Ukraine War: India’s Successful Navigation Through Geo-Strategic Turbulence

Offered a rock and a hard place, India chose neither and successfully navigated a difficult geo-strategic situation with safeguarding of its national interest as the corner-stone. The Indian posture has also successfully underlined a space where an independent approach to international issues can be pursued rather than belonging to blocs

By Ravi Srivastava

Special Feature Archive

The Manifestation

The Russian decision to undertake a full-fledged military action against Ukraine surprised many by its sheer audacity. The threat appeared very real to everyone but no one actually believed it would be anything beyond posturing by Russia. The ‘special operations’ as President Putin has described it, was indeed building up since December 2021.

The US felt that by releasing satellite imageries and intelligence, Russia will be deterred from the invasion. However, as the world witnessed, President Putin had clear plans for the offensive. It’s still a matter of debate as to what drove President Putin so hard. But surely for Russia, the question was not whether the war would happen but how to manage it.

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The US independently, and NATO collectively, were clear that any direct confrontation with Russia would be a sure recipe for disaster. But the war has brought major balancing challenges for India, which it was not prepared for.

Post Cold War and India’s economic liberalisation, India was treading a fine diplomatic balance with the major world powers. The aim has been to get closer to its defined national goal of self-reliance.

India was smart and successful to an extent. While on one hand it was acquiring major Russian weapon systems, on the other hand, it was given steady access to sensitive US technologies.

For India, it would be fair to thank some geopolitical developments beyond its influence which compelled the US to seek strong, strategic and closer relations with New Delhi despite its known and continuing association with Russia.

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The US and Russia both saw India as a major factor in the regional dynamics. Both continued with mega deals, while choosing not to confront India openly

The US and Russia both saw India as a major factor in the regional dynamics. Both continued with mega deals, while choosing not to confront India openly. Instances are numerous wherein Russia has expressed its discomfort with terms like “Indo-Pacific” and US senators have reminded India of CAATSA.

But as it turned out some positive diplomatic moves by India ensured all such irritants are kept at manageable levels. India knew that keeping the temperatures low is best way forward, as it will give access to cutting edge technology and investment from across the globe. But the unexpected invasion altered the setup on its head, the question was whether to choose Russia or the West? India opted to take both of them together.

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Changing Course

With the conflict extending well into its fifth month and Russia not appearing yet to lay down its war objectives, the end doesn’t seem close yet. This extended conflict has brought about certain fundamental changes which were probably unthinkable in the geo-strategic calculus a few months back.

In spite of all negative publicity by the Western press, Russia has appeared much firm and stronger. On the contrary, the US wasn’t ready for a challenge of this magnitude. The recent unpleasant experience of Afghanistan and continued coercive tactics by China appears to have considerably reduced the US appetite for undertaking unilateral military action in any part of the world.

The EU has been vertically split on taking a collective call on Russian energy. What came out of extended consultation and multiple reservations among the member states was a divided house. They looked to buy time with a hope, that the war ends before they need to take a self-destructive decision.

This extended conflict has brought about certain fundamental changes which were probably unthinkable in the geo-strategic calculus a few months back

NATO for the first time in its history identified China as the long term threat during the recent Madrid summit. Finland and Sweden shed their more than seven decades of neutrality for a NATO membership, which by all account just remains a formality now. These new realities couldn’t have been anticipated a few months back and it’s turning out to be perhaps the most consequential time in history.

The US unwillingness to undertake direct action on matters which poses immediate and clear danger has global security implications. It has weakened US’ position to set terms by itself and may have emboldened President Putin to press ahead.

Russia has successfully deterred any military intervention by NATO—not a small feat by any measure. On the contrary, the scare of Russia has been so profound that not a single European country, NATO or the US could discuss an armed response, not even for public posturing that we know.

A Watershed Period

During all this turmoil India maintained a studied silence initially with a ‘No comments’ posture adopted by the foreign office, which in itself was in stark contrast to the condemnation pouring from the world over.

NATO for the first time in its history identified China as the long term threat during the recent Madrid summit

The choice of silence couldn’t have been an absolute one, India has to state its position as it is one of ten non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, which was soon expected to vote. On February 25, a draft resolution was floated in the Security Council that sought to condemn Russian aggression and called for the immediate cessation of violence and withdrawal of Russian military from Ukraine.

India spoke for the first time as it asked for continuing diplomatic engagement and then abstained from the vote. Since then, India has continued to abstain from all voting on the Ukraine issue while articulating its concerns.

At the face of it, it may appear India is not taking any position and definitely not going along with the majority world opinion. But the Indian response has in fact, been a judicious mix of three key elements.

