Premium Conversations with Ashley Tellis: Decoding India-US ties post-Ukraine

Mar 21, 2022 11:03 AM IST

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ashley J Tellis, the Tata chair for strategic studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke to HT about how the world has changed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 

Washington: Ashley J Tellis, the Tata chair for strategic studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is among the foremost experts on Asia in the United States. As a policymaker who has served in the National Security Council and the State Department and was closely involved with the India-US nuclear deal, and as an analyst who has extensively written on the security dynamics in South Asia and advised successive administrations, he has played a critical role in deepening Delhi-Washington DC ties in recent decades.

Ashley J Tellis is among the foremost experts on Asia in the United States.(Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint) PREMIUM
Ashley J Tellis is among the foremost experts on Asia in the United States.(Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint)

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tellis spoke to HT about how the world has changed, the China-Russia axis, what the US got right and where it slipped, India’s predicament and response to the invasion, its impact on India-US ties and Washington’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific, and what Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden should keep in mind as they navigate the relationship. 

How has the world changed since February 24?

I think we are entering a new and troubled era for several reasons. First, there is a much deeper Russian-Chinese embrace than anyone thought possible a few years ago. Even though the trends were moving in that direction, it appeared that both sides were sufficiently conscious of protecting their own freedom of action. But in the week leading up to the Ukraine invasion, that has proved to be less true. So an axis of authoritarianism that ties two very powerful states, who will owe each other a lot because of the circumstances under which this embrace has occurred, portends big challenges.

The second reality is that for the first time we have had a major power attempting to change what is a settled border – a border that, in fact, has been guaranteed by previous agreements – through the massive use of force. Not just grey-zone tactics aimed at nibbling marginal territories, but the naked use of force without any pressing provocation aimed at largescale annexation and regime change. The use of force by a major power driven by naked self-interest aimed at old-fashioned conquest is really problematic.

The third reality is that these developments will make the strategic challenges facing the US more complicated, because Washington will now have to, whether it wants it or not, divide its attention between both protecting European security as well as managing the challenges posed by China in the Indo-Pacific. The US is obviously a superpower. It can certainly do both, but it cannot do both without more sacrifice. So it will really have to gird its loins to meet both challenges. And these are both serious challenges.

Now, the saving grace here – and we have to see whether this plays out to its fullest – is the rise of Europe, hopefully, as a new united security actor that takes its responsibility for protecting its continent seriously. And if that happens, that would be a huge asset for the US. It would also be a big force for stability in the global order. This portends a fundamental change because the European allies, who previously were focused more on economics and trade and the soft side of politics, may be on the cusp of taking a harder road. And that potentially implies a big change in the strategic environment.

The global shifts

Let me begin with your first point, which is the China-Russia axis. There is a school of thought which sees China as being uncomfortable with Russian actions. Do you see it as a moment where there may be a reset in the China-Russia relationship? You seem to suggest that their ties will continue to deepen.

It is not evident to me that there is a Chinese rethinking of their position yet. If there is a rethinking, that would be to the good, because it means that the gap between Russia and China would still persist. But I don't see that as yet. Both Russia and China see the West and the United States in particular as a bigger threat. Admittedly, they are asymmetrically sized powers. So the extent of their reliance on each other will vary. Russia will need China much more than China will need Russia. But the fact that they both see the West as their biggest external constraint means that the incentives for them to stay together, however, they manage that partnership, will still be considerable.

The second shift you mentioned was the use of force by a major power. Does Russia's action encourage a power like China to continue with its belligerence and expansionist ambitions in Asia, or does the strong response to Russian action deter other powers, particularly China, from pursuing this path?

