Transcript - India's Ukraine Dilemma


This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:00:05]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen and I am a social anthropologist based in Oslo and also the leader of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. In March 2022, it made headlines that India had abstained from voting against Russia as the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution deploring Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. This was, in fact, India's third abstention on a U.N. vote in less than a week on Russia's military offensive. Four experts on Indian foreign policy, India's so-called neutral line on this issue was expected. But nonetheless, many commentators, particularly in the West, raised the question of why India, as the world's largest democracy, was unable to take a clear stand against the Russian attack on Ukraine. In this episode, we analyse the diplomatic tightrope that India has had to walk over the war in Ukraine, and we try to draw out some of the implications of India's Ukrainian dilemma for India's position in the world and for global geopolitics more broadly. To do. So I have with me a panel of experts on India's foreign policy and India's global ambitions. Sunniva Engh from the University of Oslo, Henrik Chetan Aspengren from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Ravinda Kaur from the University of Copenhagen. Welcome to all of you. And Sunniva Engh, let's begin by getting the storyline straight first, because there have been now several rounds of voting in the U.N. on the war in Ukraine. Please walk us through what these votes have been about and India's position on these votes.

Sunniva Engh

Well, on Friday, the 25th of February, only just two days after the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the U.N. Security Council rejected a draft resolution that would have demanded that Moscow immediately stop its attack on Ukraine, withdraw all troops and end the military offensive. So this draft submitted by Albania and the United States had the support of 11 member countries, but it was vetoed by the Russian Federation. As we know, a no vote from any one of the five permanent members of the council stops any action on any measure that has been put before the Council. Now, the fact that Russia used its veto was perhaps not so surprising. But at the same time, in this Security Council vote, India, China and the United Arab Emirates all abstained. And it is India's decision to abstain in the matter of Russia, which has attracted attention. And this is a policy which in this sense has continued. Then again, on the 2nd of March, in an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution deploring the invasion of Ukraine and calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces. Now 141 of the 193 member states voted for the resolution. Five voted against and 35 countries abstained. And again, India was amongst the countries abstaining along with China. What lies behind this Indian stance on Russia and the invasion? Well, as we'll get back to, an immediate concern was the safety and evacuation of Indian students in Ukraine. But at the same time, this is part of a longstanding line in Indian foreign policy of non-alignment and not taking stand in great power conflicts. So the message from Delhi has been that while India has not condemned what they call Russia's special military operation in Ukraine, it still has repeatedly underscored the need for everyone and all to respect the U.N. charter, international law and also sovereignty and territorial integrity. India on this that it provides some humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and it continues to express concern about the situation there, thus arguing that it does criticise, if not actively taking a stand.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:04:21]

From India's point of view, one thing that you also mentioned now, something that was at the top of the list of things that had to be immediately addressed, but which perhaps also complicated India's position somewhat was precisely this presence of I think it's more than 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine at the time when the war began. So India had to find a way of helping its citizens find a safe passage out of the war zone. Ravinda Kaur, how did this immediate urgency influence India's position?

Ravinda Kaur [00:04:55]

Thank you so much, Ken. I think I would begin by pointing out that the conflict in Ukraine broke out at the same time when elections were under way in India, the regional elections. And this basically meant that the question of student evacuation immediately became an electoral concern. And the way it played out in popular politics was that the Indian government would be able to bring students to safety or not. And what kind of global stature does Modi has in all of this? So there were lots of stories. And one of them, for example, was that, you know, the kind of person equation which exists between the prime minister and the leaders of Ukraine and Russia, and the way Indian flag, for example, could be draped by the students and they would be in the safety zone. So what I'm saying is there was a lot of popular discourse which had brought along those lines. A second thing which started discussion was about why those students were there in the first place. And that became a question of internal education politics in India, that the fact that students in Ukraine, a very large proportion of Indian medical students, especially go to Ukraine and Eastern Europe as such that this started an internal debate as to why those students would not stay in India or why they would not go to Western Europe or America. And I think this also, in a way, betrayed the kind of hierarchy or the vision within which Eastern Europe exists as a less attractive space. So I think there was lot of back and forth about fact the students were present and also the dissatisfaction there was among some of the students when they came back and they reported how difficult it had been for them to make their way.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:06:43]

So this was, in a sense, a kind of conjuncture event that to some extent shaped India's immediate response to the war. But as we prepared for this conversation and as I had individual talks with all of you, you all emphasized that in order to understand India's foreign policy maneuvers in the context of the war in Ukraine, you need to understand these long term historical relations, not only between India and Russia now, but also the relations between India and the Soviet Union. Henrik Aspengren, this is a long and complex relationship, of course, but historically it's also been the relationship between India and the Soviet Union. That has been quite a special one.

Henrik Chetan Aspengren

Yes, you're right. Kennedy and the Soviets were special. They were also interest driven. India was, of course, the junior partner in their relationship. Seen from New Delhi's perspective, three questions shaped the approach to cooperation with the Soviet Union. First, would it benefit India's own economic and military modernisation? Second, would it help India to manage its competitors and rivals in Asia, Pakistan and China? Third, would it help India to safeguard its interests in world affairs? Given the limited influence India had at the time to shape international conversations now clearly India's mixed economy model, based on state run enterprises and long term planning and so forth, made it easier with the Soviet Union than with many Western countries. And geographical proximity also played a role here. But so did the fact that the US had made Pakistan central to its security architecture in South and Central Asia. So when Khrushchev signalled a more pro-India stance, it made perfect strategic sense for India to turn to the Soviet Union for cooperation in military and civil sectors and to expand ties with the Soviet Union, made even more sense to New Delhi. As Soviet senior antagonism deepened towards the late fifties and early sixties. And from this perspective, the signing of the 20 year into a Soviet Treaty of Peace and friendship in 1971 was the culmination of a trajectory started already in the mid 1950s. But it's no coincidence here that it was signed as the US began to make overtures to China and also intervened on the Pakistani side against India during the Bangladesh War of Independence. Again, cooperation with the Soviet Union was partly shaped by India's rivalries with neighbors in Asia and the less constructive U.S. role. All the while, the Soviet Union was sensitive to India's view that Kashmir should not be internationalized. And this was also reflected in Soviet Union's voting pattern in the United Nations Security Council. But in the mid 1980s, there was a rethink on the Indian side. Rajiv Gandhi thought dependencies of the Soviet Union were too big and that the U.S. would be a better possibility for India's economy. So when Gorbachev more friendly approach to Pakistan, that made it also easier to begin the transition towards the West, I will end on this. As the Soviet Union began to fall. New Delhi went colder on Moscow and the 20 year celebration in 1991 of the 1971 treaty went almost unnoticed. And this fact could perhaps help us think about scenarios of India's views on the future Russia if it fails to live up to its commitments.

Sunniva Engh

I completely agree with what Henrik has just gone through about the Cold War period. And just to to follow up and bring the story a bit up today. The case today is that India's Ministry of External Affairs argue that bilateral ties with Russia are a key pillar of India's foreign policy and that India sees Russia as a long standing and time tested friend that has played a significant role in its economic development and security. And so in 2000, during the visit of President Putin to India, India and Russia signed a declaration on the India Russia Strategic Partnership. And this has led to the establishment of dialogue mechanisms, regular official and political interaction and increased cooperation in all sorts of areas, including political security and defence, trade and economy. Science and technology and culture. And then in 2010, as President Medvedev visited India, it was decided to further upgrade the strategic partnership to what is now called the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership. And just as Henrik emphasized that there is this background history of India, Soviet Union slash Russia relations. There is also a parallel story within the United Nations organization that this relationship shows us. So if we look at the period after the Cold War and during the 2000, India has actually kept up their practice of voting in support of Moscow's line. So, for example, with India voting against the resolution adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2001 to condemn Russia's disproportionate use of force in Chechnya. And in 2008, India actually sided with North Korea, Iran and Myanmar to vote against the UN General Assembly, condemning Russian actions in Abkhazia. And then in 2013 and 2016, in the UN General Assembly resolution criticizing the Assad regime in Syria supported by Russia. India again abstained from voting. And more directly concerning H.M. today. In 2014, India abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Crimea and again in 2020, India voted against the Ukraine sponsored UN General Assembly resolution which condemned human rights violations in Crimea. So we seem historically close in the Russia relationship, which spills over into their voting patterns within the UN organization, which is particularly close during the Cold War, but which has become close again and which continues to have impact on today's dealing with the Russia Ukraine crisis within the UN organisation.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:13:06]

These historically good relations are undoubtedly important if we are to understand India's dilemma today. But driven to core, it's not the full explanation for how we see India maneuvering today. Russia remains important to India for a whole range of reasons today as well. Russian military equipment is one obvious thing. Russian oil and gas. Russian chemical fertilizer for agricultural production. These are all essential things to keep the Indian economy going and also to keep India's military functioning.

Ravinda Kaur

I think that's a very important point. I would just like to say that India stands is more like a wait and watch policy. It's a more ambivalent stance, and it's not the same as what was happening during non-alignment. And by that, what I mean is that we forget that, of course, India has had close ties with the Soviet Union and then Russia. But equally important to recall is that there has also been a pro-U.S. tilt within Indian foreign policy in the last decade or so. Especially, I must mention the one, two, three nuclear treaty in history permissions which India got to into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And there is a strong shift which has taken place. What it means is that indeed Russia is an important partner and it is likely to be, But equally, they will remain ambivalent. So India is doing wait and watch, and there are several reasons for that. Of course, Russia is the biggest supplier of weapons to India and of course there are many weapons supplies in the world, but Russian weapons tend to be cheaper ones and India is very cost conscious on this. Secondly, oil right now, as we all know, Russia is offering discounted oil, which India, right as we speak, is looking into a modus operandi of buying in rupee rubles. And it is quite likely that it might happen. The third reason that there is some degree of ambivalence in India is stances. India has always sought what is called strategic autonomy or wish to have more multipolar world, and that is an old tradition. But what is new also in this is that India too, has its own ambitions to be a global power and which has become stronger as three decades have passed. With the economic reforms, as Indian economic growth has taken a steep upward go along with that, ambitions have also risen. So I think in that sense, I'm tremendously cautious in comparing India's stance right along with what was happening in 1950s and sixties. Of course, India is not involved in great power rivalry, but then again, it comes from a very different kind of logic this time.

Henrik Chetan Aspengren [00:16:00]

I agree with Ravinder here. It's important to keep in mind that India's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has many facets to it. Historical ties dependence is yes, for sure, but it is also guided as assessed by India's wish to be arriving at some independent decisions based on its own interests here. With the effect of the pandemic still palpable. Rising energy and food prices is not what the Indian population wish to see. And it's not an easy argument to make that living with high fuel prices is a small price to pay in the fight against authoritarianism in a country where over 250 million survive on less than 2 USD a day. And if India raises the share of Russian oil imports from the percentage point of just about 2% as it is today, that will not upset the Indian voters as much as rising inflation will. So there is a logic here to India's behavior, and this logic to higher income countries might fail to see. But also, I just must say that Moscow being dependent on Beijing doesn't help India either. So keeping the partnership going is important in that sense as well.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:17:14]

Ravinda, you mentioned India's slightly more recent pro U.S. tilt just now, so let's shift perspectives a bit then, because it is correct, as you say, that India also has close relations with the U.S. and that is part of the dilemma for India, how to remain on reasonably good terms with Russia without alienating the US, as we heard earlier. Historically, these Indo US relations were not always that good, but much has changed. President Obama called the Indo U.S. Partnership the defining partnership of the 21st century, and more recently, we may recall the so-called bromance between Modi and Donald Trump just a few years ago. And of course, that's a huge Indian diaspora in the U.S. and that's also been crucial in forming closer ties between India and the US. And that's the quote, the Quadrilateral security dialogue in which India also plays a key role alongside the US. So on the one hand, many factors keeping India close to Russia, but also many factors pulling India closer to the US. We've heard recently President Biden stress at a press conference that among the quad countries, India had been somewhat shaky in acting against Russia. Sunniva Engh, how has India handled the US connection so far?

