Foreign Policy Watch: India-Russia

The anatomy of India’s Ukraine dilemma


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NATO

Mains level: Paper 2- Implications of Ukraine crisis for India


Late last week, India abstained from a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution which called for condemning the Russian military action against Ukraine.

Understanding India’s position on the Ukraine issue

  •  New Delhi has taken a subtle pro-Moscow position on the question of Russian attacks against Ukraine.
  • A geopolitical necessity: India’s Russia tilt should be seen not just as a product of its time-tested friendship with Moscow but also as a geopolitical necessity.
  • There are understandable reasons for India’s (subtle) pro-Russia position: an aggressive Russia is a problem for the U.S. and the West, not for India.
  •  North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion is Russia’s problem, not India’s.
  • China problem: India’s problem is China, and it needs both the U.S./the West and Russia to deal with the “China problem”.
  • Neighbouring China as the rising superpower and Russia as its strategic ally challenging the U.S.-led global order at a time when China has time and again acted on its aggressive intentions vis-à-vis India, and when India is closest to the U.S. than ever before in its history, throws up a unique and unprecedented challenge for India.
  • There is an emerging dualism in contemporary Indian strategic Weltanschauung: the predicament of a continental space that is reeling under immense pressure from China, Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan adding to its strategic claustrophobia; and, the emergence of a maritime sphere which presents an opportunity to break out of the same.

Why India needs to balance relations with Russia and the US

  • Relations with Russia to manage continental challenges: New Delhi needs Moscow’s assistance to manage its continental difficulties be it through defence supplies, helping it ‘return’ to central Asia, working together at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or exploring opportunities for collaboration in Afghanistan.
  • Relations with US to manage maritime challenges: When it comes to the vast maritime sphere, the Indo-Pacific to be precise, Russia is not of great consequence to India.
  • That is where its American and western partners come into play. India is simply not in a position to address the China challenge in the maritime space without the active support of American and western navies and, of course, the Quad.
  • This unavoidable dualism in the contemporary Indian strategic landscape necessitates that India balances the two sides.

Implications of war on Ukraine for India

  • 1] It will embolden China: Russian action in Ukraine dismissing the concerns of the rest of the international community including the U.S. will no doubt embolden China and its territorial ambitions.
  • 2] Sanctions on Russia will impact India’s defence cooperation: The new sanctions regime may have implications for India’s defence cooperation with Moscow.
  • 3] Russia-China axis: The longer the standoff lasts, the closer China and Russia could become, which certainly does not help India.
  • 4] Focus will move away from Indo-Pacific: The more severe the U.S.-Russia rivalry becomes, the less focus there would be on the Indo-Pacific and China, which is where India’s interests lie.

Foreign policy challenge for India

  • Position of geopolitical vulnerability: India’s responses to the Russian aggression on Ukraine underline the fact that India is operating from a position of geopolitical vulnerability.
  • Going forward, India’s ability to be a “swing state”, “major power” or a “leading power” stands diminished.
  • There will be more middle-of-the-road behaviour from New Delhi rather than resolute positions on global strategic developments.
  • Interests over principles: India’s position also shows the unmistakable indication that when it comes to geopolitics, New Delhi will choose interests over principles.
  • A careful reading of India’s statements and positions taken over the past few days also demonstrates a certain amount of discomfort in having to choose interests over principles.
  • There is perhaps a realisation in New Delhi that a dog-eat-dog world, where rules and good behaviour do not matter, does not help India in the long run either.
  • Mastering the art of balancing extremes: Going forward, if tensions between Russia and the West persist, balancing extremes will be a key feature of Indian diplomacy.
  • Even though New Delhi abstained from voting on it (thereby siding with Moscow), it made its unhappiness about the Russian action clear in the written note.
  • Sticking to the principle of strategic autonomy: New Delhi’s response to the recent crisis, especially its “explanation of vote” at the UNSC indicates a careful recourse to the principle of strategic autonomy: India will make caveated statements and will not be pressured by either party.


India’s indirect support to the Russian position is not a product of Russian pressure but the result of a desire to safeguard its own interests.

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