After Russia began its special military operation in Ukraine on February 24, the West was quick to condemn it and to impose further sanctions. The United Nations, EU meetings, and even NATO summits became the stage for Western countries and their satrapies to repeat their pledge of allegiance to the United States.
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But naturally there were some countries that, although they didn’t outright side with Russia, didn’t condemn its military operation either. While Western commentariats, think-tankers and bureaucrats expected this from China, they were somehow shocked to see a similar reaction come from India.
Motions against Russia at the UN Security Council and the General Assembly saw abstentions by India. This was viewed with shock, anger, and disgust by the usual suspects in the West, who for some reason consider India to be an American colony due to their mutual distrust of China. However, it seems that these Western intellectuals have forgotten their history.
India and Non-Alignment
India was the founder of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), along with Nasser’s Egypt, Nkrumah’s Ghana, Sukarno’s Indonesia and Tito’s SFR Yugoslavia. Founded in 1961 after the Bandung Conference, the aim of this organization was to resist being drawn into open alliances with both the US and USSR. But, with America’s and Britain’s affinity for Pakistan during the Cold War –going as far as to admit Pakistan into a would-be Asian NATO called CENTO– India was faced with little choice but to tilt towards the USSR, an alliance which further strengthened after the Sino-Soviet split saw China becoming cozy with Pakistan and the US.
This relationship saw supplies of weapons, joint satellite and space programs, technology transfers, and a strong trade relationship. Perhaps the peak of this relationship was during the 1971 war of Bangladeshi liberation, which saw the Soviet Navy come to India’s aide when the Americans and the Brits sent their warships to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India and support Pakistan, ultimately driving the West away from the area and helping India drive Pakistan away from Bangladesh. During this time, the USSR also supported India in the UN for Kashmir-related issues.
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However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, India was left without a reliable major partner in the international arena. Russia was undergoing its own cataclysmic tragedies under Yeltsin, and it appeared that the Americans were going to be the sheriff in town. India had to come to terms with reality. Liberalizing Indian markets and building up a strong tech industry saw global investment, especially American, pour into India. But that didn’t mean the Americans were beginning a honeymoon period with India.
India and Multi-Alignment
Under Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, India was witness to America’s continued open support for Pakistan in the form of sanctions on nuclear tests (which, in fairness, also applied to Pakistan for its test) but also for America’s support for Pakistani demands in Kashmir. This, coupled with the Indian army being reliant on Russian defense equipment, meant India had to hedge its bets appropriately.
This is where, I believe, India abandoned its cause of non-alignment –that is, trying to avoid being on the side of one superpower against another– and began its approach towards multi-alignment; that is, having diplomatic relations with countries on an individual basis, and working towards mutual interests while trying to recognize and respect differences.
Thus, America’s sanctions on India were waived, a nuclear deal was signed, Indian-American trade blossomed, and India began indulging in the purchases of American weaponry. India and the US have similar concerns about a belligerent China in the Indo-Pacific region, and the resurgence of the QUAD (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India, the US, Australia and Japan) under Donald Trump further signaled progressing ties between the two. India also began cultivating better ties with the UK and the EU, focusing mainly on improving trade relations but also on buying more French weaponry, such as the recent deal to acquire Dassault Rafale fighter jets. As of today, India’s largest trading partners are the US, EU, and China.
But, at the same time, India maintained tight relations with Moscow. Defense deals for fighter jets, joint development of cruise missiles like the Brahmos, technology transfers, production of T90 tanks, and, most recently, the purchase of S400s air defense systems and possibly even the S550s, show that at least in terms of defense cooperation, India’s relationship with Russia has witnessed almost no speed bumps. Furthermore, the two are also part of the BRICS economic bloc and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which further goes on to show New Delhi’s balancing act and its commitment to multi-alignment.
