India First? Die Genese einer besonderen Partnerschaft

Warum verhält sich Indien gegenüber dem russischen Krieg neutral?

Understanding Indian neutrality on Russia`s war
von Harsh Joshi-Düker

Abstract in Deutsch: Anhand der Auswertung von indischen und anderen Publikationen erklärt der Autor, warum sich Indien in diesem Krieg, neutral oder aus westlicher Perspektive tendenziell russlandfreundlich verhält. Er führt dies einerseits auf die historische Tradition im Rahmen der nicht blockgebundenen Staaten zurück; andererseits verweist er auf die traditionell engen außenpolitischen Beziehungen zwischen Indien und Russland, sowie militärische und energiepolitische Abhängigkeiten, die bis heute weiterwirken und sich teilweise sogar verstärkt haben. Dieser Blick erleichtert es, die Rolle Indiens in dem Konflikt einzuordnen und erweitert das Blickfeld auf die Zwänge und Bedürfnisse der weltgrößten Demokratie.

India’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict has disappointed and puzzled the democratic bloc led by the U.S. and its European allies. Why has the world’s largest democracy of over a billion people stuck to a calculated stance of neutrality at a time when most of the prominent pro-West governments around the world have been explicit and unanimous in condemning Russia?

One explanation for India’s stand can be found in the seven decades of its post-colonial history. Its origin dates as far back as the beginning of the Cold War, to India’s role as a founding member and influential proponent of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) throughout the subsequent years. Independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Josip Br-oz Tito of erstwhile Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, was a pioneer of the NAM policy that encouraged member nations to assert their independent sovereign status instead of promising allegiance to either of the two warring superpowers.

Although the NAM has largely become irrelevant since the end of the Cold War, India’s policy of what Nehru called “positive neutrality” has continued to shape its response to foreign conflicts. “With two exceptions, one honorable and another dishonorable — the honorable one being sending its naval vessels to the Maldives to avert a coup in 1988, and the dishonorable one being sending its armies into Sri Lanka in the name of peacekeeping in 1985-87 — India never directly participated in the military conflict of another country” in its post-independence history, wrote Ram Madhav in an article in The Indian Express newspaper. While “Indian peacekeepers were a part of UN Peacekeeping Forces in places like Sudan, Kosovo and Congo” … “India determinedly avoided pressure to directly or indirectly get involved in any other conflict in the region or outside, including the Gulf War of the 1990s and the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11,” Madhav wrote.

This history of non-alignment aside, India’s incentives are also rooted in the current geopolitical and economic environment. “On the surface, India’s reticence on Ukraine seems to be in step with its long-standing policy of non-alignment. But it may, in fact, be more a reflection of its overdependence on Russia and the geopolitical realities India faces,” Manisha Reuter of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) wrote in a commentary on ECFR website in March.

New Delhi has long been wary of the eventuality that Russia may foster closer ties with its two neighbors Pakistan and China, against whom it has fought a total of five separate wars in the last seventy-five years, along land borders that stretch over 6000 kilometers in total. “India is in a tense security environment. And Russia has been an important partner for India in its border conflicts with both Pakistan and China. Russia also provides political and diplomatic support to India in international institutions such as the UN. For example, Moscow has repeatedly vetoed UN resolutions condemning New Delhi over its actions in Indian-administered Kashmir,” wrote Reuter of ECFR.

“Indian officials have tried to explain that the country’s stand on Ukraine stemmed from its own national interest and prevailing security environment in its neighborhood where China and Pakistan both pose “immediate and enduring” threats to India,” Pranay Sharma wrote in an article published on news website Moneycontrol. “Since 1955, Moscow under both the Soviet Union and, subsequently, the Russian Federation, has been one of most valued and “time-tested” friends of India, coming to its support during any serious crisis that Delhi faced,” Sharma wrote.

Russia is India’s top arms supplier. Ever since the first military procurements from Russia in the 1950s, India’s dependency on Russian weaponry and military technology has steadily increased. Between 2011 and 2021, India bought $22.8 billion worth of arms from Russia, according to the Arms Transfer Database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. From 2016 to 2020, India accounted for 23% of Russia’s total arms exports, while half of India’s defense imports were from Russia, as per a U.S. Congressional research report. For example, about two-thirds of the Indian air force’s tactical combat aircraft are of Russian origin, and Indian navy’s flagship aircraft carrier is a former Soviet-era warship bought from Russia in 2004. Indo-Russia Rifles Private Limited, an Indian-Russian joint venture in which Kalashnikov Concern and Russian government’s export arm Rosonbornexport hold 42% and 7.5% share respectively, received official approval last year to produce AK-203 rifles locally in India. The AK-203s are slated to become the standard rifles of the Indian army, the world’s largest ground force of 1.4 million personnel.

Besides this significant defense partnership, India’s rapidly growing and power-hungry economy also relies heavily on Russian energy. Russia is the second largest supplier of oil to India, accounting for nearly a fifth of its total oil imports. At a time when most of the Western world is scrambling to reduce its dependency on Russian oil and gas, India has sensed an opportunity to snap up that supply, resulting in a 23% on-year increase in the June oil imports from Russia, according to Indian government data. As of August, Russian crude oil costed $6 less than India’s average crude import basket price and Russia has now offered even more discounts provided India does not support the G7 proposal to put a price cap on Russian oil, the newspaper Business Standard reported in September.

The Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba criticized India’s increased oil purchases, saying the Russian oil India buys has a “portion of Ukrainian blood”. The Times of India, a leading Indian national newspaper, published a response to the critique in an editorial in August. “India’s foreign and economic policies must serve India first,” the newspaper said. “Discounted Russian oil is a big help for a major economy that’s also a big oil importer and which until recently was battling rising crude prices.” … “Moreover, Europe is continuing to buy Russian gas despite its active support for Ukraine against Russian military action. Yet we don’t see Ukrainian authorities lecture EU on purchase of Russian energy in such dramatic terms.” India’s External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar, too, has defended the country’s decision to continue to buy Russian oil. Speaking to a gathering of Indians in Bangkok in August, Jaishankar said, “We have been very honest about our interests. I have a country with a per capita income of $2,000. These aren’t people who can afford higher energy prices. It is my obligation… my moral duty to ensure that I get them the best deal I can.” Therefore, it is very likely that India will continue to buy more oil from Russia in the medium- to long-term.

Nuclear energy in India is another area where Russian involvement has been more than any other country. India currently has 23 operational nuclear reactors, the seventh highest number globally. The largest of these, located in southern India, has been built in close collaboration with Russia’s Atomstromexport. Rosatom is building four of the eight new reactors currently under construction in the country and last year announced that it aims to build 20 more reactors over the next two decades. Although India has in the past discussed civil nuclear energy agreements with France and the U.S., none of those pacts have come to fruition due to various regulatory and financial obstacles. In fact, Russia remains the only foreign country invested in India’s nuclear energy program. Amid mounting pressure to shift to greener and sustainable energy alternatives, India has been pushing the development of nuclear power - which currently accounts for just 3% of total electricity production in the country - and Russia’s role in this regard is considered crucial by New Delhi.

Amid repeated urging from Ukraine as well as the U.S. to strongly condemn Russia, India has therefore been cautious in its stance on the current war. “From the very beginning of the Ukraine conflict, we have emphasized the need to adopt the path of diplomacy and dialogue. We support all peaceful efforts to end this conflict,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during an online address to the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia earlier this year. In the same speech, he also emphasized a “special partnership” between the two countries Russia and India and expressed particular interest in bolstering their cooperation on energy and coking coal.

Most national and regional media have been largely supportive of India’s stance on the Russian-Ukraine conflict. The mainstream media rhetoric and the rare coverage of public opinion on the issue show a soft corner for Russia, instead revealing an anti-U.S. bias. A popular opinion in India is that NATO forced Russia into this war. “On mainstream talk shows and in the pages of magazines popular with Modi’s right-wing base … it has mostly been fire and fury directed toward the United States, portrayed as the culprit and instigator of yet another international conflagration,” wrote Gerry Shih in The Washington Post. “Indians from the right and left have converged on the war, the former because of their antipathy towards western culture and the latter because of their anti-Americanism, particularly in relation to foreign policy,” Amrit Dhillon noted in an article in The Guardian. “There is considerable support for the claim that Ukraine and Nato provoked Russia to the point where it had no choice but to invade. These views, expressed by analysts, politicians and retired military officers, have featured prominently in television debates,” Dhillon wrote.

Some Indian commentators of liberal tilt have expressed their discontent with India’s muted reaction. “Whatever the reasons, the Government of India’s position — or more accurately, its lack of a position — on Ukraine is both morally untenable as well as politically imprudent,” historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in an essay in The Telegraph newspaper. “…must we go to the other extreme and — by our continuing refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine — be complicit in the crimes of Putin and his men in Ukraine?” Guha wrote.

While Indian government’s response to the conflict remains carefully neutral, it has sent some tranches of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including 8 tons of essential medicines and medical equipment. India’s rank is 38 in terms of total aid commitments to Ukraine, far behind the contributions from the U.S., Canada, and European nations, according to Ukraine Support Tracker database of Kiel Institute of World Economy.

The Indian government has also had to deal with the issue of around 18,000 medical students from India who had to flee Ukraine when the war started. “Our children today are going to small countries for study, especially in medical education. Language is a problem there. They are still going…” Prime Minister Modi said in a webinar in February. (Interestingly, and in contrast to the western perspective, Modi considers Ukraine as a small country.) Those students have not yet been allowed to continue their education in India. Russian universities, meanwhile, have said they are ready to accommodate such students and have even offered tuition fee discounts to them.

“Going forward, India will not join the Western attempt to isolate and weaken Russia, it will keep being committed to its relationship with Moscow. What will be important to consider going forward is the effect of sanctions on Russia in a year or two. So far, effects are not entirely felt, despite some harm. Depending on the economic state of Russia, India’s relationship with Moscow will evolve to reflect that change in the country’s status,” Nandan Unnikrishnan, distinguished fellow and head of Eurasian studies at Observer Research Foundation said in an interview with Institut Montaigne in March.



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