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How India perceives the Ukrainian crisis & what it means to its relations with Russia

Russia’s special military operation during the ongoing Ukrainian crisis and, more broadly, its conflict with the West hardly seems to change the fabric of India-Russia bilateral relations dramatically.

A time-tested special and privileged strategic partnership, encompassing all crucial fields related to defense and security issues as well as political and economic spheres, is not likely to be affected by the hostilities taking place somewhere in Eastern Europe. That is what one could grasp in general so as to set and forget the matter concerned. Nonetheless, the devil is, as usual, in the details.

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“As Hon’ble Members would be aware, tense situation between Russia and Ukraine erupted into conflict on 24 February 2022. The root causes for this are complex, going back to range of issues including the security architecture, political governance and inter-state politics. To that was added the challenges of implementing understandings reached earlier. What is pertinent to note is that the hostilities placed the Indian community of 20000 plus in direct danger. Even while we were participating in the global deliberations of this evolving situation in the UN Security Council, the pressing challenge was to safeguard our citizens and ensure that they were not in harm’s way”, said Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in his address to the upper-chamber of the Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha) on March15, 2022.

Thus, it is not the changing geopolitical equilibrium or arguments over India’s stance on the conflict but the evacuation of Indian community members in Ukraine, most of whom pursued medical studies in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, that in fact bothered the nation’s leadership.

Narendra Modi’s government launched the “Operation Ganga“, the aim of which was to return Indian nationals home. The exercise entailed a “whole of Government” approach and joint efforts undertaken by the Ministry of External Affairs with all the Embassies concerned, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Defence, the National Disaster Response Force, Indian Air Force and private airlines. What should be mentioned is that the Russian political leadership and the military on the ground were in constant contact with Indian officials and succeeded in providing Indian students and professionals with humanitarian passages.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that a number of attempts to establish the uninterrupted functioning of humanitarian passages failed, a final year medical student of Kharkiv Medical University Naveen Shekarappa Gyanagaudar lost his life. That tragedy requires a deep investigation, which Russia immediately promised to conduct. However, “Operation Ganga” has eventually been undertaken successfully, with the close India-Russia interaction in a tough situation having served as another example of mutual understanding in resolving urgent issues.

Politics Claims, Economics Proves

Although the Indian leadership, and public in general, obviously concentrated on the humanitarian dimension of the conflict, more pragmatic considerations have been in place. These considerations concern India’s positioning in the international arena (including such venues as the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly) and speculations about the mounting number of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West as well as the ways to face the future ramifications for India-Russia cooperation, engendered by those constraints.

Hardly anyone in Russia expected India to fail its historical ally in such circumstances. And it didn’t. India’s position during the vote on the resolutions condemning Russia’s actions in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly respectively has been steadfast and coherent – India abstained from voting on the West-sponsored resolutions that sought to deplore in the “strongest terms” Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine.

Hence, India remains committed to its strategic culture, expressed most clearly in the principle of “multialignment” (a reference to the earlier principle of non-alignment) – the emerging world power persist in seeking ground for fruitful cooperation with all the nations and avoids taking a stand on controversial issues. India proved its traditionally independent stance and should have dissuaded those political pundits who mistakenly regarded India’s historically weighted position, as an inclination to bolster its ties with the West at the expense of India-Russia bilateral relations.

Economic cooperation seems to be a rather complicated issue, as it requires handling multiple structural constraints stemming from the very nature of the interconnected global markets. Operating in this environment entails the elaboration of coherent and consistent strategies, responding to the newly emerged challenges.

Indian decision-makers in the economic field, as well as business circles, pay close attention to the Western sanction policies, the mass media provides detailed information about the measures undertaken by the Bank of Russia, the ruble exchange rate and the functioning of the Russian financial markets.

What disturbs them most is possible structural problems in the world economy and the global network of supply chains. For instance, the Reserve Bank of India (acting as the country’s central bank) expressed concern about the impact of the economic sanctions on the dynamics of energy prices, volatility in the financial markets and inflation rates.

Indian market players themselves are unwilling to join the Western-led sanction campaign but are wary of repercussions deriving from further cooperation with Russia. That is why the State Bank of India (the nation’s top lender) stopped processing any transactions involving Russian entities being subjects to international sanctions imposed on Russia due to its significant international presence and the need to comply with the US and EU regulations.

However, it is no surprise that some notable economic agents should have acted in line with Western initiatives so as not to endanger India’s long-term plans on attracting investments and advanced businesses from around the world. It is of Russia’s interest to have relations with a rapidly developing economy with the steps undertaken by the SBI being of marginal importance in the whole context of India-Russia economic ties.

Old Friends Are Best

One may wonder what interests India could pursue in the current situation? First of all, New Delhi has another chance to take advantage of the Russian pivot to the East, since this time Moscow has no option but to finally embark on boosting its ties with the non-Western world in practice. While Russia and Europe are strongly interconnected from geostrategic perspective, and that is why they are doomed to restore European security architecture and find the consensus on other fields of cooperation, nowadays there is a room for both reaffirming historical commitments and exploring new spheres of partnership in order to make it comprehensive in full effect.

Secondly, it is high time India took real steps to lessen the so-called “Russia’s dependence on China”. This narrative of “Russia rapidly becoming subordinate to China” has been circulating around Indian official, academic, expert and media circles in recent years. There is unlikely to be a better chance for New Delhi to enter the game decisively by establishing new businesses, launching joint projects and increasing investments so as to pick up its desired winnings.

Finally, India could demonstrate that being under tough pressure from the West, and primarily from the US – instead of turning a blind eye on its national interests and eventual giving up to that pressure – New Delhi would take advantage of its special privileges in partnership with Russia. Then there will be no better argument in beating the speculations within some circles in Moscow that India is studiously tilting towards the West. Even though such speculations do hamper the Russian position first, India would have acted as an old reliable friend indeed, if it had helped Russia to eliminate such a subversive impediment on the path to better future for both nations.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

The environment we will have to operate in is, no doubt, uncertain. However, it is quite certain that for today Russia should be satisfied with the stand India took in the crisis. It had no time to break a lance with the critics of Russian actions, but it had quite limited time to provide its citizens with safety and security – the interaction between Moscow and New Delhi on this sensitive matter outweighs thousands of supportive words and statements.

 India and Russia are going to further interact within a new international order since the old one does not seem to work anymore. And the way it will look like depends on the political will of the two nations leadership, the motivation of both Indian and Russian entrepreneurs, the determination of political analysts to leave behind chaining narratives and construct the new ones.

It has become an article of faith that statics never works for better. Now we are to prove that dynamics does.

By Gleb Makarevich, Junior Research Fellow, Group on South Asia and Indian Ocean at IMEMO RAS

© 2022, paradox. All rights reserved.

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