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India at Crossroads

That Russia has stood by India in times of crisis, especially when other big powers have shied from doing so, goes without saying.

MADHURI SAKHUJA | New Delhi |

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a turning point in history. With so many reverberations, the impact has been multi-fold. The hard-hitting sanctions against Russia have brought friends and foes to the fore. Besides the all consuming energy crisis, many parts of the globe are grappling with food security. The changing geo-political shifts have had an important bearing on India’s strategic calculus too. History has a lot to answer for. Economic, political and strategic relations between India and Russia go back three quarters of a century. That Russia has stood by India in times of crisis, especially when other big powers have shied from doing so, goes without saying. In the days of the cold war, India’s foreign policy adhered to nonalignment.

However, Russia stood by India in countering China and supplied arms at affordable rates. This was also the period when the US and China were on one side. Defence is definitely at the heart of the relationship between India and Russia. Most of the equipment supplied to Indian armed forces comes from Russia, be it the T- 90 tanks or the Mig and Sukhoi fighters or the S-400 missile. India banks on Russia for nuclear submarine technology as well. Economics, politics and defence all knitted together have held their sway on the India-Russia relationship. Russia also has an economic giant in China on its side. India is aware of the fact, and cannot afford to push Russia into China’s embrace, especially when relations between India and China are continuously declining and China’s aggressive designs have made India wary.

China may not level up to the US militarily, but it is an economic powerhouse and with its belligerent strategy, it has cast its net far and wide A case in sight is the current plight of Sri Lanka, which is facing one of its worst crises in history. The Sino-Russian Joint Declaration signed on the 4 February this year, saw Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin state that their relationship has no limits. Despite their growing closeness, there are underlying tensions between the two. China has increased its sphere of influence and pressure tactics in Central Asia and Europe, which Russia considers as its domain. How long would Russia like to grow in China’s shadow, only time will tell. India needs to leverage on this factor and incorporate this in its broader framework.

As it is, Russia’s future in the world order has become unpredictable. Its declining political status, its international isolation and its economic slowdown have put Russia in a difficult spot. As far as energy is concerned, Russia remains an important pillar. Europe imports nearly 40 per cent of its natural gas and 30 per cent of its oil from Russia. The oil embargo and the decision to forego Russia’s energy dependency is a major one. In this background, can Europe see an energy future beyond Russia? The current impasse has directly impacted the energy security systems of the world. The energy storage in the Arctic region makes it the world’s new “El Dorado” of still attainable natural resources. The boycott of Russian oil and gas by the West and Europe will lead to a global scramble for energy sources creating intense competition between Arctic powers and near-Arctic powers, to have access to these resources.

India released its Arctic Policy titled ‘India and the Arctic: building a partnership for sustainable development’ on 17 March this year. Considering the future prospects of the Arctic, the Indian Government has to walk the extra mile and expedite its efforts in this domain. In all fairness, a world defined by multilateralism and multipolarity is a better one. But multilateralism too is in deep peril. Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani warned that “Multilateralism lies on its deathbed”. In the aftermath of the Ukraine war, Russia has blocked the UNSC from taking any action in response to its ‘special military operation’.

The UN may not have been able to prevent the Ukraine war or bring the concerned parties to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, for all its share of follies, it cannot be written off. In the words of Suzanne Nossel, “The world still needs the UN and building global governance from scratch is a fools’ errand.” India’s stand on the Russia-Ukraine crisis has not found favour with a couple of countries of the world. Hence India has to navigate its role keeping its own interests uppermost. Maintaining good relations with the West, Europe and the Asean countries is extremely important for India. As far as the last-named is concerned, India certainly can do better. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ needs a greater push. Keeping the channels of communication open, despite the political upheavals in the neighbourhood, is vital.

The RCEP is one agreement where India needs to rethink and review its policy. India-Asean economic ties are only growing, with bilateral trade to the tune of $86.9 billion, making Asean India’s fourth largest trading partner. India’s Act East policy is undeniably linked to its Indo-Pacific strategy. Membership of the Quad has certainly benefited India economically and technologically. It has also brought it closer to America and has also sent a clear message to a belligerent China. However, the current crisis has diverted the US attention from the Indo-Pacific (which is fast becoming a China-centric zone) to the Ukraine-Russia confrontation. This has to be factored by India in its strategic calculus. The Quad does not find favour with Russia for it has a distinct US footprint.

Maintaining an equilibrium between the US and Russia who are at loggerheads with each other, and at the same time skilfully avoiding pressure tactics of US and Europe is proving to be extremely challenging for India. Let us not forget the summer of 2020 and the Galwan clashes. When tensions between India and China were at their peak, Russia did not take sides. Although India stands for peaceful resolution of conflicts and the territorial integrity of states, India refrained from voting in the UN resolutions against Russia. Russia’s strengths weigh heavily on India, especially energy considerations and sophisticated modern technology, which are an enabling factor for India to sustain itself. The international order is in a state of flux and international institutions are on a shaky wicket.

Militarily, the US is most powerful. But the US lacks the leverage it had several decades back and China is its most powerful adversary. A polarised nation, a divided foreign policy and with institutional arrangements in a disarray, this could as well be the end of the American era. A question that arises is, is the future going to see the emergence of an alternative rules-based rights order? Is it time for the middle powers to step in? If that is the case, does India have the wherewithal to contribute towards shaping the contours of the changing world order? India’s rising economic status makes it a power to reckon with. One can afford to be cautiously optimistic. The world order cannot always be shaped by victors alone and their power projections.

There is a lot at stake for the world in the ongoing RussiaUkraine conflict. Politics, economics, policies, strategies, diplomatic roadblocks, all are at play. This is evident from the series of visits made to India by leaders from across the world in the last few weeks, each trying to woo India. As if the pandemic were not enough, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has taken the world by storm. It is a crisis on top of a crisis and in this background dominated by narratives of conflict, inter-state competition and the changing geo-political scenario, what should be the path for India? Maintaining its strategic autonomy in the international sphere and safeguarding its autonomy in decision-making is well taken.

India can certainly do without the advice that keeps pouring in from the big powers whenever issues are at stake; they could be related to national security, terms of trade, the growing divide between the developed and developing world on humanitarian issues of vaccination or the climate agenda. Convergence or divergence with the West or the East will depend upon how the future world order shapes up.