South Asia and Beyond

U.S.-Russia Tension Over Ukraine And The Potential Fallout For India

NEW DELHI: On ‘The Gist’, Dr Tanvi Madan, Senior Fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy Programme and Director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution and author of the book ‘Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations during the Cold War’ in conversation with StratNews Global Associate Editor Amitabh P. Revi.

Editor’s Note: These are quotes edited for space, understanding and conciseness. For the whole context, watch the complete discussion.

Russia-Ukraine Tension: India’s Options

India does have skin in the game but India is not involved enough to be able to change the fundamentals of the discussion. What happens in Europe doesn’t stay in Europe. What happens in India doesn’t stay in India. So, while India is not directly involved, it has stakes. There are a few things India should do, some of which are already happening.

First thing you will see is, for India to be in touch with the countries actually involved, to try to get a sense of what is happening, convey your concerns in private. You’re not going to have India publicly say Russia don’t do this. Criticising Russia shouldn’t be an expectation. There is limited interaction with the Ukrainians but there is a diplomatic relationship. You’ve already seen Foreign Secretary Shringla talk to his counterpart, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. I don’t know if discussions are also taking place that we don’t know about on the Russian side, for India to convey its concerns and perhaps the position that it is willing to take or not willing to take.

Secondly, India should be in touch with its other diplomatic partners—France, Japan, Canberra, to try to get their sense of what is going on, the approach they’re planning to take.

Thirdly, India should be planning for the scenario that there is a Russian invasion. There has to be a range, a whole series of planning, not just the foreign ministry, if the eventuality happens. One is the safety and security of about 7,500 Indian citizens in Ukraine. Second, you need to plan for things like a hike in oil prices. You will also need to plan for two China-related things. You need to be prepared militarily if China decides to take advantage of the West, the U.S., Japan’s focus on Europe. What if China decides it wants to take advantage, perhaps after the Olympics, as Spring sets in, to take certain action against India. India is not in an alliance, so unlike a Taiwan scenario, China might decide this is easier. Militarily, there is also the question of Russian military supplies, if there is an escalation with China.

1962 Cuba Missile Crisis & Sino-India War

History doesn’t often repeat itself, sometimes it rhymes. So there are differences in the Russia-China and Soviet-China relationships. During the 1962 War, while the Cuban missile crisis was on, there was a crucial moment when the Chinese were really pressing. The Soviet Union chose ally China versus friend India at that moment, for a brief period. This meant diplomatic pressure on India, with the Soviet leadership telling India you need to make concessions to China that they want. Sergey Radchenko, a historian, a specialist in Sino-Soviet relations, has written about how the Soviets shared intelligence on India with the Chinese and they did stall the supply of MiGs. Once the Cuban missile crisis lifted, they returned to a more neutral position but that would be at the back of the minds of some in Delhi because India is still dependent, not only on new deals, on Russian military equipment, on spare parts. The last thing you want in the middle of a crisis is a Russia that is not neutral, that will move away from its neutrality between China and India because of a crisis in Ukraine just like the Cuban missile crisis will make it more beholden to Beijing. It will need Beijing’s diplomatic support or at least its acquiescence. If Beijing says slow down, stall supplies to India. It’s a problem for India that is in an active situation at the boundary, that as Spring nears could escalate again. We don’t know the probability or the likelihood. Russia obviously has interests with India. It will not want India to think it’s unreliable; nonetheless, one has to plan and be prepared. Delhi does not want this situation in Ukraine to escalate because it will push Russia closer to China.

