Issue 21

On Russia-Ukraine, India is Boxed in by History and Geopolitics

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February – the first military attack on any European country since the Second World War – might have sharpened the growing rift between Moscow and the West. But, for India, it has thrown up a delicate diplomatic moment. New Delhi today finds itself awkwardly lodged between two major camps, both of which are crucial for its evolving geopolitical, regional and national interests. The net outcome has been India taking a firmly neutral stance on the invasion – neither supporting nor condemning it.

At the same time, the civil society and intelligentsia in India remains fractured on how to interpret the crisis. Factions supporting and condemning Moscow’s actions have emerged across the political spectrum, even creating some unlikely congruences between camps that are otherwise sworn ideological foes. This divide shows the complexity of the current situation and how Russian actions will continue to be seen differently by different groups of people around the world.

Even before the invasion, India offered a middle-point view at the UN Security Council in its meetings on 31 January, 17 February and 21 February (following Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s blustering pre-invasion speech). It called for de-escalation through diplomatic dialogue, respect for the UN Charter, the safety of Indian students in Ukraine, and “legitimate security interests of all parties”. The last point, particularly, has been interpreted by many, especially Western commentators, as India taking Russia’s side in the conflict. The reality, however, is more complex.

India’s arguably ‘neutral’ stance hasn’t dropped from the sky. It flows from a fairly long foreign policy tradition going back to the Cold War period, which has actively professed the idea of not siding with any major power bloc. Yet, as history shows, this nonalignment tradition has, in reality, encouraged a tilt towards the Soviet (and later Russian) bloc. We see the vestiges of that peculiar legacy playing out once again today.

Historical path dependency

India and the then Soviet Union developed a uniquely intimate relationship right from the first half of the Cold War. Despite his avowedly nonaligned foreign policy, it was clear from the beginning that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru preferred the Soviet bloc over the US-led Western bloc. Moscow’s generous financial aid to India was pivotal to his government’s industrialisation and institution-building plans. Notably, Moscow also used its sway over the Communist Party of India to help tame the anti-government insurgency that had become a headache for Nehru.

New Delhi’s tilt towards the USSR was further aided by the strong socialist thinking in influential sections of the Nehru government, including the Prime Minister himself and his Defence Minister, Krishna Menon. The fact that the US had begun to move closer to Pakistan further pushed India towards the Kremlin. These factors played a decisive role in setting the foundations for an enduring India-Soviet (later Russia) relationship.

Then in the early 1960s, India started buying the optimally-priced MiG-21 fighter jets from the Soviets, thus upgrading its air combat fleet by multiple factors. That heralded what was to become an era-defining defence and technical partnership covering both conventional military and nuclear technology transfers.

Over the next few decades, India and the USSR continued to back each other diplomatically at the international stage with great consistency – either actively supporting each other’s actions or staying silent. From refusing to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to staying neutral on its invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, New Delhi took great care to keep Moscow in its good books. The USSR returned the favour by backing New Delhi on a range of sticky issues – from the first nuclear tests in 1974 to the annexation of Sikkim next year.

Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, New Delhi and Moscow inked the landmark ‘India-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation’ in 1971. The pact, designed to counter the growing partnership between the US, Pakistan and China, played a key role in moulding the geopolitics around the Bangladesh Liberation War. As some scholars argue, it gave Prime Minister Gandhi the conviction to intervene with military force in East Pakistan without the fear of an adverse response by the US-China-West Pakistan axis.

This “reciprocity of silence” – as Professor Ramesh Thakur, who currently teaches at the Australian National University, once described the relationship – didn’t change after the fall of the USSR. The Kremlin refused to condemn India’s second nuclear tests in 1998 (Pokhran-II) and also stayed neutral on the Kargil conflict next year.

More recently, India took a neutral position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, emphasising on “legitimate Russian and other interests” – which, interestingly, is similar to India’s insistence on “legitimate security interests of all parties” in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. India also backed Russian military involvement in Syria through the last decade. This was followed by a raft of Russian support or neutrality on India – such as Moscow refusing to back Beijing on the 2017 Doklam standoff, backing India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, and taking on a mediatory role in the 2020 Galwan clashes.

