India and the Ukraine war

December 16, 2022 Rajat Ganguly

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which shows no signs of abatement, has become a major point of contention between India and the West. On several occasions in the past few months, EAM Jaishankar has had to explain to Western audiences in various fora India's position vis-a-vis the war in Ukraine. The West has basically confronted India with three specific but separate criticisms vis-a-vis this war.

First, India has been confronted with a moral issue - the morality of war. The question here has been broadly framed as follows: How can India, a country that has taught non-violence to the world, morally support war and human suffering by not openly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Second, India has been confronted with a normative issue - the normative defence of state sovereignty, liberal democracy, and international institutions. The basic argument here is that by invading Ukraine, Russia has violated the post-1945 consensus for a rules-based Liberal international order. That Liberal international order, as seen by the West, has three core components. One, the non-violability of state sovereignty except under very exceptional circumstances (these exceptions are enshrined in the UN Charter). Two, democratic states must be defended at any cost, especially from attack by non-democratic states, by other democracies. This view is based on the belief that Liberalism is the best form of ideology and the best guarantor of human rights and development; expansion and consolidation of democracy is the best guarantor of peace (the ‘democratic peace’ hypothesis); and the political and economic integration of liberal democratic states create a ‘security community’ by promoting a collective security mindset (one for all and all for one). And three, international institutions created to safeguard, consolidate, and expand the Liberal international order must be supported and defended from attacks by bad illiberal actors such as China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, etc. In this context, India, as a liberal democratic state, is being criticized by the West for not standing unequivocally with the West against an autocratic and illiberal Russia that has unleashed the dogs of war on a sovereign liberal democracy like Ukraine and violated its sovereign right to join NATO and the EU, institutions that promote security, human rights and development in Europe.

Finally, India is being confronted with the more instrumentalist argument of self-interest. Several Western politicians and analysts have recently argued that India, for its own benefit, should distance itself from Russia by reducing its dependence on Russian-made weapons. Some have even argued that India should stop buying (or at least buy very little) cheap Russian oil (and oil from Iran for that matter), which would further harden the US-imposed economic sanctions on Russia and hopefully help change Russia’s bellicose behaviour in Ukraine. In return, it is also pointed out, the US/West would flood India with the latest state-of-the-art weapons which the Indian military could use against China and Pakistan. The US/West, these critics further suggest, would stand with India against its traditional enemies, China and Pakistan.

Let me now turn to what I consider to be India's response to these three main criticisms.

First, regarding the morality of warfare, India has said very consistently that it stands against all forms of aggression. PM Modi and EAM Jaishankar have repeatedly said that they would like to see a diplomatically negotiated end to the current impasse in Ukraine. At the recent SCO Summit in Tashkent and the G20 meeting in Bali, PM Modi made it clear to a global audience that India believes that this era should not be ‘an era of warfare.’ This stand of India is consistent with a core pillar of its foreign policy, which is non-aggression and non-violence towards other states and actors. Historically, India has been a reluctant military power; its strategic posture has been mainly defensive, and it has never acted offensively by launching wars on other states. Therefore, morally, India can claim that it is not defending the war in Ukraine by not openly condemning Russia.

On the question of sovereignty violation, India has consistently said that it champions state sovereignty and that sovereignty violations anywhere must be consistently criticized. What India seems to be saying is this: if the West is going to criticize Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, then it must also unequivocally criticize the Pakistani and Chinese sovereignty violations against India, the American/British sovereignty violations against Afghanistan and Iraq, the Turkish sovereignty violations against Syria, Pakistani sovereignty violations against Afghanistan, and many other cases. In other words, the West cannot be selective and condemn Russia because it suits its narrative but turn a blind eye in other cases; worst, the West has violated state sovereignty with impunity whenever it has suited its policy (for example, the George W Bush administration’s interventionist and regime change policies under the garb of waging a ‘global war on terror’). Regarding the stand with democracy defence, India seems to be saying three things. One, New Delhi seems to be saying that the West’s framing of the Ukraine war as support democracy vs support authoritarianism is disingenuous. This is how the West has chosen to define the issue (you are either with us or against us), but this is not how India (and many other states) perceive the war in Ukraine. As EAM Jaishankar put it recently, India will define the issue in its own way and choose to stand ‘on its own ground.’ Two, in not supporting the US/West on Ukraine, New Delhi seems to be saying that just because India is a liberal democracy it automatically does not follow that India will blanketly support other liberal democracies. The implication here is that genuine friends must offer honest opinion, even if that opinion is critical of a friend. In other words, what India seems to be saying is that it has serious concerns about US/Western intentions and activities in Ukraine, which may have provoked Russia into launching the special military operations in eastern Ukraine. Developments within Ukraine (particularly the empowerment of fascist and neo-Nazi groups and atrocities committed on the Russian-speaking people in the Donbass and Kherson regions) are also a cause of deep concern, raising serious questions about Ukraine's liberal credentials. And three, India seems to be saying that it does not share the Western view of the twenty-first century world as being divided between a ‘Liberal world order’ and an ‘Illiberal world order.’ In fact, as EAM Jaishankar put it in a recent Q&A with a Western journalist, India sees multiple and different ‘orders’ being shaped and consolidated across the world. He even pointed out that India does not see the world as being centered around a trans-Atlantic (Europe and North America) geographical space. What this means is that defending and consolidating a Euro-American centric ‘Liberal world order’ may be extremely important to the US and European states but may not be equally important to India (and possibly other non-Western liberal states such as Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, etc.).

Finally, from an instrumentalist perspective, in not condemning Russia openly, India seems to be saying three things to the West. One, states cannot change their geography and hence Russia is geo-strategically a very important country for India mainly because Russia is a counterweight to India’s main enemy, China. Russia has a long border with China, parts of which are still in dispute; China also has territorial claims vis-a-vis the Russian far east. Hence, it is very unlikely that Moscow will side with China in the event of a Sino-Indian confrontation over the disputed border. Through its access of Central Asia, Russia also can strategically ring fence Afghanistan and even Pakistan, which would be to India’s advantage. Two, Russia (and before it, the Soviet Union) has been a far more reliable partner diplomatically. Moscow has consistently supported India’s positions on crucial issues (such as Kashmir) and was the single most important reason why the Chinese and the Americans did not militarily intervene on Pakistan’s side during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war over Bangladesh. Countries that forget the lessons of history are often doomed and New Delhi is certainly in no mood to forget US/Western support to Pakistan over the past seven decades! Finally, it is in India's interest to do business with Russia. It makes economic sense to buy cheap oil from Russia (and even Iran), which is in India's national interest. Given that the bulk of India's military hardware is of Soviet/Russian origin, it makes sense to buy weapons from Russia. The Russians are also much more open to setting up joint ventures, transferring latest technology, and accepting payments in Indian currency.

To sum up then, what we are seeing is a confident and assertive India refusing to succumb to US/Western pressure. India is also saying that the portrayal of the Ukraine war in the West is something that it fundamentally disagrees with.

About the Author:

Rajat Ganguly is the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Asian Security & International Affairs


The article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the Organisation.

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