Sunniva Engh

This is a difficult question to say whether it's handling it well or less well, but it is definitely a case that India has developed gradually closer ties with the US in recent years, and the Quad group, which you mentioned, is vital in this, including India, the United States, Australia and Japan, with a larger aim of pushing back against China. So this is when such a gradually closer relationship to a grouping, an international grouping might also be a result of India's wanting to push back against China, particularly within the Indian Ocean region. But as we've already mentioned, this longstanding relationship with Moscow has also led to a close defence and security relationship with Russia being one of the main supplier of defence equipment for India. This Indian reliance on Russian defence materiel is very often seen as a potential factor, hindering a closer Indian alignment with Western countries and more specifically the US. At the same time, India has really been diversifying their arms imports since the early 2000 and since the closer relationship with the quad. Back then, Russia would account for up to 88% of India's arms imports. And the US and allies have then increasingly been supplying a range of high tech weapons and weaponry. By 2020, Russia's share of India's imports was down to 35% versus the US and allied imports amounting to as much as 65%. So we're talking about a big change, a big increase of diversification where the US is taking up a gradually quite a lot larger role. And now lately of course. India's failure to openly condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine has created concerns in the US. Just last week, a senior White House official was quoted saying that India's position at the UN had been unsatisfactory. At the same time, the same official said that this was unsurprising given India's historic relationship with Russia. But just before the Ukraine crisis erupted, India actually upset, tweeting with its purchase of Russia's S-400 air defense system, which actually put it at risk of receiving US sanctions under a 2017 US law aimed at deterring countries from buying Russian military hardware. Now, shouldn't such sanctions against India occur? They could jeopardise US cooperation with New Delhi within the Quad forum. But at the same time, signals from Washington and their allies and partners is actually saying that they might think about how they could help countries that might be considering how to replace Russian defense system, meaning a further diversification would not be entirely surprising. I think of India's point made earlier was really important because simply replacing Russian equipment with American equipment does not automatically mean that India will align with the international liberal order. India might want something else entirely. And this is where I really agree with the point that strategic autonomy is a key concept here. Maybe India does not want its old non-aligned state, but a strategic autonomy, which means neither neutrality or a sort of portfolio diversification, but autonomy as a means to a world where power is widely distributed, whether multipolarity in a sense, where India can play its own role and actually play the role of a regional large power.

Ravinda Kaur [00:22:21]

I just want to add one thing to this, which is the role of Indian diaspora. And I think it is so forgotten that Indian elite is actually very much invested in America in a way that it is not in Russia. So of course, we have the weight of historical relations, but we must also remember that, you know, some of the biggest tech companies in the US, they are literally being run by Indians and that has a huge value, also emotional value in India as there is a global stature of India being hyped. So I just think that this is not going to be that straightforward. The reason I continue to use the word ambivalence is to precisely suggest that there are multiple ties which are at stake. So this is at one level. But the other thing I want to point out is that this is not just about India, Russia or India. US. There are more relationships which complicate this field. India. China. Pakistan. China. Pakistan. Russia. Because recall that the last leader who visited Russia before the conflict broke out was Imran Khan. And there is a fallout taking place as we speak in Pakistan on this as well. So who's friend, who's enemy, who's friends, friends or who's enemies? Enemies? I mean, this whole thing is very complicated at this moment. I think therefore, I believe that a lot of Indian policy makers are literally doing this, hedging their bets, keeping the doors open and basically saying who the winner is because you don't want to lose any opportunities. So I would not just always fall back upon that. India and Russia have a whole relationship because this is not how foreign policies work. People think about something called national interest. If this is true, then of course this ambivalence makes perfect sense.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:24:14]

We'll get to return to this bigger global picture in just a minute. But Henrik Aspengren, this is, after all, the Nordic Asia podcast. So let's for a minute try to apply a Nordic perspective on this situation. All the Nordic countries have for various reasons, but mainly for economic reasons. Been trying for years to forge closer ties with India at the same time, across the Nordic region, even in the historically NATO's skeptical countries, NATO is suddenly more popular than it's ever been. I think that applies across the Nordic region. And there is, of course, widespread political support, widespread popular support for Ukraine as well in the Nordic countries, with even otherwise, NATO's skeptical countries like Sweden and Finland warming to the idea of NATO's membership as well. Will this war in Ukraine as some kind of side effect impact Indo Nordic relations in any way?

Henrik Chetan Aspengren [00:25:14]

It's a difficult question, of course, but since we're so early in what we see unfold here, as you said, all the Nordic countries apart from Iceland perhaps have decided to go fully in in their partnership with India. The business opportunities and trade is sort of the baseline. I do not think India's response to Russia's aggression will walk back the political investments done by Nordic capitals for developing these partnerships. But I do hope India's approach to the war has ended. Some of this sort of lazy analysis of India done in several capitals across Europe and the Nordic countries, of course, because I think the views expressed on India's behavior are sometimes rooted in expectations built on the sort of incomplete understanding of India's historic behavior internationally and its current behavior, and also the domestic drivers for its foreign policy. So I do hope that we can see a sort of more intense scrutiny of how we discuss India and the reasons for India's approaches and behavior internationally.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen

So we're approaching the end of this episode. But there is one question I'd like all of you to comment on, and it goes back to some of the things we discussed earlier about Indo U.S. relationships, but also these more multilayered and complex relations that really complicate matters here. Let's be realistic. Biden, Blinken, they will surely be well aware of India's position here most of the time. As you say, foreign policy is dictated by a good deal of self-interest and pragmatism. And of course, India is no exception in this regard. So it cannot come as any surprise to the US that India would abstained from voting against Russia, as we heard it was expected, because it had many good reasons for doing so. At the same time it might be argued and we can discuss this now, whether this time around it isn't business as usual from the point of view maybe of the U.S. in particular. Here we have a country, Russia, invading a democratic state in Europe after having sought to destabilize democracy in the US by interfering in the 2016 elections. So among a number of US Democrats, including Biden in the count here, the perception may be that Russia is not just pursuing strategic geopolitical interests in its immediate neighbourhood. It's actually out to undermine liberal democracies wherever they come across them. This in turn, may mean that the stakes from the point of the U.S. perhaps are actually much higher this time, and that this in turn means that democratic countries like India must now actually step up and take a proactive stand against the Putin regime. In fact, as we have this conversation now, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is actually visiting New Delhi, something that sparked quite strong, at least rhetorical reactions from the U.S.. We had the US Commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, saying that, and I quote, Now is the time to stand on the right side of history and to stand with the U.S. and dozens of other countries standing up for freedom, democracy and sovereignty with the Ukrainian people and not funding and fueling and aiding President Putin's war. And she also called India hosting Lavrov as deeply disappointing. Are the stakes higher this time around, Sunniva?

Speaker 2 [00:28:43]

It is indeed a serious situation which calls for mobilization at the same time. India certainly takes a pride in being the world's largest democracy. That is for sure. But I think that unwillingness to go along with what is a Western multilateral initiative says more about India's own place in an international order dominated by the West and their ambitions rather than their relationship to Russia. I think India has repeatedly called for a form of more representative global governance, and I think so long as this international order does not fully accommodate India as an equal member of a great power club, India will continue to pursue its own path and pursue multipolarity and international recognition. So I think India will keep up its selective and independent route and be pragmatic.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:29:35]

Ravinda Kaur, what's your take on this issue?

Sunniva Engh [00:29:37]

I think the stakes are much higher, and I think it's precisely because this war has opened up a whole ideological, political, moral kind of field. And what you can already see is that it all depends on how long this is going to continue and how harsh the conditions are going to be that you would begin to see the shift in positions. What I mean to say is that there has been a lot of attention also on this potential formation called RIC. Russia, India, China. And that, of course, is a little bit unusual given simply for the fact that India and China are not at a very great footing. But then Russia becomes a common factor. But just theoretically speaking, if this is the alliance which begins to shape up, then I think the battle lines or the fall lines, so to say, between democracies versus illiberal democracies, that is where I think the fissures would be more clear. And I think the thing about Ukraine also is that this is literally right next door, especially seen from the point of view from the Nordic countries. Not so much maybe Denmark, Norway, Sweden, but Finland, for instance, which is literally next door to Russia or Eastern Europe. So the tensions are very, very different. So therefore, you would see the reaction is also very different. So this is not something far to be which is happening away from Europe. This is literally here we can already observe every day what we read that the reason tensions are so high and people are less willing to give that little bit of discount. That is not happening.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:31:27]

Henrik Aspengren, what's your thoughts on this?

Henrik Aspengren [00:31:31]

I agree that the stakes are very high this time, but. Well, Russia is the main preoccupation now, but it will not be for that long. I mean, the main preoccupation for the US especially is China. And to continue to engage India to balance China in Asia will be of great importance years ahead. And I do think that India also sees that Russia is sort of in decline and to sort of further modernize its economy, its military, it looks towards other options. It has really diversified its arms imports and so forth for quite a long while now. So I do think that the sort of RIC format and other formats and I disagree a bit, I don't see that as being the main format for India to engage in. And I don't think New Delhi sees it that way either. But I could be wrong.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:32:27]

Henrik Aspengren, Sunniva Engh and Ravinda Kaur. Thank you for shedding light on India's Ukrainian dilemma. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in Studying Asia.


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