This closely woven bilateral history and the mutual path dependency that it spawned make it nearly impossible for either party to jettison the relationship over a single crisis.

 Strategic compulsions and geopolitical dilemmas

A critical part of the mutual path dependency is India’s reliance on Russia for military hardware. A significant chunk of India’s core military platforms across all the three services – from fighter jets and main battle tanks to submarines and frigates – are built on Soviet- and Russian-developed technology. In 2010, the two countries upgraded their relationship to a “special and privileged strategic partnership” and since then, according to SIPRI data, nearly 62% of India’s arms imports have been Russian. In the same period, India has emerged as the biggest customer for Russian arms in the world, accounting for nearly 32% of all of Moscow’s exports.

If India wants to maintain its current offensive, defensive, deterrence and power projection capabilities, it cannot junk this key defence partnership. Just four years back, India bought five S-400 air defence systems from Russia, which will upgrade its deterrence capability against a rapidly modernising Chinese army next door. Last December, during Putin’s visit to New Delhi, both countries signed a ten-year defence cooperation pact, as part of which India will indigenously manufacture more than 500,000 AK-203 assault rifles.

Russian military technology is also crucial for India’s own arms export plans, which it wants to double down on over the next few years. The recent US$375 million deal for the sale of three batteries of the BrahMos missile, which is manufactured under an Indo-Russian joint venture, to the Philippines and the “gifting” of a Soviet-made Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar in 2020 are only two recent examples. Other countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have also expressed interest in buying the BrahMos to boost their strategic deterrence capabilities.

While the import of Russian arms might have dipped over the last decade, that doesn’t mean India can suddenly cut itself loose from Russia and switch to other buyers. Yes, it certainly needs to find other sellers in the long term so as to decrease its overreliance on Russian hardware, but it simply doesn’t have the capability to undertake a system-wide shift in the short term. Further, Indian arms imports have generally fallen between 2011-15 and 2016-20; so, the fall in Russian imports doesn’t suggest any long-term trend yet.

However, India needs to be cognisant of the adverse impact of Western sanctions on Russian defence exports. Although Moscow has assured India that its supplies will continue, there is little doubt that the sanctions will hinder its capacity to deliver on time. Preliminary indications of this happening have already surfaced, even as India’s Department of Military Affairs (DMA) initiates an audit to assess the damage. The need for India to diversify its import strategy has become doubly imperative now.

Despite immediate hiccups, New Delhi needs Moscow’s rapport with Beijing to keep tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) manageable. The manner in which India reached out to Putin during the Galwan clashes in 2020 shows this. Interestingly, on 4 March, senior Indian Army officers hinted at the possibility of a Ukraine-like situation afflicting the LAC. This is not just a recognition of the lingering Chinese threat, but could also be seen as India’s tacit message of disapproval for Moscow’s cross-border aggression.

India also cannot ignore the ramifications of its neutrality on its relationship with the West, which has emerged as a crucial partner for New Delhi on domains such as the Indo-Pacific. On 3 March, amidst the crisis, all members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – India, Japan, Australia and the US – met virtually and briefly discussed its core agendas while noting that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states” have to be respected. This showed that the Quad and other Indo-Pacific collectives will sustain in the near term, despite the crisis. The West has its own autonomous objectives in the Indo-Pacific, and it needs India to achieve those.

In all, there is little doubt that Russia’s Ukraine invasion will trigger some significant, if not tectonic, shifts in geopolitical and geostrategic thinking amongst big, middle and small powers. India today lies somewhere between the first two, which is a very awkward place to be at the moment. If India fails to reconcile with the complex new realities that this crisis is bound to create, it will continue to find itself on thin ice every time a global crisis of this nature rears its head.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Picture Credits: DW

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 21

Russia-India Oil Deal: A Question of National Interest or Morality?

On March 22nd, India’s top oil refiner Indian Oil Corporation hiked the prices of petrol and diesel after almost 140 days of stalling. This comes after a massive surge in global crude oil prices–the key factor in determining domestic fuel rates–driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent Western sanctions on Russian-sourced oil. 

