Russia-Ukraine Crisis: A Challenge for India’s ‘Self-Reliant’ Foreign Policy

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As the Russian assault on Ukrainian cities increases every day and pushes three million Ukrainian citizens towards food shortages, some have put the responses of other countries into the spotlight – especially the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

As the Indian government’s response to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis received a mixed reaction, it puts a serious introspective question to Indian lawmakers: is Indian foreign policy still dependent upon the big superpowers or are we truly moving towards Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India)? After abstaining in UN Security Council, New Delhi again abstained from voting in United Nations General Assembly on a resolution condemning “in the strongest terms” Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine and calling on Moscow to “immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from Ukraine’s territory within its internationally recognised borders.”

New Delhi’s abstention from the UN has raised eyebrows abroad

Undoubtedly, the Russian-Ukrainian Crisis has changed the world order to its core on many fronts, especially on one fundamental principle. That is the end of an era of Pax Americana, reminding the nation-states about the importance of hard power geopolitics which was previously superseded by the notion of soft power enhancement in the domain of foreign policy and diplomacy. 

In the current crisis, India has strived to maintain a non-aligned collinear, avoiding pointing a finger or naming names. This has proven to be challenging in the present predicament. It has done so by reiterating fundamental principles enshrined in the UN Charter and international law, but also appeals for a halt to violence and to return for dialogue as “the only response to addressing disagreements and conflicts, however daunting that may sound at this time.” 

In effect, India’s direct involvement has been confined to trying to pressure the Ukrainian and Russian governments to ensure the welfare and security of more than 20,000 Indian nationals in Ukraine, the majority of whom are students, and to arrange a safe passage out of the country for traumatised students anxious to flee. But New Delhi’s abstention from the UN and its limited reaction to the conflict have raised the eyebrows of the United States and its Western Allies.

India’s consistent geopolitical position

If we analyse Indian Foreign Policy then it is pretty evident that in contrast to Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, which have altered their geopolitical alliances and interests, India’s geopolitical posture towards Eurasia has maintained relatively consistent. 

Ever since the mid-1950s, New Delhi has retained tight connections with the erstwhile Soviet Union, preserving its neutrality at the time of the invasion of Hungary in 1956, Afghanistan in 1980, and now Ukraine. And this response is pretty understandable because, the former Soviet Union, now Russia, has embraced India’s South Asian strategy without prior reservation. It supported the liberation of Goa in 1961, remained mainly neutral during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, and has played a very instrumental role in India’s victory over Bangladesh in 1971. 

As for New Delhi, the Kashmir issue is extremely vital for its interests. From Khrushchev recognising Kashmir as an integral part of India in a conference at Srinagar to Moscow’s support for India in Kashmir, right up to the nullification of Article 370 in 2019, therefore bisecting the state and reassigning it to a Union Territory.

Indo-Russian defence cooperation

Furthermore, the significance of Indo-Russian defence cooperation, which is perhaps the most commonly debated rationale for India’s ‘neutrality’ on Ukraine, should not be dismissed. India continues to rely significantly on Russian military gear. Both nations’ relationship was elevated to a special and privileged strategic cooperation. “Russia has been the source of nearly two-thirds (62%) of all Indian arms imports since then”, according to SIPRI data cited in a recent US Congressional Research Service report. But this heavy dependence comes with a price because Indian military hardware which is majority Russian-made requires maintenance, upgrades and spares. This is a very notable point because at the time of the Indo-China war in 1962 because of neutrality, the Soviet Union delayed the delivery of the first MIG-21 fighter jets due to its relationship with China. 

As the global crisis worsens, Russia will be able to strengthen its connections with China in exchange for political backing, market access, and technology. But relying on the west is not a favourable option because, despite the addition of American Chinook and Apache helicopters, Russian platforms are still preferred because of their cost competitiveness, their battlefield performance and familiarity with successive generations of personnel. Additionally, Russia has been more receptive to assisting India in the development of strategic platforms such as cruise missiles and nuclear submarines.

The Ukrainian war is a significant challenge to India’s grand plan

However, New Delhi also has to understand the gravity of the situation that a US-led international order, as envisioned in the late twentieth century and after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, now appears to be mostly finished and the rise of the multipolar world has begun and every country is on their own. Beijing is likely to take advantage of this chance to gradually align with Russia or to find any other means possible to divert America’s foreign policy focus and resources away from China, further separating the US from its strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific area. 

Thus it becomes very important for New Delhi to pace up in reduction on the dependency on Russian military equipment which will enhance India’s goal to achieve strategic autonomous foreign policy likewise it did by joining QUAD despite Moscow’s reservation. The Ukrainian war is providing a significant challenge to India’s grand plan. For a country with hostile neighbours attempting to breach its boundaries, non-alignment is scarcely an option. When India needs other nations’ cooperation, its customary unwillingness to take sides on important international problems might be expensive in the not-too-distant future.

Uday Shrivastava is studying MSc International Politics, with a special interest in Indo-Pacific, especially centred around South Asian geopolitics.

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