Russia Didn’t Stop Arms Supplies Post-Galwan Clash

1971 and 2020-22 are very different situations. In 1971, the Chinese were more rivals to the Soviets, who were more concerned about China than perhaps even of the United States. Russia, China actually had a riverine clash around that time. Soviet-China relations were very antagonistic. So it was in Soviet interest to help India. At that time, they were even supplying Pakistan, which they were trying to wean away from China. Post-2020, President Putin has routinely listed China as Russia’s closest partner. He’s listed India as a close partner, but second, after China. He and Foreign Minister Lavrov have said Russia-China relations are better than they ever have been. So this should give Indian policymakers pause. That’s why they haven’t expected Russia to take India’s side as it did in 1971 and through the 1970s to balance China. What they hope for and would like to see is Russia’s neutrality in terms of supplies. It’s not just the buyer who’s dependent on Russia. India’s is one of its largest export markets. They can’t have their customer starting to think they’re unreliable. India already has other options, the French, the Israelis, the Americans and is also moving to defence production indigenously. Russia is seeing headwinds in defence trade in India. Having said that, you had the Indian Defence Minister go just after the Galwan clashes to Moscow to ensure that supplies wouldn’t be stopped. In crises, you shouldn’t have to go to your friends. Nonetheless, policymakers have to plan for these eventualities because as important as India might be to Russia, currently, Moscow sees Beijing as even more important to their interests.

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Ukraine Invasion, End Of Russia-U.S. Rapprochement & India Impact

In an ideal world, India’s interests have been to maintain relations with multiple partners. As a historian, I will tell you, it’s because Indian policymakers have had to deal with unreliable partners and they don’t want to depend on any one country. So this idea to diversify your partnership portfolio is not an irrational idea, is a sensible one. India’s dependencies on Russia supplying it with certain military equipment that others don’t, also India does not want to see Russia be a spoiler, whether at the UN Security Council, at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, other places. So, Indian interests are to be able to balance U.S.-Russia relations, not just so that India can do business with the U.S. and can do business with Russia, but India’s idea has been that if the U.S. and Russia or the West and Russia have stable relations, have a rapprochement, that will keep Russia from deepening its relations with China. There is this idea that as the German Vice Admiral said, Putin wants respect. Well, President Biden did show him respect and you did see President Biden meet with President Putin in Geneva. You saw a series of U.S.- Russia dialogues after many years. The idea was that if you stabilize relations with Russia, the Biden administration could focus on the Indo-Pacific, on the China challenge. Well, the problem is now, the Russian military buildup has already weakened advocates of that approach. They are now criticizing President Biden for the outreach to Putin saying he took it as a sign, not of respect, but of weakness. That he could press, that he could actually take advantage of the opportunity. This is much like people criticized Prime Minister Modi for things like Wuhan or the Mamallapuram Summit where we want to stabilize relations but the other side takes it as a sign of weakness. One shouldn’t say the Russians don’t have security concerns. But also one shouldn’t say that discussion can’t be had on what the European strategic posture should look like, what the dispensation is, what NATO’s focus is. These concessions, the West is not going to have these discussions with a gun to its head. That might be Putin’s hope, let me put pressure, the West will make concessions. Unfortunately, it’s had the opposite impact so far. U.S.-Russia relations, instead of moving things forward, is now all crisis talks. It is now making it harder in Congress. If Putin’s idea was to stall NATO, now if you are Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland or Romania, you actually think entering NATO is the best thing you ever did. Because the country that Putin is targeting is the one country that’s not in NATO. When people say, this shows NATO is anachronistic, it’s a Cold War relic, it’s not to those countries on the eastern flank of Europe. The problem is this stalls the very thing that India wants, which is a more stable Russia-West front, so that everybody can focus their efforts on balancing China. If there’s a Russian military attack, another invasion of Ukraine, you’re not going to see that and the other thing that’ll become harder for India, even countries like Japan and France that like India had been pushing for this stability, for this rapprochement with Russia will stop saying this. The Japanese already have because the Russians have also been building, increasing their military deployments on the Kuril islands which Russia and Japan have a dispute about and then doing joint exercises around Japan with China. That has been of concern to Tokyo.

Severe Sanctions On Russia & India Impact

We’ve already seen how sanctions that went in place after the Russian annexation of Crimea have made India’s job harder, both in terms of defence deals and energy deals. India and Russia have been trying to diversify the relationship. President Putin has repeatedly expressed frustration that it’s a one note defence trade relationship. If you want to expand your Russia relations into energy, other businesses etc, this becomes harder if there’s another round of even higher sanctions. It makes it costlier for India. India might find payment mechanisms, alternatives, but it becomes harder. Second, it starts to complicate India-U.S. relations or India-Europe relations. You then have to find waivers and things like that. The CAATSA waiver is up for discussion. I think the U.S. administration would still like to give that to India but it becomes much harder if this scenario plays out with military action. Third, is another economic dimension, energy prices. The last thing India needs right now is higher energy prices, last thing the world needs is that. And, finally, it goes back to China. Sanctions on Russia, as they did after 2014 will push Russia closer to China. This goes against India’s interest.

Sanctions On Russia, Effect On CAATSA Waiver For S-400s

You have seen some objections. People like Senator Menendez, who’s chair of the foreign relations committee has been supportive. In fact, he is a Russia hawk and has said we should not be giving waivers. The administration also didn’t have the easiest time trying to ensure that Senator Ted Cruz failed to prevent Germany from going through with the Nord Stream 2. It didn’t go through but it tells you where the sentiment is. The sentiment of Congress was against giving Russia a pass or even very close U.S. allies a pass. Does this mean India won’t get a waiver? Not necessarily because the decision is in the hands of the administration, but it does have to get congressional buy-in. Even people like Senator Mark Warner, who’s the Democratic Senator from Virginia, or Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, who have been supportive of India getting a waiver, it becomes harder to get their support because they do care, as they see it, about Russian aggression against Ukraine. So, it’s not that India will not get it but you are now having to expend more time, more effort, diplomatic capital, political capital that India has built on the Hill, to try to get that waiver. That’s the last thing you need to be spending time. Does it, will it rule the waiver out? I don’t know. But it will make it harder. You have to do a much more delicate dance.

Precedent, Principle, Power & India’s interests

There is the view that precedent and principle don’t mean very much, that, at the end of the day power determines everything. But India is arguing against that very fact in Asia, saying China as a powerful country should not get to unilaterally dominate the region. It should not have a sphere of influence. It should not be able to violate our territorial integrity and should not be able to dictate choices to smaller countries in Asia, including India. Those are principles. So India has an interest, stake in international law, rules-based order. Why do we have that? Because in a world where countries have spheres of influence, violate territorial integrity etc., that is a problem for India. You depend on international law so that there isn’t chaos, so that you’re not descending into a period where everybody starts doing this. There’s a reason India hasn’t recognised the Russian annexation of Crimea, which is India does believe in international law. There are three fundamental questions: do you believe in a spheres-of-influence world? Do you believe that a country’s territorial integrity should not be violated? And do you believe that smaller or less powerful countries should have strategic autonomy. It’s not to say that Russia doesn’t have security concerns. But is it justified in invading another country, annexing its territory for those security concerns? With the understanding that Russia is a close partner, these are questions that do need to be asked.

German Navy Chief’s Statements & Resignation

When history is written, this will be a footnote in the broader Russia-Ukraine crisis. But it’s a reflection of differences on how to deal with Russia within Europe and Germany. There is consensus among the West, not just the U.S. and Europe, the Japanese Prime Minister has also taken a pretty strong stance, that there will be sanctions and punitive, at least economic actions against Russia if it does militarily attack Ukraine again. So you’ve seen that unity, but his comments did reflect some differences. Germany continues to engage Russia economically. They sought and received a kind of a waiver for their Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The German government wanted to convey that his views were not its. He did four things that didn’t go down well. One, he contradicted the German government position on Russia as well as China. He did so in the middle of a crisis. When you are a military officer in uniform representing your government, you don’t get to have a personal opinion. Second, he criticized the civilian leadership. A particularly thing that did get people upset in Germany, where sensitivities go back to the Second World War and before that to the Nazis. His framing this as clash of civilizations, when he said, as a Roman Catholic. This is a sensitive issue in Germany. Finally, he criticized Indian foreign policy. He said, you have bilateral partnerships, which mean nothing. You need alliances. He’s critiquing India’s strategic autonomy and staying out of alliances. On the issue of sanctions, there is a fair amount of unity that there will be punitive action, just as there was after the Crimea annexation in 2014. For India’s purposes, you will see both sanctions and Russia moving closer to China if another military attack occurs in Ukraine.