I hope it is the second, but much will depend on how this crisis evolves and how it ends. If this crisis evolves with Russia getting bogged down in Ukraine, with the costs of sanctions increasing steadily to weaken Russia as a state, that will hopefully have a sobering effect on Chinese calculations. Not to mention the fact that, in many ways, Russia and China share another analogous reality, which is that neither of them has used military force in recent times on a significant scale. Neither possesses battle-tested militaries. And in the case of China, prosecuting a war across an ocean, as opposed to prosecuting a war simply across a land boundary, is a much more complicated affair.

I hope therefore that the Chinese draw the right lessons. First, that the gamble of supporting the Russians has been a very poor choice for Xi (Jinping). And that it will be added to the long list of poor choices that Xi has made internationally in recent years. Second, that it is very hard, even in the most optimistic circumstances, to fight a major war and get quick and decisive results, in effect the equivalent of a fait accompli. And third, that flagrant and unprovoked aggression will induce the global community to join together to oppose you. On all these three counts, I hope that Xi is sufficiently sobered.

Your third point was about the US. What has Washington done right, and where has it slipped?

I think it has done many things right. And I must hand it to the (Joe) Biden administration. The first thing that it did right was that it disseminated information about the Russian preparations for war with far greater transparency and credibility in comparison to our recent past. Unlike, for example, the lead-up to the Iraq war, where the intelligence information was slippery and we made more of imperfect intelligence than was justified, the Biden administration has been very prudent in terms of disseminating only what it knows to be the facts.

Second, I think the administration has gotten the balance between diplomacy and coercive pressure about right. They have emphasised diplomacy with the concerned states, including our allies, but they have not relied on diplomacy alone. Instead, they have backed diplomacy up with credible support for strengthening Ukraine's defensive capacity through sensible arms transfers. And the reason today, I think, why (Vladimir) Putin is bogged down is that Ukrainian nationalism has been empowered by Western military assistance. Getting that balance right between diplomacy and military instruments has been crucial.

Third, the administration has pursued an effective coalition strategy that, in many ways, harkens back to the best of US successes during the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War. The US has sustained the unity of the Western coalition in a way that Putin had never imagined. He thought that the Europeans would split among themselves, and that he would be able to manipulate their differences. Instead, Putin has ended up bolstering Western unity and he has forced the Europeans to give up their illusions about the kind of relationship that they could have with Russia.

So I think we've done all that right.

When it comes to slipping up, there will be a long debate about whether US policies going back decades had created the permissive conditions for this crisis. This debate pertains to the whole issue of NATO expansion, the forms which that expansion materialised, and so on and so forth. But my view on this is simple: Whatever you think about NATO expansion, however, you cannot overlook the fact that it was not simply the West looking to expand eastwards, but that the former Soviet satellites, which had been under repressive Soviet power for decades, were actually looking to move westwards. That process could have been better managed perhaps. And we could have been more sensitive to Russian concerns, particularly about Ukrainian neutrality. But no matter what we did or did not do, the Russians also needed to take their bearings from the reality that their former satellites do not wish to remain under Russian influence. In dealing with this issue where Ukraine is concerned, Putin overplayed his hand. The larger debate, however, will be settled only in hindsight with the long view of history.

The fourth shift you mentioned was the reset in Europe. Is it giving up its illusions only about Russia, but also with regard to China? Or do you see it continuing to hedge its bets on China?

I don't see Europe returning to a benign view of China at all, and certainly not after Beijing’s support for Moscow in the Ukraine crisis. The Europeans have steadily woken up to the fact that many of Beijing’s policies represent a serious threat to their own interests. But unlike the Soviet Union of yesteryears where the threat existed without any saving graces – it was after all a military threat with nothing else to induce cooperation – China is a much more complex challenge. It is an economic partner, even as it is a strategic or a systemic rival. So, Europe cannot give up China any more than the rest of the world can cut all its links with China. That's the reality that's going to bind every state.

