How The Russia-Ukraine Crisis Impacts India’s Strategic Priorities
As narrated to BloombergQuint.
The initiation of Russian military operations in Ukraine makes it more difficult for India to navigate between the United States and Russia. The partnership with the U.S. is important for India at this juncture for balancing China in the Asia Pacific region, and the challenge that China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour poses to peace and security and prosperity of this region. On the other hand, we have a traditional strategic relationship with Russia, where 60% of India’s defence equipment is still of Russian origin. There are many high-tech areas of cooperation with Russia, including nuclear energy, space, and the joint production of certain weapon systems such as the BrahMos missile. Therefore, India has sought to maintain its relationship with both countries on a good path without really having to choose between them. While the developments in Ukraine make it more complex for India to continue to navigate between the two, we have no option but to try to continue doing that.
Balancing Russia Ties With India’s Other Strategic Interests
The economic relationship with Russia has gone downhill after the rupee-rouble trading arrangements collapsed when the Soviet Union collapsed but the defence and strategic relationship continues to be strong. No country will want to see a disruption of its defence supplies —especially when India is getting complex and sophisticated systems like the S-400 missile system from Russia—with the threat that we face from China and, of course, with Pakistan, our relationship has always been a one of difficulty. Given these circumstances, India would certainly like to preserve its relationship with Russia built upon what we have. At the same time, we would like to continue to build on our relationship with the U.S., particularly because our interests converge much more with the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific than with Russia.
If you look at the period when China has started asserting itself far more and became aggressive in the pursuit of its national interest, or what it considers its national interest, it matches the period when the U.S. was bogged down with the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, China continued to assert itself because America’s focus was elsewhere. Seeing that recur would be unfortunate, not just for India and the Asia Pacific, but also for the U.S. That’s because the U.S. has itself identified China as the main challenge, or the number one global challenge. Meanwhile, Russia has strategic parity with the U.S. in terms of nuclear arms and defence, but economically and technologically… in terms of its economic prowess, it is not really a serious threat to the U.S. Russia has got a resource-based economy that is based largely on energy, gold, diamonds, etc. On the other hand, China is the country that poses the possibility of seeking to replace the U.S. as the number one global power and asserting its hegemony – this is both in the economic realm as well as in the strategic realm. China’s expenditure on nuclear weapons and its defence expenditure continues to rise on a steady path.
India will have to wait and see what the American reaction to the latest developments is, in the context of the waiver the U.S. is considering for India to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA following India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. It would be difficult to pre-judge that outcome at this moment, but the mood now would make it far more difficult.
To what extent does the U.S. impose extraterritorial sanctions in terms of countries which have relationship with Russia? To what extent would India have to weigh its interests in the U.S. against our interests with Russia?
Those are the questions India will have to prepare for.
Impact On India’s Energy Strategy
While the economic relationship has waned, there is significant foreign investment both ways between India and Russia, in some of each other’s petroleum sector assets. Since that is old investment, there may not be any immediate impact as the sanctions being imposed in reaction to the latest offensive are targeting new investment – no new investments, trade, no new Russian bonds in the western stock markets, and so on. The western countries haven’t targeted old investment – and it's difficult to do that.
Russian investment in India will continue, and India will look after its own interest in these sectors because energy is going to be an area that is going to feel the immediate impact of these tensions. Germany has already put the clearance for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on hold. Tensions that include a major oil and gas supplier like Russia will push up the price of oil and could also make commodities like natural gas more scarce as Europe seeks to make up for the shortfall in future gas supply they would face as a result of stopping on Nord Stream 2. Several European countries were to get gas from this pipeline, apart from just Germany.
Past, Present, Future
In a sense, we are seeing a replay of old attitudes in Europe, when the circumstances no longer warrant so. Going back to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new security structures that emerged in Europe were really predicated on continuing Russian weakness. Those structures exploited Russian weakness with a certain deafness to Russia’s core concerns that NATO should not expand into areas that were part of the former Soviet Union, which it considers as directly threatening its security.
After the 2008 meeting in Romania during the time of the George Bush Administration in the U.S., NATO agreed to keep both Ukraine and Georgia on the waitlist for membership. After that, tensions rose in Georgia, and Russia occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves which were separated from Georgia. You are now seeing the same pattern play out in Ukraine. This Russian behaviour is unfortunate because the assumption of influence through military force is not as per international law, and violates peace.
Everyone will now watch closely as to where Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to stop this offensive. Does it stop with these two enclaves – Donetsk and Luhansk – which the Russia-aligned separatists have under their control? The territory these two breakaway states claim as their region is a larger area than how the west sees it. Is Putin going to look at that as a whole region, or will operations extend well beyond? It would not make any sense to extend this operation into western Ukraine, where the people will fiercely resist Russia. In eastern Ukraine, which might give Russia a direct land route to Crimea, we have to wait and watch where it goes. Depending on what Putin does, the consequences of enhanced sanctions will follow. We will then have to see how the west responds to it and what the impact of that is on global trade, investment, energy supplies, and specifically how they impact India.
Meera Shankar is a former Indian Ambassador to the United States and Germany.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.