Opinion: Can India Sustain Its Position On Russia?

Foreign policy watchers observing a new global realignment after Russia's invasion of Ukraine may well consider Indian foreign and economic policy vis-a-vis the US and Europe on the one hand, and Russia on the other, seemingly contradictory. Especially with New Delhi's membership into the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) in May and India's presence as a partner country at the G-7 in Germany last month.

At a time when the West has expressed dismay over New Delhi's position on the Ukraine invasion, these developments tie in with the ambitious goal of economic decoupling from China - not only for the West, but also for India.

India claims to be focused on reducing its dependence on Chinese imports, yet bilateral trade increased by a whopping 15 percent in the first quarter of 2022, according to Chinese Customs data - despite pandemic-induced disruptions in global supply chains and, more importantly for India, the ongoing Chinese border incursions. A clear contradiction between intent and action in the India-China equation. 

Unlike much of the West that is creaking under the weight of rising fuel prices and reshaping its military and geo-strategic policies against what it perceives as an existential threat caused by Russia, India has chosen a path of strategic balance. Pushing Moscow and Beijing even closer together is, not by any stretch, a desirable outcome for Delhi. A different stand on Russia in the face of growing western pressure could only reinforce such proximity.

This is where the contradiction in India's policy towards the US and Europe with respect to Russia becomes clearer. 

Leveraging its democratic credentials as a natural ally of the West, and its regional role in Asia to help the decoupling process along, India has argued that its historical relationship with Russia and the former Soviet Union, along with the need to ensure continued support in the region against a China-Pakistan nexus means India can't - and doesn't want to - turn away from Russia, even though in terms of absolute numbers, defence reliance on Russia has fallen. If the West wants to play ball with India, it has to accept this position.

Against the backdrop of comments and statements from key Western nations like the US and Germany about finding partners who promote the "values of democracy and a rules-based order", post-Ukraine European realpolitik has made it evident that as long as India is an electoral democracy, even domestic transgressions of its liberal constitution will not come in the way of the US and Europe viewing India as a partner in the long geo-strategic power game against China.

For India, the reality - rather inevitability - that Russia's dependence on China will grow with its isolation by the West, poses an altogether different set of strategic challenges.

A deeper partnership between Beijing and Moscow will impact Delhi's leverage with Moscow, especially in the context of an honest broker in the event of increased India-China border skirmishes.

Delhi must ask itself how far it wants to go before reviewing the viability of its position towards Russia, and at what point Western pressure will force India to pick a side.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine poses a near-term existential threat, there is an acute awareness in the European corridors of power that - as is the case for India - the real long-term geo-strategic threat comes from China.

That India is the only South Asian country invited to join the US-initiated IPEF forum and provide geo-economic heft to the Indo-Pacific policy is indicative of this awareness, even though the western disquiet over India's position on Russia remains.

If anything, with frameworks like the IPEF attempting to set common standards for trade without engaging in any hard multilateral negotiations on tariff reductions or market access, many of its member countries (also members of the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP) will continue to lean heavily on their trade ties with China, leaving India with no choice but to move towards a deeper reliance on western-led partnerships.

For the moment, India has chosen a path of strategic balance. While this may be a viable short-term strategy as India leverages its credentials as a key player in the global rules-based order to buy cheap Russian oil for a home market, arriving at a fork in the road is a question of when, not if. At that point, given India's geographical realities, and its own domestic economic challenges, the choice to further reduce dependence on Russia should be obvious.

(Maya Mirchandani is Head of Department, Media Studies at India's Ashoka University, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Delhi based Observer Research Foundation. Prior to this, Maya was Foreign Affairs editor at NDTV and has reported extensively on Indian diplomacy and security.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.