Firstly, India’s conviction underlines that large scale military actions are not the 21st century means as wars are too violent and destructive. Diplomacy alone is the best choice to fetch desired results.

Secondly, it’s not India’s war, if anything the US and Europe also have to introspect for pushing things this far. As it is a ‘complex situation’ adopting a right or wrong is too simplistic a view.

And thirdly, India is very concerned about unfolding humanitarian disaster and safety of its nationals. It is commendable to note how far India has gone for executing its articulated position. The Indian PM has been among extremely few world leaders who have continuously remained in communication with both the US and Russian Presidents and encouraged them to return to diplomacy.

Benefits are easy to gain but goodwill is difficult to earn. Although India has abstained from voting, it has sustained huge supplies of medical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

India spoke for the first time as it asked for continuing diplomatic engagement and then abstained from the vote. Since then, India has continued to abstain from all voting on the Ukraine issue while articulating its concerns

Finally, India undertook Operation Ganga which has been a massive and unmatched effort to evacuate almost 22,000 Indian nationals. India stationed four central ministers around Ukraine, it operated 76 flights over 12 days to evacuate all Indians and large number of nationals from friendly countries from the war zone. India did what it had set out for.

In between the war and high profile state elections at home, the government’s efforts received backing of all political parties on Ukraine’s fast developing situation and the planned Indian response. It highlighted that the Indian response has a wide political unanimity. Surely, this would have been a keenly observed moment by both the West and Russia.

Mature & Dynamic Response

The Indian position has been received with a mixed feeling. Although not entirely unexpected, it did draw variety of comments, ranging from disappointment to appreciation.

The US initially expressed disappointment and suggested India can ‘do more’, the European take has largely been that of understanding of the Indian position, while Russia expressed its appreciation. The spectrum of comments has been wide and shows the strong credibility that New Delhi holds in major capitals.

Aspects to note have been the absence of coercion, threats or talks of punitive measures.

Although India has abstained from voting, it has sustained huge supplies of medical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine

On the other hand, a strong reaction was seen from US senator Ted Cruz who said any sanctions against India would be ‘extraordinarily foolhardy’. It looked as if Indians have done their homework well as also a reflection of its maturing foreign policy.

Russia has been a trusted partner who stood with India against half of the world. India did not assess the present situation to be as grave as to warrant an all-out support to Russia. It therefore opted for a calibrated and dynamic response based on the evolving situation and that’s being very sensible.

While India’s continued humanitarian assistance to Ukraine is an expression of value it attaches to human lives in distress, it also fairly well understands the geopolitical games being played by the West, of which Ukraine leaders have sadly got their prosperous nation embroiled in.

If both parties to the dispute start appearing right, it is time to look for a third solution. India has done exactly that, it’s been India’s poised understanding of the situation which has given it the stature where it is heard, understood and being favourably responded to.

Diplomacy At Work

India has demonstrated a new genre of diplomacy where talking sense with responsibility does earn huge diplomatic capital. India firmly refused to get dragged into picking favourites and conveyed its position in unambiguous terms.

A strong reaction was seen from US senator Ted Cruz who said any sanctions against India would be ‘extraordinarily foolhardy’

The recent high level interactions and visits of PM to Europe, QUAD, BRICS, G7 and Middle East countries reflects towards acceptability of India’s position in the global power corridors.

What’s noticeable is that India has successfully navigated a difficult geo-strategic situation while safeguarding it’s national interest. India has been ‘questioned’ but not ‘cornered’ on massive import of Russian energy. The US has expressed ‘concerns’ but not ‘threatened’, for so-called undermining of Western sanctions. Ukraine has expressed ‘regret’ but have also conveyed thankfulness for the continued humanitarian support. China, in spite of being at odds with India, praised its strong independent attitude.

India also mustered support from the QUAD summit which expressed an understanding of the Indian position and steered clear of mentioning issues which were uncomfortable to New Delhi—barely touching upon current Ukraine conflict as ‘profound global challenge’.

Measure this with an explicit support to India’s concern by inclusion of unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, 26/11 and prevention of Afghan territory for use of terror activities in the joint statement. All these are indicative of a strong nation, guided by clear conscious and managed with great acumen.

Today India has successfully demonstrated, that there is space for an independent approach. But all of this would have required an iron spine which India has built up astutely over the last decade. The times ahead will witness India pursuing this new defined approach—that of offering material solution to increasingly complex geopolitical environment—an offer which will be difficult to refuse.

The writer has varied experience in security paradigm and is a keen follower of international geopolitics. He is also the author of popular blog site (geostrat.in) on geo-strategic affairs. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda