Russia’s military operation in Ukraine and, more broadly, its conflict with the West may not change the fabric of India-Russia bilateral relations as dramatically as some observers may think.
A time-tested special and privileged strategic partnership, encompassing all crucial fields related to defense and security issues as well as political and economic spheres, is not likely to be affected by hostilities taking place in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the devil is, as usual, in the details.
No Man Left Behind
“As Hon’ble Members would be aware, the tense situation between Russia and Ukraine erupted into conflict on 24 February 2022. The root causes for this are complex, going back to range of issues including the security architecture, political governance and inter-state politics. To that was added the challenges of implementing understandings reached earlier. What is pertinent to note is that the hostilities placed the Indian community of 20,000 plus in direct danger. Even while we were participating in the global deliberations of this evolving situation in the UN Security Council, the pressing challenge was to safeguard our citizens and ensure that they were not in harm’s way”, said Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in his address to the upper-chamber of the Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha) on March 15, 2022.
Thus, it is not the changing geopolitical equilibrium or arguments over India’s stance on the conflict but the evacuation of the Indian community in Ukraine, most of whom pursued medical studies in Kiev, Kharkov and Sumy, that in fact most seemed to bother the nation’s leadership.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government launched “Operation Ganga“, the aim of which was to return Indian nationals home. The exercise entailed a “whole of Government” approach and joint efforts undertaken by the Ministry of External Affairs with all the Embassies concerned, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Defence, the National Disaster Response Force, Indian Air Force and private airlines. What should be mentioned is that the Russian political leadership and the military on the ground were in constant contact with New Delhi’s officials and succeeded in providing Indian students and professionals with humanitarian passage.
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Unfortunately, a final year medical student of Kharkiv Medical University Naveen Shekarappa Gyanagaudar lost his life. That tragedy requires a deep investigation, which Russia immediately promised to conduct. However, “Operation Ganga” has eventually been undertaken successfully, with the close India-Russia interaction in a tough situation having served as another example of mutual understanding in resolving urgent issues.
Politics Claims, Economics Proves
Although the Indian leadership, and public in general, obviously concentrated on the humanitarian dimension of the conflict, more pragmatic considerations have been in place. These considerations concern India’s positioning in the international arena (including such venues as the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly) and speculation about the mounting number of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West as well as the ways to face the future ramifications for India-Russia cooperation, engendered by those constraints.
Hardly anyone in Russia expected India to fail its historical ally in such circumstances. And it didn’t. New Delhi’s position during the vote on the resolutions condemning Russia’s actions in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly respectively has been steadfast and coherent – India abstained from taking part in West-sponsored resolutions that sought to deplore in the “strongest terms” Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine.
Hence, India remains committed to its strategic culture, expressed most clearly in the principle of “multialignment” (a reference to the earlier principle of non-alignment), where the emerging world power persists in seeking ground for fruitful cooperation with all nations and avoids taking a stand on controversial issues. India proved its traditionally independent stance and should have dissuaded those political pundits who mistakenly regarded its historically weighted position, as an inclination to bolster its ties with the West at the expense of New Delhi and Moscow’s bilateral relations.
Economic cooperation seems to be a rather complicated issue, as it requires handling multiple structural constraints stemming from the very nature of the interconnected global markets. Operating in this environment entails the elaboration of coherent and consistent strategies, responding to the newly emerged challenges.
Indian decision-makers in the economic field, as well as business circles, pay close attention to the Western sanction policies, the mass media provides detailed information about the measures undertaken by the Bank of Russia, the ruble exchange rate and the functioning of the Russian financial markets.
What disturbs them most is possible structural problems in the world economy and the global network of supply chains. For instance, the Reserve Bank of India (acting as the country’s central bank) has expressed concern about the impact of economic sanctions on the dynamics of energy prices, volatility in the financial markets and inflation rates.
Indian market players themselves are unwilling to join the Western-led sanction campaign but are wary of repercussions deriving from further cooperation with Russia. That is why the State Bank of India (the nation’s top lender) has stopped processing any transactions involving Russian entities which are subject to international sanctions imposed on Moscow due to its significant international presence and the need to comply with US and EU regulations.
However, it’s no surprise that some notable economic agents should have acted in line with Western initiatives so as not to endanger India’s long-term plans on attracting investments and advanced businesses from around the world. It is of Russia’s interest to have relations with a rapidly developing economy with the steps undertaken by the SBI being of marginal importance in the whole context of India-Russia economic ties.
Old Friends Are Best
One may wonder what interests India could pursue in the current situation? First of all, New Delhi has another chance to take advantage of the Russian pivot to the East, since this time Moscow has no option but to finally embark on boosting its ties with the non-Western world in practice. While Russia and Europe are strongly interconnected from geostrategic perspective, and that is why they are doomed to restore European security architecture and find consensus on other fields of cooperation, nowadays there is a room for both reaffirming historical commitments and exploring new spheres of partnership in order to make it comprehensive in full effect.
Secondly, it is high time India took real steps to lessen the so-called “Russia’s dependence on China”. This narrative of “Russia rapidly becoming subordinate to China” has been circulating around Indian official, academic, expert and media circles in recent years. There is unlikely to be a better chance for New Delhi to enter the game decisively by establishing new businesses, launching joint projects and increasing investments so as to pick up its desired winnings.
Finally, India could demonstrate that despite being under tough pressure from the West, and primarily from the US, it is ready to take advantage of its special privileges in its partnership with Russia. There will be no better argument in fighting back against speculation within some circles in Moscow that India is gradually tilting towards the West.
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
The environment we will have to operate in is, no doubt, uncertain. However, it is quite clear that for today Russia should be satisfied with the stand India took in the crisis. The interaction between Moscow and New Delhi outweighs thousands of supportive words and statements.
India and Russia are going to further interact within a new international order since the old one does not seem to work anymore. The way it will look depends on the political will of the leadership of the two nations and the motivation of both Indian and Russian entrepreneurs.
Gleb Makarevich is a Junior Research Fellow, Group on South Asia and Indian Ocean at IMEMO RAS. This article was originally published on Russia today.