• 19 May, 2022
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Ukraine Conflict and India’s Hard Choices

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Thu, 10 Mar 2022   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

On 24th January 2022, I assessed and tweeted from my account (@InsightGL) that Russia will invade Ukraine after 20th February, the closing day of the disastrous Beijing Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, my predictions came true, and activities started on 21st February. The invasion of Ukraine is part of history now.

Ukraine is getting crushed in the great power competition and will take decades to recover. It has lost $240 billion between 2014-2020. The present daily revenue losses range from $4-5 billion and increasing. The situation is beyond the capacity of the 57th ranked world economy to recover from.

Post-war, the West would move in under the garb of rehabilitation and support and may never leave. But the present situation has already put many nations in a quandary; India is one of them. Does India have many choices? If yes, then what are India’s options in this very complex situation?

Is India Neutral?

On 2nd March, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) strongly reprimanded Russia for invading Ukraine. The UNGA demanded an immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces. India abstained from the resolution. This was the fourth time in the past few days India had abstained from voting on Ukraine-related resolutions.

With this, the Indian government was trying to portray a neutral stand. However, the reality is that India is not neutral. It is leaning towards Russia. It is not clear if it was on India’s insistence, but the recent Quad joint statement also abstained from mentioning Ukraine.

Is Neutrality Beneficial for India?

What do Indian foreign office and diplomats have in mind? Is it ‘a wait and watch’ policy or ‘do as it comes’ policy? None of these policies are good enough. As a wise man once said, “Politeness is organized indifference.” Soon, India will see immense pressure from the West and specifically from the United States. Things may go bad quickly; therefore, India needs to work on two strategies, weigh their pros and cons, and implement them at the right moment, rather than groping in the dark.

The two options are simple, either to go with Russia or side with the Western block. Each strategy should be thought about, dispassionately keeping in mind the national interest. India is fortunate to have career diplomats in various positions of government decision-making. I hope they understand the game well.

The Russian Option

In early 2014, Russian forces had invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine. India stood with Russia like the ‘Rock of Gibraltar.’ India stuck to its stand that legitimate Russian interests are involved in Crimea. This and, in many other instances, India sided with Russia at various world forums.

India also continues to do a balancing act between Russia and Ukraine. Both nations are important to India from various angles. For this very reason, the Indian Prime Minister Modi spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on 7th March.

Despite low bilateral trade figures, both nations remain important to India, mainly from a military point of view. It is a well-known fact that Ukraine has a considerable stake in up-gradation, maintenance, and spare parts supply of Indian Army tanks and armoured vehicles, supply of engines and spare parts for Indian Navy and upgrade of Indian Air Force’s An-32 fleet, maintenance of Mi-17 & Mi-35 engines and sourcing of R-27 air-to-air missiles for Su-30 MKI fighters.

The lesser-known fact is that Russia produces neon, a gas that is then sourced and purified by Ukraine and supplied to chip makers across the globe. The short supply of this would affect the Indian government’s plans. The government had just given a push to the semiconductor industry with a $30 billion incentive scheme.

Russia is also a leading palladium supplier. Palladium is a critical metal used for catalytic converters in the automotive industry and jewellery making. India is the 5th largest carmaker in the world. India also ranks 1st to 5th in all kinds of jewellery categories. India doesn’t depend much on Russian oil and coal. GAIL (India) Ltd has a 20-year deal with Gazprom of Russia to buy 2.5 million tonnes of LNG a year. Indian exposure to Russian natural gas is just 0.2% of the Russian exports.

The area which will affect India the most is its dependence on the world’s second-largest arms exporter’s military hardware. Despite the considerable reduction in the Russian deals, Russia remains a significant and reliable source of military equipment, especially the fighter fleet of the Indian armed forces. Russia also doesn’t shy away from the transfer of technology (ToT). T-90 tanks, BrahMos missiles, and Su-30 MKI fighters are many examples.

But, how does Russia see India? Despite Putin’s lightning visits to India, it sometimes needles India through China and Pakistan. Russia has kept the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics (RELOS) pending since the idea was floated. RELOS is a long-awaited administrative agreement that would enable the militaries of both countries to access logistics and support facilities at each other’s bases and ports. From the foregoing, it looks like that for Russia, India is important but nothing special.

The Western Option

The American assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, Donald Lu, recently informed the lawmakers that the Biden administration is weighing the options to impose sanctions against India over its continued use of Russian military equipment. The statement indicates that the West, especially the United States, would put immense pressure on India in the days to come.

Such moves could put India in a bind. There are $15 billion military hardware deals still in the pipeline with Russia. The long-awaited and potent S-400 Triumf missile defence system has just started arriving from Russia. The production of 0.5 million AK-203 assault rifles in partnership with Russia has not started. The whole situation would make spares supply for 400 odd IAF fighters, from bad to worse. Any adverse move by the United States would also jeopardize IAF’s plans to buy 21 MiG-29 fighters from Russia and local manufacturing of 18 Su-30 MKI fighters. The Indian Navy is yet to take delivery of a $3 billion Akula class submarine (Chakra III). The ten years lease was to start from 2025.

On the economic front, four among the top 10 trading partners of India are the USA, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. This displays that India has a good equation with the Western nations. France is another European country that has heavily invested in the Indian defence and energy sector. It would be noteworthy that India-Ukraine bilateral trade is a measly $2.7 billion, whereas, with Russia, it is likely to touch $8.1 billion. None of them figure among the top 25 trading partners of India.

The American Angle

In late March 2000, during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, Bill Clinton became the first US president in over twenty-two years and only the fourth to visit India. Indian Finance Minister, Yashwant Sinha, said, “President Clinton has swept away fifty years of misperception, and that the two countries appeared to be on a path of realistic engagement.”

After the initial ice breaking, the relationship took a significant turn on 10 October 2008, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush signed the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement, followed by Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012. Soon many projects were floated under DTTI.

In June 2016, the United States designated India a “Major Defence Partner.” The next three years saw the signing of important agreements like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), Industrial Security Annex (ISA), and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). President Trump also pledged to support the transfer of advanced US military technology to India.

Despite the number of cooperation agreements signed, except for the joint venture of air-launched unmanned aerial vehicle, no other project has made much progress. No transfer of technology (ToT) has taken place. Instead, the US continues to threaten India with the implementation of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) over procurement of S-400 and other Russian military hardware.

Stop Pontification

The United States expects India to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine just like other Quad members, without committing itself to legitimate Indian security concerns and threats. Other European nations are just toeing the American line. For India, being neutral at this stage is in its national interest.

The United States and Japan have the “Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security”, keeping Japan under the American security umbrella. Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have defence deal AUKUS, helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. The United States has displayed no such commitment towards India, even though India has reduced weapons imports from Russia by 33 percent.

Eventually, India would have to take a stand in the national interest. The Ukraine war has made two aspects clear; Russia is going to be more dependent on China, and the West lacks commitment to its budding partners. India is not looking for the West to fight its wars; they can’t. However, the West and especially the United States have to come clear on its commitment and back it up with technological support. When that happens, India should decide its further course of action. Till then, all options are open. It is time for the West to keep guessing.

End of one cold war brought India closer to the United States, would the start of the new cold war cement that relationship? The US commitment would make that decision making very easy.” ~ Insightful Geopolitics

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Author
A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.

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POST COMMENTS (25)

Chanchal Chakraborti

Apr 03, 2022
Well researched insightful crisp and clearly written. I have also been following the Indian stand on these issues and yes career diplomats handling foreign affairs is going to definitely save us, fingers crossed though. Looking forward to an early resolution and peace world over so that we all can get going to our Pre pandemic ways with the recent opening up by all countries post 3rd wave.

Amar

Mar 14, 2022
Thank you dear. Enjoyed thoroughly. Crisp and clear India is in the position where it can not afford to favour any bloc openly .Keeping Russian track record in mind India can depend on Russia to a quiet extent. But West can not not be trusted USA in particular . So India has to find ways to engage America in such a way that it can not put sanction India despite their willingness as doing this will hurt USA ,s interests badly which may be unaffordable Secondly India should explain Russia our sensitive position in terms of remaining neutral for a long time. So India should tell Russia a time line to complete its operation soon and there after India be allowed to show sign of supporting the West with knowledge of Russia The same goes with Russian case for future relations

Jas Dhali

Mar 14, 2022
As usual, a beautifully written article. All facts given are very well researched and there is no bias. India can't be taken for a ride now and no one dare bulldoze her. I'm sure, whatever step the Indian Government shall take, it'll in the Nation's interest. Thanks a Ton Dhawan. God Bless and God Speed.👍👍

D'Nanda Dunham

Mar 13, 2022
I am indebted, as usual, Commander and friend for your clear and comprehensible perspective. I can’t imagine the difficulty of the tightrope walk India is going through right now. Praying for wisdom and insight such as yours for all involved! Thanks for helping me, and others think this through!