But on the things that matter – being conscious of the ideational challenge that Chinese authoritarianism poses, being conscious of the fact that Chinese mercantilist economic policies are threatening European economic interests, that Chinese strategic policies now are threatening European security in the cyber realm, in the space realm, in respect to global commons – you are going to see significant European adjustments in their relationship with China. The fact that several European powers have begun to look seriously at the Indo-Pacific, and certainly did so very visibly before the Ukraine crisis, to my mind, is a harbinger of what is to come. So, Europe will have to deal with both challenges – Russia and China – but obviously the instruments they will deploy to deal with each challenge will vary.

DC and Delhi’s dilemmas

How do you see India's predicament and India's response to the crisis in the past three weeks?

I don't envy India at all. I think New Delhi truly found itself between a rock and hard place. I doubt there are any apologists for the Russian invasion in the Modi government. Indian leaders know that the Russian invasion has put them in a very awkward and difficult place. But they are so fearful about the implications of what a deeper Russian-Chinese embrace might mean for Indian security, that they are still struggling for ways to avert that. I think they concluded that the only trick within reach was to avoid a public censure of Russia, which is what India did. I believe that PM Modi was actually quite tough in his private conversations with Putin. But certainly, in public, India has maintained a studied neutrality only because it wants to preserve whatever remnants of leverage it still has with the Russians – that is, New Delhi does not want the Russians to reach the conclusion that they have only China as a partner, with India out there uninterested in preserving the relationship with Moscow.

I think India’s abstention in the UN Security Council was probably inevitable, though I wish India would have voted differently on the procedural issues. There were two substantive resolutions of condemnation and then a procedural vote on whether to admit a discussion. I think India erred by abstaining on the procedural vote because there was nothing in India's national interest that would have been compromised if a discussion was held—which it was anyway.

Further, I thought the statement of explanation on India’s abstention vote was excessively subtle. India used all the right formulae to convey the gap between its position and that of Russia’s, but it could have buttressed that by simply calling out the invasion for what it was, an invasion. Instead, just reiterating the need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity and immediately cease violence and hostilities, without in any way alluding to the perpetrators of the calamity, sounded unjustifiably neutral in the circumstances.

I suspect that is going to create some challenges for India, particularly in the United States, but also in Europe, because many of India's closest European partners are precisely the countries now that are leading the charge at the European end to penalise Russia.

All the same, while India’s abstention may have helped it dodge a bullet, for now, it is still a gamble. If Putin and his regime survive the war in Ukraine, India’s abstention could pay off. But if Putin or Russia falters as a result of this aggression, Delhi’s situation will become quite parlous and its abstention may come back to haunt it.

Do you think there is an understanding of India's predicament, dilemmas and constraints in Washington, or do you think there is annoyance, impatience, irritation at India's position?

That question is a complex one because you have got to look at specific audiences, and there are two or three audiences.

Within the executive branch, there is an intellectual understanding of India’s predicament. But that does not diminish the emotional disenchantment because of the belief that the partnership with India is not simply about interests. It is also about values. And while nations often compromise their values for their interests, the feeling in the executive branch is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is such a flagrant violation of the rules-based order, which India itself cherishes, that India should have done a little more than just abstain in the UNSC. Even if that outcome was inevitable, American leaders would have liked the scaffolding over the vote to have been different – at least in the language explaining the vote India could have been a little more forthright.

On the Hill, the anxieties are much deeper because Congress is uniquely representative of liberal democracy in the United States. The disappointment with India is palpable across the aisle, both among Republicans and Democrats. Questions are being asked now about what a global strategic partnership between the US and India actually means if India has a substantially different position on the fundamental questions of global order. There were always good intellectual explanations for these differences, but the emotive sense of feeling let down remains prominent. This is something that will have to be managed going forward.

I must say that the Indian mission here in Washington has done an extraordinary job with respect to outreach. And Ambassador (Taranjit Singh) Sandhu, in particular, has taken the point on this issue. But the fact is that he has the hard job of explaining what is an uncomfortable reality – that India’s interests are not always our own – and that reality speaks louder than any diplomatic gloss.

