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A tightrope India must walk

While Russia is satisfied with India’s neutrality, the US wants India to change its stand and join the West in condemning Russia. India is caught between two opposing blocks, both of whom are pulling for its support. The US and Europe are strategic allies and major trade partners, while Russia remains an old supporter and primary supplier of spare parts for its weapons.

HARSHA KAKAR | New Delhi |

India has been coming under increasing pressure to back the West in condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. India has thus far maintained a neutral stand, mentioning “immediate cessation of violence and hostilities,” as also, “the importance of respecting sovereignty and integrity of nations.” It has abstained from voting in the UNSC, UNGA and UN Human Rights council (UNHRC) against Russia.

India has formally not supported Russia, while simultaneously it is unwilling to back the West in blaming Russia for the current situation. It remains concerned about its students in Ukraine while keeping the diplomatic door open for finding a solution.

For the West, which dumped Ukraine after leading it up the garden path, obtaining global backing against Russia would be a partial victory, overriding their share of responsibility in events that led to the invasion. Their sanctions, easiest of measures adopted to stall Russia, appear to have had no impact. Hence, they seek global condemnation and isolation of Russia.

So convinced was the US on India’s pro-Russia stance that its state department issued a cable to all its embassies in nations represented at the UNHRC announcing India was in the Russian camp. It subsequently withdrew it, stating, “the language in question was never intended for clearance and the cable was released in error.”

The US perception is evident – if a nation does not blindly adhere to its call, it is against them. Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia briefing the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, stated, “We have spared no effort to try to convince India to vote in both UN sessions and also show support for Ukraine at this critical moment.”

Lu also mentioned that India has cancelled procurements of MIG 29s, Russian helicopters and antitank weapons. There has been no confirmation of this from India. Lu added that the US could consider CAATSA (Counter ing American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) on India’s ongoing procurement of the S 400 weapon systems from Russia. It was an added threat. Many US Senators simultaneously displayed displeasure on the Indian decision to stay neutral.

The US is also aware that with its attention focused on Europe, it needs India in the IndoPacific. Further, imposing sanctions under CAATSA could definitely push India into the Russian camp and this would not bode well for US-India relations. A virtual Quad meeting, called by President Joe Biden, discussed the Indo-Pacific, and also attempted to convince India to change its stance. Apart from India, other members of the Quad are in unison in their criticism of Russia.

Due to India maintaining its stance, the joint statement mentioned, “The QUAD leaders discussed the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and assessed its broader implications.” The statement from the Indian PMO read, “developments in Ukraine were discussed in the meeting including its humanitar ian implications. The PM emphasized the need to return to a path of dialogue and diplomacy.”

Pressure has also been building on India from the EU, whose Commission Vice-President in charge of coordinating external action, Josep Borrell Fontelles, spoke to Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar. The United Kingdom has expressed hope that India will switch and stand against Russia. Ukraine is requesting India to hold Russia responsible. The French Ambassador to India stated, “India is a voice that is heard in the world. We really count on the largest democracy in the world.”

At the same time Russia has approached India for support in global forums. Russia’s Charge d’affaires, Roman Babushkin, stated, “ We highly appreciate India’s deep understanding of the current situation as well as reasons that led to it. We expect India to support Russia at the UN Security Council.”

While Russia is satisfied with India’s neutrality, the US wants India to change its stand and join the West in condemning Russia. India is caught between two opposing blocks, both of whom are pulling for its support. The US and Europe are strategic allies and major trade partners, while Russia remains an old supporter and primary supplier of spare parts for its weapons.

India is diversifying its weapon procurements while enhancing internal industrial capability; however, this will take time. Dependence on Russian spares will remain. In case India changes its approach, shortages of Russian supplies could hinder defence preparedness. With Western allies, India sticking to its current stand could have an adverse impact. The most important fallout could be silence in case China again attempts salami slicing.

While there was hardly a murmur against China in 2020, there could be complete silence the next time. However, if India reverses its stand, the murmur could turn into a louder voice and nothing more, as India is not in a military alliance. Conversely, Russia was neutral during the Chinese intrusion in 2020 and sought to bring about a resolution. It sponsored breakthrough talks between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers as part of the Russia India-China summit in September 2020.

A reversal in the Indian decision could result in Russia backing China. Similarly, there could be a change in the Russian stance on the Indo-Pacific and Chinese hegemony. The last thing that India would desire would be a Russia-China-Pakistan nexus against it. India and European trade could possibly suffer with India’s neutrality.

The EU is India’s third-largest trading partner and with an economy reviving from Covid and impacted by rising oil prices, the Indian stand could impact trade ties. This is not something India desires. Further, based on Indian projections, EU and NATO countries have joined in pushing for a free Indo-Pacific. Any change in stance would embolden China. The US could reconsider its current stance of not imposing CAATSA, though it could be just a threat. For India, this could impact future military procurements from Russia.

The Indian Def-expo, currently postponed, is possibly a fallout of the Indian stand. The stated reason for its postponement is that India wants to avoid Russian, Ukrainian and Western stalls at the same venue, while the reality is the backing out of Western companies due to national pressure on participation of Russian concerns. If India is to survive this period, then its external affairs ministry has a major role to play in justifying the Indian approach.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)