Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and India’s shrinking global role


India stands at a crossroads regarding the war in Ukraine. contrary to Israel and Turkey, who are trying to use their relatively benign responses to the Russian invasion to provide space for peace negotiations, India has not attempted any initiative to carve out a global role for itself in what is already the worst crisis in Europe since the Second World War. New Delhi called for a ceasefire and dialogue, but did nothing to achieve it.

To further blur this image of diplomatic paralysis – played against the backdrop of frantic visits and calls senior Quad politicians and diplomats, including the prime ministers of Japan and Australia – is that perverse impression that the invasion of Europe’s second largest country by its largest country is something of a standoff between Russia and the United States. and indian sympathies, it seems, belong to Russia in the name of their common history. But what history is India looking at?

The Indo-Russian diplomatic file

It all depends on where you look. The Soviet veto certainly protected India over Kashmir when it was used in 1957 and 1962; the subsequent implicit threat of its use also pushed Kashmir off the Security Council agenda. By 1991, when Moscow informed New Delhi that it would no longer be able to offer the same kind of cover to the UN, the appetite of other permanent members to attack Kashmir had drastically waned and India had largely succeeded in insisting that its differences with Pakistan were a bilateral matter.

However, the Soviet Union was less reliable on China. When the Chinese entered India in 1962, Moscow not only failed to respond to calls for help, citing concern over the Cuban Missile Crisis; he warned India that if New Delhi raised the issue in the Security Council, Soviet support would go to China. Moscow had also earlier suspended the sale of planes to India in a show of neutrality between the two.

India’s request for help came the United States. Although (US President John F.) Kennedy was also concerned about events in Cuba, he summoned a presidential meeting to discuss the two letters Nehru sent him on November 19, 1962. Nehru had sought arms, American fighter planes, and military aid that practically amounted to an alliance. Although the United States did not intervene militarily, it did drop weapons, ammunition and extreme weather kits for soldiers who had been sent to fight in the Himalayas in canvas shoes and cotton uniforms.

Kennedy also considered sending the USS Kitty Hawk of the Seventh Fleet in the Indian Ocean, but the Chinese declared a ceasefire before the ship left its area of ​​operations in the Pacific. It is therefore ironic that the Seventh Fleet is best known in India for the ASU Enterprisethat (Richard) Nixon sent to the Indian Ocean during the 1971 war for reasons still debated today.

The United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) underway, circa 1999-2001, with Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5) aboard. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy.

The 1971 sail of the Business cast a long shadow. Even though Prime Minister Vajpayee had declared India and the United States “natural allies” in 1999; even though Washington has done more than any other state to get India into nuclear dominant after his 1998 tests; and even if the Indo-American trade at $113 billion last year eclipse completely India-Russia tradeat less than $10 billion, the relationship is hampered by pizzazz, even distrust.

India’s dependence on Russian weapons is considerable, but declining

While it’s true that Russia is India’s biggest arms supplier, with the current focus mostly on the $5 billion S400 air defense system (signed in 2018), that reliance is descending. Moreover, contrary to popular perception, not all Indian armed forces are entirely dependent on Soviet hardware. This is particularly true of the Indian Navy and the contrasting examples of the earliest and latest aircraft carriers imported from India illustrate the point.

India bought the HMS Hercules of post-war Britain in 1957 when the Royal Navy reconsidered its need for the ship still under construction. It was completed to Indian specifications and inducted as INS Vikrant in 1961. The four air squadrons aboard the ship included Sea Hawks and Sea Harriers from the United Kingdom and Bréguet Alizés from France; Sea King helicopters; and the Alouette IIIs, which were later licensed for production in India as the Chetaks.

the Admiral Gorshkov, which was inducted into the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya in 2014, is a Soviet-era ship that was decommissioned in 1995. Negotiations began in 1994 and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU ) was signed in 1998; the intergovernmental agreement was concluded in 2000, a modernization agreement (including the purchase of 16 aircraft) signed in 2004 for 974 million dollars and the ship was finally delivered in 2014, six years late, for $2.35 billion.

The carrier has squadrons of Russian-made MiG and Kamov helicopters; the British Sea Kings, which are currently jointly maintained by AgustaWestland and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL); and the Indian Dhruvs and Chetaks (originally the Larks). India’s locally built aircraft carrier, also INS Vikrantwill be commissioned later this year. On board will be MiG 29Ks, Kamov-31s, Indian advanced light helicopters and Lockheed Martin MH-60R multi-role helicopters.

Vice President Venkiah Naidu with Navy staff and dignitaries during his visit to view India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, in Kochi which is expected to be commissioned in August this year. Photo: PTI.

The Navy is, admittedly, an outlier, but even with the Air Force and Army, the direction of travel is far from Russian dependency. While the backbone of the air force is Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi, the most recent agreements for combat aircraft have been signed with France and Russia. Significantly, reconnaissance and electronic warfare are moving towards the United States and Israel.

The military’s dependence on Russia ranges from battle tanks to bullets, but even there the picture is nuanced. India imported 70,000 AK 203 assault rifles from Russia in 2021, with an agreement for the licensed production of another 600,000; in 2019, India imported 72,000 Sig 716 assault rifles from the United States. A year later, as the Indo-Chinese border warmed, she ordered another 72,000.

The fact that India needs to import small arms, 75 years after independence, indicates the failure of its attempts to indigenize arms production with the military, it seems. unenthusiastic on Indian kit ranging from tanks to carbines.

These numbers are dwarfed by the brand decline in Russian dependency. Even though Moscow remains India’s largest defense supplier, imports from Russia have fallen from 69% from 2012-2017 to 46% from 2017-2021. Russia’s loss was France (18.4%), Israel (13.4%) and America’s gain (11%).

From zero in 2008, India’s defense imports from the United States now stand at $20 billion. This deepening of defense ties is underpinned by four “fundamental” defense agreements between India and the United States that govern intelligence sharing, interoperability and access to military technology. If they could reach their full potential, these agreements could transform relationships between New Delhi and Washington DC, making the Delhi-Washington relationship a notable exception to the alliance-related US partnerships.

However, Delhi’s rejection of US calls to join it in condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine indicates that this potential remains a distant goal.

This dissonance recalls a recurring theme of missed opportunities in the relationship between the two; one that could still have a long life consequences for India’s global ambitions. History indicates that, although militarily incompatible, India and the United States are perfectly balanced in their concern for trade; in their preaching, their piquancy and their hypocrisy. What the relation gives in defense, it withdraws in commerce; in disputes relating to intellectual property, visas and international diplomacy.

These differences matter to India’s middle class and, therefore, to the politicians who need their votes. And that, perhaps, offers the key to India’s position on invading Russia.

MEA played second fiddle

India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) may simply have let Ukraine down. Not since Nehru has the Indian MEA been so eclipsed by the Prime Minister. External relations are increasingly reduced to the prime minister’s interactions with world leaders; when AEM is heard, it is often as part of the show procedures to foreign governments for perceived affronts to India, or rejecting external rankings on democracy, human rights, etc.

During Modi’s eight-year tenure as prime minister, the MEA has been increasingly drawn into a supportive role, even at the cost of bolstering the prime minister’s domestic agenda to keep his party in power. The Ukraine crisis escalated as five states, including Uttar Pradesh, prepared for elections.

India’s MEA insisted its main objective was the evacuation of the nearly 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine. Many of them were from Uttar Pradesh and their subsequent ‘debt’ to the government was found mention in campaign rallies. As the results in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur show, these calculations seem to have paid off. A global crisis has been inserted into the business of winning the next election.

Nehru had observed in 1946 that “India, constituted as it is, cannot play a secondary role in the world. It will matter a lot or it won’t matter at all. According to him, the history of India, its variety, its indiscipline and its great inequalities gave him the right to seek a global role in which all could rise together. The current Prime Minister sees global politics as the backdrop for his national ambitions and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

If the invasion of Ukraine becomes a footnote in the history of a new India, 75 years after independence, India’s global horizons have truly shrunk.

Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher who primarily focuses on security and politics in the Indian subcontinent, particularly nuclear politics.


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