Russia-Ukraine War: A Test for India’s Foreign Policy


What Caused the War?

The world woke up to alarming news on the morning of 24th February when Russian President Vladimir Putin  declared war on Ukraine in a televised address. This doesn’t come as a shock due to the fact that war clouds were looming large in the skies of Eatern Europe since mid February. Though the Russian military aggression is a grave violation of international laws, the role played by the US and its Western allies (especially UK) in provoking the war cannot be ignored. Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, then US President George Bush Sr. gave a verbal assurance to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that  NATO would cease to extend its membership and would eventually get disbanded. His successor Bill Clinton followed suit when at the 1994 NATO summit, he declared that the Atlantic alliance cannot afford to draw a new line between the East and the West that would culminate in future confrontation.

Today, the hollowness of such verbal assurances and declarations can be realized when NATO still continues to exist as a strong and viable military alliance that has extended in the years to include nation states that border Russia. Putin had repeatedly asked for concrete guarantees from the West that NATO would stop the military encirclement of Russia with immediate effect. When such guarantees weren’t forthcoming, Russia had warned of severe consequences if its security concerns were not addressed.

The US has also been trying to induct Ukraine as the latest member of NATO. Before the start of the war the US had also been pressurizing the EU nations like France and Germany to go for economic sanctions against Russia which was much against the Kremlin’s liking. It needs no saying that all these facts point towards a geopolitical tussle between the great powers that had been growing in Eastern Europe and has finally resulted in a war. The Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine is controlled by Pro-Russian separatists after the 2014 crisis and Putin has justified the war by stating that it is the only way in which the autonomy of the people of this region can be protected from the “Nazi Rule” that exists in Ukraine. Through this war, Putin also wants to provide the message to the West that weakness is something that he will not accept. The Kremlin won’t stay silent if US and NATO forces come close to its periphery.

Consequences of the War for India

There are multiple reasons for which the policymakers in India are worried about the consequences of the war that is taking place far away in the European continent. Firstly, India is dependent on both Russia and Ukraine for a lot of its energy supplies. A developing economy like India would obviously be on the receiving end if the war continues for a long period. Industries that are reliant on unfettered energy supplies would get seriously hampered. The domestic population will also have to face the brunt as the prices of consumer oil and LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) will rise rapidly. Secondly, if  India chooses to go against Russia in this issue, then the defense sector will have to suffer because Russia still remains a major exporter of arms for India. Both the nations are also working together in the arena of defense research.

Thirdly, US attention will inevitably shift to Europe as long as the war continues and this won’t be good news for India who has become an ally of the US in the Indo-Pacific region since 2016. The increasing proximity of Indo-US relations may suffer a jolt in the coming days due to the war in Ukraine. Fourthly, in continuation of the third point, the shifting of US attention to Europe will allow China to assert itself in South and South-East Asia. Fifth and the most important of all at the moment is the evacuation of Indian nationals who are stranded in Ukraine. There are many students from India who are stuck in Ukraine at this point of time as the Russian forces move closer to Kiev, capital of Ukraine. The task won’t be easy as the Ukraine government has ordered the closure of its airspace. Air India flights which were on the way for evacuation had to return midway.

A Test for India’s Foreign Policy

Undoubtedly, the war in Ukraine has put the foreign policy makers of India in a tough situation where they face a dilemma of whether to stick to its non-aligned path of neutrality or whether to voice its concerns against the Russian aggression that is unprecedented in Europe after the Second World War. Until now, India has maintained a neutral stance on the issue (which has been appreciated by Russia) though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not made any public statement. But the pressure is mounting on India as the Western states want New Delhi to elect a side. Before Russia’s declaration of war France and Germany were not ready to impose economic sanctions on Russia but now that the war has started, leaders of both the countries have come out strongly on the issue. The Nord Stream  2 pipeline for gas has been kept on hold due to the Ukraine crisis.

India’s neighbours China and Pakistan have chosen to support Russia in the Ukraine crisis. The Ukraine crisis has brought China and Russia close which is not an outcome that New Delhi would welcome. Besides, the presence of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan along with his foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Russia just before the war began has raised a few eyebrows in the  South Block. Imran Khan has chosen to stay silent on the crisis by commenting that it is none of Pakistan’s business. Ukraine’s ambassador to India has also implored the Modi government or in other words Narendra Modi specifically to use the personal clout that he shares with Putin and urge him to solve the dispute peacefully with Ukraine.

All these factors have created enormous pressure on the Indian leadership as they need to act proactively as the crisis unfolds. Contrary to many expert opinions on the issue and the way in which  a portion of the electronic media is portraying the crisis, New Delhi needs to act slowly but steadily. The best option for India, considering its stakes in the war, should be to avoid getting entangled in favour of a particular side and continue its balancing act. India’s multi-vector foreign policy doesn’t allow it to choose sides in a particular crisis as it requires the support of both Russia and US on a number of issues- getting permanent membership of the UNSC is an example in this case. An independent foreign policy will also provide the space for India to meditate on the crisis and play a major role in solving it peacefully via multilateral platforms.

India’s stance will also depend on what course the Russian military action takes in future. If Putin chooses to escalate the crisis horizontally or vertically then it would become increasingly difficult for India to stay non-aligned, especially if the US chooses to impose extraterritorial sanctions. If we take a look at history then it tells how India had strategically  stayed silent on USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, will India choose to do so again when Russian tanks and fighter jets wreak havoc in Ukraine or are we going to witness something new, only time will tell.

Dhritiman Mukherjee, PhD Research Scholar, Presidency University, Kolkata.


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