Despite these sanctions, the Indian Oil Corporation recently purchased three million barrels of crude oil from Russia at discounted rates–something that has not sat well with Western leaders. Jen Psaki, US President Joe Biden’s spokesperson, said on Monday regarding the issue that while the US understands the economic reasoning, “the rest of the world, is watching where you’re going to stand as it relates to conflict, whether its support for Russia in any form“. 

Reactions like these, that highlight India’s need for oil yet urge the country to look beyond economic needs, have caused great uproar among some commentators and the Indian government alike. They claim that since India imports 85% of its oil needs, the decision to buy Russian oil was one of necessity and not one of active choice. Further, fingers have also been pointed at European nations that continue to buy Russian oil in large quantities.

The debate surrounding this controversial purchase has mostly been framed around the tension between a country’s ‘legitimate economic interests’ and morality. The implication is that by purchasing Russian Oil, India is inadvertently funding Putin’s war machine. So, what exactly are India’s ‘legitimate economic interests’ here?

India, as a developing country, has a large middle class that is very sensitive to income shocks, i.e. a steep fall in income due to events like rising crude oil prices. High prices for oil on the global market means that the cost for almost everything increases (inflation) since most industries depend on oil products. This leads to people ultimately having less money in their pockets because incomes remain constant while expenses increase dramatically. 

Understandably, a population with less money is prone to civil unrest. A harrowing example of this is Sri Lanka, which is battling its worst economic crisis since the nation’s inception and the subsequent public unrest. Among other factors, surging oil prices have left the country dry of petrol and diesel in its fuel stations. The government has now called in the army after two men were reported to have died while waiting for petrol.

This could explain why the Indian government has been firm in its aim to avoid oil insufficiency. A recent paper by Economist Pranjul Bhandari calculated the effects on the Indian economy if oil were to be priced at $100 per barrel for an extended period. The paper forecasted around a one per cent decrease in India’s GDP if that were the case. To put that yardstick into context, the current prices are above $115. These are India’s legitimate economic interests. But, does buying oil from Russia actually fund its military capacity?

Vladimir Putin has been the de facto head of state for Russia for more than 20 years now. In that time he has built around himself a helpful cadre of Billionaires and Oligarchs who fund his political and military endeavours. Many of these people are in the oil business and hence, when Indian companies buy oil from them, the money does go into Putin’s vault indirectly. 

Although, as pointed out in Rajya Sabha by Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri, India imported less than 1% of its annual requirement from Russia last year. So the impact of Indian purchases on Russia’s military capacity seems minuscule. This is especially low in comparison to the European Union, which relies on Russia for 27% of its crude oil. India is buying oil from Russia only because it is cheap oil and not because it is Russian oil. 

It must also be pointed out that the Western concern that this move signals India’s affinity towards Russia is not fiction. Over the years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin have developed close personal ties. This is arguably one of the reasons Joe Biden has gone on record to call India’s confrontation with Russia “shaky”. Taking into account India’s abstentions at the UN and the fact that the country is considering a direct Rupee-Rouble corridor to bypass US Dollar based sanctions, this fear does not seem beyond a reasonable doubt.

Moreover, Professor of Political Science Oleksandr Svitych has pointed out in an opinion article that even from a utilitarian perspective, showing overt solidarity with the tightly banded NATO countries also has economic benefits. Put plainly, siding with the ‘good’ side has long term benefits of cooperation and progress. In the meanwhile, India can source its oil from other oil-producing nations and bear the cost of ‘good’ behaviour for later returns.

This liberal internationalist perspective misses one crucial point though. None of the top ten oil-producing countries, barring Canada, have a great track record of human rights. The list includes Saudi Arabia, the largest exporter of oil to India, which has consistently conducted unlawful airstrikes in Yemen. This fact effectively makes it so that if India were to start buying more oil from countries like the UAE or Kuwait in lieu of Russian oil, we would still be funding unlawful killings, unjust wars and brutal autocrats. Since switching producers does not solve the problem of giving money to bad actors, we can just buy from the cheapest autocract around, the argument goes. In this case, the cheapest autocrat happens to be Vladimir Putin. 

