India should reconsider its Russia dependence - Hindustan Times
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India should reconsider its Russia dependence

ByAvinash Paliwal
Feb 26, 2022 07:25 PM IST

Delhi’s inability to call a spade what it truly is with Moscow marks a dependency that limits, not enables, the country’s strategic autonomy

At 5am Kyiv local time on Thursday, Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In what sounded like a thinly veiled nuclear threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin angrily warned that if anyone comes in his way, Russia’s response will be unrelenting. He has turned the geopolitical clock back by decades, flouted international norms, and started a war whose outcomes are beyond his control. The invasion, still panning out, has generated pushback by Ukraine, invited condemnation and sanctions from the United States (US) and the European Union (EU), near endorsement from China and authoritarian States such as Iran and Myanmar, and calls for de-escalation by States caught in the middle — such as India.

In what sounded like a thinly veiled nuclear threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin angrily warned that if anyone comes in his way, Russia’s response will be unrelenting. (AFP) PREMIUM
In what sounded like a thinly veiled nuclear threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin angrily warned that if anyone comes in his way, Russia’s response will be unrelenting. (AFP)

Though the direction this war takes remains to be seen, Putin’s decision has led to a readjustment of neo-bloc politics which could leave middle powers on the side. For instance, the US’s mind and resources will refocus on Europe even if it remains committed to the Indo-Pacific, the EU will have to rethink its collective security, and the Sino-Russian alignment has been strengthened by the crisis.

In this context, India’s abstention at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), coupled with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s terse focus on bringing an “immediate end to violence” during a call with Putin — an apparent sign of India’s unhappiness with the methods used — seeks to balance Moscow and Washington DC, ensure the safety of Indian citizens in Ukraine, and obviate a harder Russian tilt towards China in an Asian context.

Russia’s war in Ukraine brings India’s conflicting interests in the Transatlantic and the Indo-Pacific into the spotlight. It belies India’s attempt to de-hyphenate these theatres in a bid to focus global attention on China. If the act of war is insufficient to show that these political geographies are inter-connected, the Russian foreign minister clarified it in so many words during a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart on the day of the invasion. The impression that China and Russia are coordinating to hurt India, and its allies, undermines New Delhi’s bid to balance China externally without considering how geopolitically corrosive Moscow’s alignment with Beijing truly is for its own interests.

Even if Russia supplies arms to India during a conflagration with China (a matter of when and where, and not of if), it is unlikely to tilt in India’s direction diplomatically — or even play the discrete arbiter as it did at the peak of the Ladakh standoff during June-September 2020 — given its own geopolitical dependence on Beijing. Moscow demurred during the 1962 war, despite the Sino-Soviet split, because it valued support from its communist adversary more than its non-aligned ally during the Cuban missile crisis. The situation post-Ukraine is likely to be analogous, if not absolutely similar.

In this context, regardless of India’s current position, there are two contradictions that it will need to tackle: One, its excessive dependence on Russian arms in the light of growing geopolitical divergence. Two, its alignment with Quad countries when their appetite to support the “rules-based order” for domestic reasons is decreasing — and their propensity to offer top-end military hardware to India still remains limited.

On the first contradiction, India’s armed forces are predominantly equipped with Russian weaponry, Moscow has been a historic supplier, and is open to technology transfers. Given the ongoing military standoff with China and tense relations with Pakistan, India can ill-afford to alienate Moscow and jeopardise its arms supply lines. Such dependencies are acceptable if lubricated by geopolitical alignment, as was broadly the case during the Cold War and the 1990s, but that is not systematically the case. Russia’s strategic dependence on China (regardless of the competitive undercurrent of this bilateral relationship), sharpened by its need to escape the sanctions regime, and deepening ties with Pakistan, including in Taliban-run Afghanistan, puts it increasingly at odds with India.

Both sides try to manage differences.

India’s determination to procure the S-400 missile system even at the (now-heightened) risk of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions by the US is a case in point. Russia’s support for India’s positions at the UNSC remains undiluted, if under stress. However, while India criticises its western partners for failing to take its concerns on Pakistan seriously (as witnessed in the US’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan), it shies away from plain speak with Moscow for enabling Rawalpindi and the Taliban. This is surprising given India’s own leverage over Moscow as one of its largest arms customers and knowing that defence exports are central to Russia’s economy.

India’s inability to call a spade what it truly is with Russia — or even to do so privately, given the limited effects — is a marker of a toxic dependency that limits, not enables, India’s strategic autonomy. For, if Russian misadventures make New Delhi worry about a possible US-China détente or losing a trusted arms supplier, then it’s a sign that something is lacking in India’s strategy as an Asian counterweight. It is true that reducing defence reliance is neither an easy nor quick process, and India must not rock the boat with Moscow prematurely. But, having excused Russian excesses in Hungary (1956), erstwhile Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979), Georgia (2008), and Crimea (2014), the Ukraine war should make India reconsider its arms dependence on Moscow.

This reassessment should not happen because the US wants India to do so, but because there is a geopolitical need to do so. Large-scale indigenisation coupled with increased diversification of arms supplies is critical to expand India’s policy choices in such circumstances. There is political will and movement in these directions, but such reforms must be expedited. Increased support to and higher quality assurance benchmarks for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), coupled with deeper exploration of technology transfer options from France and other European vendors might work.

This brings us to the second contradiction i.e., the limits of Quad. The irony of the Ukraine situation is that the US and most European capitals, despite their outrage, will most likely not be able to reverse Russia’s invasion. Sanctions, though painful, will not overhaul Russia’s domestic political or external strategic calculus in relation to the West. But it’ll push Russia further into China’s orbit, complicating India’s balancing strategies.

This leaves India with the uncomfortable question: What happens if China decides to grab more Indian territory and escalate the Himalayan standoff in the near-term? There’s no guarantee that a distracted US will divert military resources towards India (beyond rhetorical support), or that Russia will be able to play the role of an arbiter. This scenario could entail an incredibly lonely place for India to be in, and one India can hopefully prevent.

Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal 

The views expressed are personal

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