Girish

Mar 13, 2022
The author has researched well. However, he missed an important fact. I heard an Indian general in P Gurus channel on YouTube that Ukraine has always voted against india in the UN. Most recently on Kashmir after 370 was diluted.

Girish

Mar 13, 2022
To Keith Kenny There is no rise of Hindu milirancy in India. The US Christians are brainwashed by their church and liberal media. A few deaths does not make it a rise of militancy. US media and US church have hated Modi since he became prime minister for 2 reasons. 1) Modi kicked out 100s of NGOs from india because they broke Indian laws and that included many who were actively working on converting Hindus to Christianity. 2) BJP has wanted to pass an anti conversion bill in the parliament. This also pissed of the pope. The Christian church has no more places left yo go and do conversions. I went to the Point Loma in California and in one meeting heard them say that india is the only land left for their missionaries and it is ready and the ground is fertile. So please get a new prescription for your lenses so you can see with clarity.

Kalidan Singh

Mar 13, 2022
Why is staying out of it all - a hard choice? Our military equipment is mostly obsolete, and we have no one to rely on at this time, or in the future.

Abhimanyu Jhaver

Mar 12, 2022
It is always a pleasure to read well researched articles written by you, Sandeep. I feel at present India is following the correct strategy of not going against Russia. They are india's time tested friend. Ex- 1971 war. US is not at all trustworthy friend. Ex- Iraq, Afghanistan and many more. The above aspects are very clearly brought out in the article. Looking forward to some more of these.

Cdr Deepak Singh

Mar 12, 2022
Well written article that says that India has to choose what to do. US or Russia? Wait and watch. India will be with Russia because India needs them to counter China. SWIFT removed, so China will become the banker for Russia and who is loosing and who is gaining? SWIFT keeps Dollar up and today we are discussing trade in Rupee and Rouble. Most importantly, India needs Russia to help it with China. The world has been divided and the US is doing it further. I just wants to prove that it is the most powerful. Imagine, sitting at home and fighting a war. Europe agrees to what US dictates, but most of Europe is going to get miserable in Gas supply. No option. Enough of typing. Waiting for your next article Sandeep. Keep Smiling.

Pradeep sharan

Mar 12, 2022
Another well-researched article, Sandeep. Keep up this holistic analysis of issues and consequent course of action for India.

Kanika Dhawan

Mar 12, 2022
Accurately articulated details on the current stance of India. It appears that the ball is in the West’s court for the time being making India lean towards neutrality.

Cdr VC Pandey

Mar 12, 2022
I read every article of your’s , very interesting. Keep up with your writing . I would love to read more and authentic about the triangle of India - Ukrainian - Russia. I have visited those areas of Kiev, Simferopol and other parts of that country . Almost Two years for Trg of IL’s and TU’.

Capt Ravishankar

Mar 12, 2022
A well researched Article. Staying neutral seems best for now. In any case, United States is an untrustworthy partner.

Wendell Bruges

Mar 11, 2022
These lines have stayed with me, “End of one cold war brought India closer to the United States, would the start of the new cold war cement that relationship? The US commitment would make that decision making very easy.” I suppose India’s future is with the US; I agree that the West has to come out more openly and convincingly to support India. Thank you so much for the excellent analysis from across the continent to understand the counterpoint.

Dilip Sharma

Mar 11, 2022
A 'must read' wonderful article. Very detailed & wide ranging analysis!