Thus, it would be economically and politically imprudent for India to not buy oil from Russia at this moment. Though, India does need to come out with a stronger stance on Ukraine for us to be able to shelter the western anger over it in the long term. 

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Wikimedia Commons

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 20

Issue XX: Editor’s Note

The 20th issue of Open Axis explores popular culture. We question how popular culture is framed, why it is both dynamic and malleable. Almost everything that we do – friends we make, conversations that we have, places that we travel to, media that we consume – is predicated upon the prevailing cultural trends around us. This issue will attempt to understand how culture is framed and made to interact with society, politics, and technology. Further, this issue will also encompass our designated theme to respond to the biggest headline in the world right now. 

In the early hours of 24th February, the world woke up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of war against Ukraine. Heroic tales of Ukrainian defiance began to be shared through social media. Meanwhile, diplomatic and geopolitical experts took over television panels and editorial pages. The world moved on almost in suspended disbelief, with a new war to discuss. In doom and in calm, Open Axis persists in analyzing the world around us.

Following our theme of popular culture, Reya Deya is in conversation with her mother and grandmother as they react to the newly released Gehraiyaan, and talk about on-screen sex, sexuality, and sensationalism. 

Continuing the conversation around intimacy, Maahira Jain and Lakshya Sharma interview Aastha Khanna, the first Intimacy Coordinator of India and intimacy director behind Gehraiyaan. In an insightful podcast, she talks about her journey and the importance of her work in today’s world. 

In a day and age where attention is few and fleeting, art and popular culture remains that which unites and creates. Shree Bhattacharyya explores whether originality is present in popular culture today, and how the act of plagiarism has taken on a new and confusing role.

With Ashoka University starting offline classes on campus again after two years, OpenAxis asks the Ashoka student body what they will miss about online classes.

In this issue, we also explore how the pandemic transformed how we occupy space around us, as Jaidev Pant writes about how the pandemic altered our relationship with the outdoors.

Maahira Jain writes about hybrid work culture in the pandemic brought well being and employee development to the forefront of organisational policies

Studying another aspect of popular culture, Biplob Kumar Das writes about how Hindu Nationalism is influencing popular culture in India since 2014. 

In a photo essay, acclaimed filmmaker and photojournalist Kalyan Verma journeys through the ancient rocks and rainforests of Southern India’s Western Ghat range to document the spectacular Macaques.

Lakshya Sharma explores the case of Chitra Ramakrishna, CEO of the National Stock Exchange, who got tricked by a Himalayan sage and writes about how people have faith in such self-proclaimed sages, but how blind faith can lead to catastrophic consequences for people.

Neelim Mahanta’s street art is recognised widely in Assam. In an interview with him, conducted by Biplob Kumar Das, he opens up about his work, his beginnings, and his thoughts on art and life. 

On the Russia Ukraine crisis, Saaransh Mishra, Research Associate in Observer Research Foundation, writes about what are the options that Ukraine has in responding to an invasion by their militarily superior Russia.

– Lakshya Sharma, Shree Bhattacharyya, Jaidev Pant, Maahira Jain, Rutuparna Deshpande, Reya Daya & Biplob Kumar Das

Illustrator of cover image: Rutuparna Deshpande

Issue 20

What is Ukraine’s Best Bet?

In a brazen show of utter disregard for a democratic country’s sovereignty, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will go down as a dark moment in modern history, remembered for times to come. 

Over the last few months and amidst the current escalation, seasoned experts have incessantly been speculating regarding President Putin’s primary motivations behind launching this invasion. There is no clear answer. There is no dearth of historic and contemporary political explanations to contextualize these developments. To be fair, the reality could be congruent with any of these developments, or a combination. While it is surely important to understand the roots of this decision, pragmatically, the major concern right now is Ukraine defending itself against an indisputably mightier Russia. So, what exactly is Ukraine’s best bet? 

Realistically, the Russian defense forces are exponentially stronger and have a significantly larger endowment than Ukraine. Russia has 8,50,000 active personnel in the armed forces, as compared to Ukraine’s 2,00,000. Additionally, the Russian paramilitary size of 2,50,000 is five times that of Ukraine’s. Starkly in contrast to Russia’s military spending of $62 billion in 2020, Ukraine’s stood at a measly $6 billion in the same year. This certainly lends Russia the means to possess an edge through cyberwarfare, missiles, heavy weaponry, fighter planes, warships, and other kinds of ammunition. These factors comprehensively dwarf Ukraine’s ability to put up a resilient fight or so has been perceived. Expert opinions indicated that Putin thought this invasion was going to be relatively smooth, owing to Russia’s unquestionable dominance over its timid neighbors that failed to act decisively in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. 

However, the reality has unfolded rather harshly for Russia. With many more years of combat experience since 2014 and the continued supply of sophisticated arms and ammunition by the West, Ukraine was significantly more equipped for an unprecedented resistance. Leading by example, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rallied a large number of fervent men of the fighting age to sign up for the frontlines as well. 

Consequently, Russia’s endeavors to attack the country on three fronts; Kyiv in the North, Kharkiv in the northeast, and Kherson in the south, has intensified. Reportedly (and rather unexpectedly), hundreds (some reporting thousands) of Russian soldiers have been killed along with scores of the Ukrainian military and civilian casualties, the numbers of which are very hard to verify given the persisting violence. 

At face value, Russia still has an upper hand in this conflict with its mammoth military dominance. The most the west can do is supply aid and ammunition, which it has been providing relentlessly. Ultimately, the deciding factor boils down to the fight that Ukraine can put up with the resources at its disposal. This is exactly what Ukraine seems to be doing. 

Militarily, Ukraine has scant chances of victory. Thus, the only way forward is to fortify the resistance that would prolong this war, and inflict an endless number of economic repercussions on Russia. This strategy would be effective for a variety of reasons. 

Firstly, the sanctions announced by the west are expected to apply immense pressure on the Russian economy. As a punitive measure, the United Kingdom, United States, and European Union have cut off major Russian banks from financial markets in the west, thereby prohibiting dealings with the central bank, state-owned investment funds, and the finance ministry. These restrictions have sent the ruble crashing for Russia. The country’s vast foreign reserves of $630 billion, accrued from soaring oil and gas prices are also under threat, given that a lot of this money is stored in western currencies like the dollar, euro, and pound. 

Secondly, while the reserves are large enough for one to think that Russia would withstand the effect of sanctions, it is noteworthy that the Russian economy has already been hit by sanctions post-2014. Even though these sanctions did not have as much impact as was intended owing to Russia’s favorable domestic financial systems, they did shrink the economy to an extent. 

Third, Ukraine’s sternness is expected to cost Russia even more money than the previously estimated billions of dollars, which was already a hefty amount to expend on a war in pursuit of an unclear and vaguely defined end goal. Moreover, Russia has spent billions of dollars on wars in the middle east, wars that are far from concluding and constitute recurring expenditures. As a result of its deep involvement, Russia cannot abruptly withdraw from these wars. 

Russia’s military might does not overpower the economic pressures from all quarters. Although this cannot be asserted with surety, a long, resource-depleting war in Ukraine, in addition to the aforementioned factors could compel the country to change its course. Interestingly, these economic costs for Russia will not end if it can capture the whole country, topple the Ukrainian government, and establish a pro-Russia regime (in case this is what Russia wants). This scenario could give way to a long-drawn insurgency fighting that would entail more costs for Russia in the long term.  

While these recent happenings could technically be construed as a war between Russia and the West, the military exchanges will happen only between Russia and Ukraine. Unless Russia decides to attack any of the NATO powers, which would legally oblige the west to engage militarily, Ukraine, with only western help, has to fight a war that has always been way beyond its reach. Strategically, it has to devise ways to increasingly impose costs on Russia as a discouraging factor from wreaking further havoc. 

Saaransh Mishra is a Research Associate with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and writes on foreign policy matters.

Picture Credits: PA Media

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).