So that’s pretty much why New Delhi’s neutral stance towards this conflict shouldn’t come as a surprise to the West, not that the West has ever taken India’s side in relation to issues like Pakistan. But the aforementioned reasons weren’t the only ones why New Delhi chose to abstain; there was more at play.
How India’s Foreign Policy Paid Dividends
One of the top destinations for Indian students to study medicine abroad is Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. So, naturally, when the war began, India’s first priority was to evacuate its citizens stuck in a warzone. India has had considerable success in the past with such evacuation missions (Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, etc), not only for its own but sometimes also for citizens of neighboring countries like Nepal. Abstaining at the UN was meant to signal neutrality so as to allow both sides in the war to grant safe passage to evacuating Indian nationals.
This is where India’s multi-aligned foreign policy helped. Countries bordering Ukraine such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia all maintain cordial relations with New Delhi. They were quick to assist in hosting Indian students in their territory, with Poland extending its hand so far as to waive visa restrictions for Indians. Similarly, many Indian students were also evacuated with the help of Moscow and the Russian Army. However, there were countless accounts of harassment on the part of the Ukrainian army and Neo-Nazis, not only against Indians, but also against Africans. Ultimately all Indian students managed to escape because India was able to maintain friendly relations with all sides.
Another area where its foreign policy helped was in purchasing oil. Due to sanctions on Russia, buying oil became more difficult and was further exacerbated by Brent Crude almost touching $140/barrel on March 8). India needed to diversify its oil dependency and also to seek cheaper sources of fuel. Ultimately, because India maintained neutrality at the UN and cordial relations with Russia for decades, Russia initially offered India a 20% discount on oil prices, which the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation happily grabbed. Now, reports suggest that Russia has offered India oil at a $35/barrel discount to pre-war prices (so, around $65/barrel), and in a proposed Rupee-Ruble mechanism, which Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed on his latest visit to New Delhi.
Although the initial deal was for only three million barrels (India’s daily consumption is around 4.5 million barrels itself), it helped pave the way for future deals and contracts to be negotiated on more favorable terms for both sides. Other companies, like Hindustan Petroleum and Nayara Energy, have also reportedly begun purchasing Russian oil for a start. There are even reports that India could import more than 15 million barrels in total from Russia this year, as it has already imported close to 13 million barrels in the first quarter alone.
Continuing this relationship could give Indian industries a competitive edge, due to lower input costs and Indian citizens’ access to cheaper fuel as global costs and inflation skyrocket. This development comes as India is looking into the Rupee-Ruble mechanism for the entirety of trade between the two countries, while Russia has even offered an alternative to the SWIFT bank-transfer system to conduct transactions, which could begin the end for the financial unipolarity of the US Dollar and American finance.
While all of this occurred, the West was understandably angry. The constant colonial condescension accelerated to a fever pitch; uninformed op-eds in the Western press attacked India for “sliding into authoritarianism” because it was buying Russian energy, disregarding that the EU was also buying Russian energy. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss initially also pressured India to condemn Russia, while just five months previously she’d refused to condemn terrorism from Pakistan on Indian soil, to the Indian media, in India!
There were even weird remarks by US President Biden, who said that India was “shaky” with regards to this crisis. But, besides such remarks, which I am sure most Indians and Indian foreign policy analysts must have gotten used to by now, there was no concrete action taken by the West against India (yet). While CAATSA sanctions are still on the table for India’s purchase of Russian S400s, there has been a quiet acceptance of India asserting its geopolitical clout and securing its interests. This further highlights the positives of India’s multi-aligned foreign policy.
In sum, by maintaining cordial relations with almost all sides in the conflict, India was able to not only evacuate its citizens largely safely, but was also able to initiate purchases of discounted Russian crude and continue the development the Rupee-Ruble mechanism, all while not bearing any significant blowback from the West (but instead finding open support for its citizens from EU countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania). This shows that India is on the right path moving forward, being a party to both BRICS and the QUAD, and can secure its own interests on its own terms.