Keith Kenny

Mar 11, 2022
Re-alignments, pretend re-alignments, and righteous posturing are everywhere. Opportunists are preparing to take advantage while others seek to avenge old grievances. China is eyeing Taiwan, but Russia also occupies territory that once was theirs going back to the 'unequal treaties.' If Russia fails to take Ukraine or suffers terrible losses in doing it, might China decide to jump them rather than risk an amphibious crossing to Taiwan? Israel is also in the crosshairs, and I've read of stirring about them in the middle east, particularly with Turkey supporting the PA. Israel appears to consider Russia a more reliable defense partner than the US at present. India is in the middle and, with all this confusion, I agree that neutrality is best. In a crisis, I suspect no one will come to help India. So, it is best for them to keep their powder dry and stay alert. Another issue, the rise of militant Hinduism in India has disaffected many Christians in the US. If a conservative element returns to power in the US, that may play in any decision to send help to India.

Rominad

Mar 11, 2022
A very well written and researched article as always. I wonder which side India will lean in future but I believe India's best interest at the moment is to stay neutral.

Raman Gupta

Mar 11, 2022
India indeed does face Hobson's choice. Hope she is able to make sense of her decision

Rakesh P

Mar 11, 2022
I feel that eventually, India will have to go with the Western block. Barring few areas, mainly the Russian technology is obsolete. The situation has further deteriorated due to the Western actions. Russia is getting desperate and dependent on China. A weakened Russia would be controlled by China and that is not good news for India.

Narinder Pal Singh Hora

Mar 11, 2022
A very delicate situation for India. How the country walks the tight rope is the key. It won't be in India's interest to either antagonise Russia or America. To remain neutral is the best solution as of now and undertake course correction as the situation unfolds

Sukhjit singh

Mar 11, 2022
The article is very well researched and written, as usual. India today stands between the devil and the deep sea, we will have to watch how the cards are dealt. We have equipment from both sides so taking sides will be costly. Let's hope MEA is able to walk the tight rope

Shaurya Shandilya

Mar 11, 2022
I feel China has not drawn India into a war yet because of our relations with Russia. If there ever is a Indo-China conflict, US will steer clear, whereas Russia will stand with us and facilitate a resolution no matter what. We should maintain neutrality. If Americans impose sanctions, we have done alright in the past, without everything they've offered us. Let's not forget 1971, when the US was so quick at redirecting their Navy towards us (in support of Pakistan). It was the Russians who blocked them with their subs in our support.

Gyan Sharma

Mar 10, 2022
India needs to abstain itself from making any anti Russia statement in the ongoing war for following reasons: The desired end state of Russian conflict with Ukraine , as intended by Russia, has no direct adverse implications for India. Working relations with Russia would ensure there is no convergence of interests between Russia and China in Indo - China Conflicts. USA and Europe need to realize sooner than later that it is China that should be No 1 containment target and not Russia. We need vibrant QUAD against China , but need strong Indo - Russian ties to obviate Russia- China collusion against Indian interests under critical situations. Article is very well researched , and deserves appreciation

Deovrat Pagay

Mar 10, 2022
I think India is following her famed strategy of Non-alignment and promoting dialogue to resolve issues. India depends upon Russia for its Military arsenal and oil. Many armament deals are pending like the S -400 Triumf, Chakra III Submarines etc. Russia has been a mute spectator to the growing Indo- US relations…, “Howdy Modi” & “Namaste Trump”!! But, Ukraine is a red line which Russia would not like India to cross…

ASHOK IYER

Mar 10, 2022
I believe it’s in India’s best interests to stay neutral all the way. Unlike the US & the West, Russia has always firmly stood by India. We still owe them a lot for their support in 1971. The US & the West need India as a bulwark against China, not to mention India’s huge market along with its abundance of skilled labour. Looking at the situation from India’s point of view, firstly, despite all public posturing, there is a lot of dissension between the US & its allies over the course of action to be taken against Russia, especially given the West’s dependence on Russian energy resources. Secondly, India has huge diplomatic goodwill with the US & the West and this can be used to our advantage by skillfully playing our cards in these countries. Given the current hostile environment between the Democrats & the Republicans in the US, if we play our cards wisely, there is very little chance of the US pressurizing us to take sides on this issue. The last thing any political party in the US will want is to see India openly siding with Russia. That will be politically disastrous for that party. Thirdly, given India’s excellent relations with Russia, it would be in the American & NATO’s interests that India doesn’t take any sides because, for any future reconciliatory dialogues with Russia, India’s goodwill with Russia will make it an invaluable asset in any peaceful mediations. Additionally, just like the US & the West are acting as per their national interests, there is nothing wrong with India doing the same.

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