shamed” doesn’t explain what India should be shamed about? Not condemning Russia? What kind of a mindset puts forth such absurdities?

The writer assumes that India lacks any sense of its national interest or geopolitics by suggesting that China is duping India by playing into its concerns for preserving its strategic autonomy and promising multipolarity, when India has repeatedly said that a multipolar Asia is a pre-requisite for a multipolar world. Why should a multipolar world be against India’s interests? Why should multipolarity enable China to redraw borders in the Himalayas?

India is already standing up to China on its own strength. How is not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for which the causes are multiple and complex and involve the West’s policies too, is playing into Russia’s or China’s hands? India is not being cowed down either by Russia or by the US in the position it has taken ion the Ukraine crisis. Our position responds to the merits of the situation and our national interest.

Deeper partnership with the US is a two-way street. India will have to depend on itself to achieve its great power ambitions, which requires friendship with all partners calibrated to mutual advantages that such a policy brings. The strength of these partnerships does not have to be the same, but it has to be reciprocal.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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One thought on “Responding to American Criticism of India’s Stance on Russia-Ukraine Conflict

  1. Excerpts from Putin’s speech – ‘So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.

    Then, both before and after the Great Patriotic War, Stalin incorporated in the USSR and transferred to Ukraine some lands that previously belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary. In the process, he gave Poland part of what was traditionally German land as compensation, and in 1954, Khrushchev took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and also gave it to Ukraine. In effect, this is how the territory of modern Ukraine was formed.’
    Was this speech, Mr. Sibal also written by the US?
    And does India believe in the Mandala concept? Or have we changed it to suit our narrow political narratives? Because I believe an enemy’s enemy is our friend; an enemy’s friend cannot be our friend! If this is true, then there is a need to relook and reset our ties.

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