And, of course, in civil society, the consternation and disappointment are even stronger.

Do you see the psychological disenchantment in the executive branch, the anxiety on the hill and disappointment in civil society translating into tangible costs for India?

I don't see that, at least not yet. If it does, it will likely be on the margins. No government changes its policies 180 degrees because of a singular disagreement. The question, therefore, is whether the current disenchantment affects issues important to Indian interests. My own sense is that US policymakers are hoping that while India has taken a certain position with respect to developments in Europe, it will continue to remain very strongly committed to the partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. If they are convinced on this count, it will help allay many of these concerns that have arisen recently about India.

The defence dependence

India’s dependence on Russia, particularly in the realm of defence — from key weapon systems to spare parts — is seen as a major reason for its ambivalence. How do you assess the state of India-Russia defence ties? And is further diversification now a national security imperative for India?

I think that is exactly the lesson that India will draw from the current crisis, that further diversification is essential, with “Make in India” becoming even more urgent. But Russia still remains a critical defence partner for three reasons: Russia is willing to work with India on strategic programs where no other state has expressed comparable interest; Russia is willing to pursue co-development and largescale manufacturing of major weapons systems in India, which other states have been unwilling; and Russian end-use monitoring requirements are much less stringent than those, for example, of the United States. So, I don't see India's defence cooperation with Russia weakening anytime soon, despite what will be Russia's accelerated enervation after the Ukraine war.

What will be the impact of sanctions imposed on Russia on this defence relationship? Delhi is concerned that it may leave its forces vulnerable at a time when they are facing China at the border.

This is not an unreasonable concern. I don't think we know what the impact of the Western sanctions will be in their detail, but depending on how long this war continues and its impact of Russia's military inventory, the impact on Russia's spare parts stockpile could be significant, which could, in turn, have knock-on effects in India. Russia’s industrial weakening will also have further ramifications for future defence-industrial cooperation. Finally, there will be consequences for India's ability to repay Russia given the international efforts to cut Russia off from the international financial system.

What happens to the CAATSA waiver on S-400? Will it be hard for the administration to give it in light both the Russian invasion, and India’s stance on the Russian invasion?

The Indian abstention on Ukraine will intensify the administration's dilemmas here. I expect that the administration will ultimately give India the waiver because of the larger equities involved but offering the waiver right now in the context of India's position on the Ukraine war will raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill and even animate constituencies that are opposed within and outside the administration. We'll have to wait and see.


On the Indo-Pacific, when we last spoke in January, you told Hindustan Times that you have doubts about America's ability to multitask. Given that the US has to contend with two theatres now, are you worried about what this means for Washington's commitment to the Indo-Pacific?

I am gratified today, more than I have been in the past that there is a real resolve both in the State Department and in the defence department not to let the problems in Europe impede us from completing our tasks in Indo-Pacific. This is really good news because it means that the administration is conscious of the temptation, conscious of our own past history, yet is still determined to push ahead with all the investments that are required vis-a-vis China, even as we now rethink the kind of support we have to offer our European partners vis-a-vis Russia.

So, I am cautiously optimistic, but I want to see what the national security strategy and, more importantly, the defence budgets in the remainder of this administration’s term will look like because that's the ultimate proof. Are we putting our money where our mouth is? I want to see what happens in the next few years with respect, particularly to satisfying Indo-Pacom budgetary requests. The fact of the matter is we have not put enough resources into the Indo-Pacific reassurance initiatives, as we ought to. If that corrects these deficits, I will gladly admit that I was wrong to be suspicious of our ability to multitask in the first place.

What are your hopes from the Indo-Pacific economic framework?

This is still a work in progress. And it does not yet tie the entire Indo-Pacific uniformly. Some members are better suited to quickly integrate themselves within the framework. Others are not. And I'm not sure, at the end of the day, whether it will be a substitute good enough substitute for the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). So, I think of the Indo-Pacific economic framework really as a stop-gap – something we have to do because the politics in this country won't permit a quick reentry into TPP, but which cannot be the be-all and end-all.

When thinking about economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific, what is often lost sight of is that the US is still the biggest investor in the region. It's not China. That investment, however, is led by private enterprise and is driven entirely by profit-making calculations. Where the US is missing in action is in rulemaking. And that is dangerous over the long term because it pertains to framing the context within which private actors operate. So, for me, the economic framework must be just a stepping stone to an American re-entry into TPP. That's the only way in which the American state will get back into rule-making game and by which the country will be able to win back some of the relative gains losses that we've suffered to China in the last 30 years.

Is there a disproportionate focus on the Pacific component of the Indo-Pacific and less so on the Indian ocean component, where Indian abilities may not be what they're made out to be?

No, I don't think so. I think the US is focused on the Pacific in large measure because that's where we anticipate American military forces will have their hardest tasks. I don't think anyone has extravagant expectations that India will contribute materially in that theatre. But the US still has significant residual capabilities that can be brought to bear in the Indian Ocean. The hope however is that given India's disproportionate capabilities in that area, in the Indo part of the Indo-Pacific, that India will take the lead on meeting the security challenges there with the United States providing backup, rather than the other way around. So, if there is a “de-emphasis” on the Indo part of the Indo-Pacific, it is a strategically considered de-emphasis, not out of absent-mindedness.

The way forward

As we wrap up, I want to ask you to put your policymaker hat on. If you were talking to PM Modi, what would your advice be to him be about this current moment and how India needs to reset its orientation?

I think there are several things that India probably could do. One, it needs to be a little more open about its disenchantment with what is happening in Ukraine in much the same way that Indira Gandhi was very clear about her disenchantment after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, even though India officially did not take a position of criticism. I think New Delhi then left no one in doubt that it saw the invasion of Afghanistan as dangerous and really subversive of regional stability. PM Modi and his team need to look for ways of signalling that publicly. They have done it privately thus far, but there are other audiences that cannot hear this message.

Two, India has done well to offer humanitarian aid to Ukraine. I would look to do more because Ukraine is truly the victim of this unprovoked aggression. And Ukraine is also important to India as a source of military equipment. So, it's not only the Russian connection that needs to be protected. There also important dependencies on Ukraine. In this context, India also needs to reach out to its European partners who have been disheartened by India’s votes in the UN Security Council.

And third, I think that India needs to reemphasise that its investments in the Indo-Pacific architecture remain unchanged, that it will continue to push hard on supporting the coalition in balancing China. That would provide policymakers in Washington with the confidence that India’s position on Ukraine does not represent a disavowal of its commitment to a global rules-based order but only a difficult compromise because of its circumstances.

And what would be your advice to President Biden be on how to proceed with the India-US relationship?

We have enough challenges in the Indo-Pacific that warrant no diminishing whatsoever in our commitment to India or to Indian security or to the bilateral partnership. So, I don't see any significant impact on these counts. And I don't think this administration – given, as I said, its continued recognition of the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater – is inclined to shortchange the US-India relationship. What needs to be done is to address the current sources of discomfort between the two sides, not merely between the governments involved, but also the larger constituencies outside of government. We have to find ways to do that. I hope the coming 2+2 bilateral, and what happens after that 2+2, provides those avenues for both sides to be able to express confidence in the other, despite the current perturbations.

In some ways, the fissure over Ukraine may yet have one useful purpose, which is that it compels us, us meaning the United States, to think about India realistically. Sometimes we tend to imagine that India will support us everywhere simply because we have clear convergences in the Indo-Pacific. But India has its own ambitions and its own interests. The maturing of our relationship will require recognising that there will be moments when we part ways. That in turn requires the US to also think clearly about its own interests – judging what we must do to work together well when our interests converge while avoiding any overinvestment that produces recriminations when our interests compel us to part.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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