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Don’t Alienate India Over Ukraine

A prudent U.S. foreign policy would avoid alienating India and take New Delhi's interests into account.

Ever since the U.S. lifted sanctions on India for its procurement of nuclear weapons in 2001, India has attempted to maintain its historic relationship with Russia while tightening its relationship with the United States—a balancing act that was just made even more complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rather than forcing India to pick a side between democracy or liberals’ latest Hitler, however, a prudent U.S. foreign policy would avoid alienating India and take New Delhi’s interests into account.

India, the world’s second-most-populous country and sixth-largest economy, has a vital role to play in America’s primary foreign-policy imperative: creating a coalition of nations that can prudently compete with a rising China and contain China’s ambitions to create parallel political and financial systems. While Moscow bears ultimate responsibility, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine confirmed what realists and restrainers have long suspected: Liberal idealism has led the U.S. to pursue incoherent and myopic policies that have alienated Russia and squandered the opportunity to bring Russia into this coalition of nations. Further escalation from both the U.S. and Russia since the invasion began all but guarantees that routes to rethink and repair this relationship are closed for the foreseeable future. As the U.S. continues to respond to Russia’s invasion, it must remain vigilant regarding potential downstream effects that could alienate other nations.

Thus far, India has remained more or less neutral with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India abstained from a vote to trigger an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly on Feb. 27. But the ayes had it, and the U.N. General Assembly entered into its 11th emergency session. One of the products of that emergency session was the passage of a mostly symbolic resolution on March 2 ordering Russia to cease its invasion of Ukraine and withdraw its military back inside its own borders by a vote of 141 to 5. Again, India abstained.

T.S. Tirumurti, India’s ambassador to the U.N., posted an explanation for India’s choice to abstain from voting on the March 2 resolution on Twitter. While “India urges that all Member States demonstrate their commitment to the principles of the UN Charter, to international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states,” the posted document read, “keeping in view the totality of the evolving situation, India has decided to abstain.”

Though some interpreted India’s abstention as an endorsement of the Russian invasion, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been one of the most vocal leaders in favor of peace negotiations. In telephone calls with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Modi has urged the pair to find a diplomatic solution, offering  “to contribute in any way towards peace efforts.”

“Despite the Manichean mindset and the ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric in the Free World, much of the Global South (where 85 percent of the world live) have taken a neutral stand with regards to the Ukraine conflict,” Arta Moeini, the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy’s research director, told The American Conservative via email. “While most have condemned the violence and called for a negotiated ceasefire, they also understand the origins of the conflict in NATO expansion and the years of brinkmanship on the part of the U.S. and its allies.”

India’s most direct interest in the Ukraine crisis has been evacuating Indians stranded in Ukraine and attempting to negotiate a safe corridor in Sumy to ensure the safe evacuation of Indian nationals and students trapped there. On March 1, an Indian citizen was killed in Kharkiv.

Though India has encouraged peace, India has made it clear that it will not forgo cooperation with Russia when such cooperation is in its national interest, as its historical relationship with Russia suggests.

India, Moeini claimed, “has a long diplomatic history of a non-aligned posture going back to its independence and the geopolitics of the Cold War, trying to balance against China, U.S., and the USSR (Russia). Despite its closer ties to Washington under PM Modi, India puts a premium on sovereignty and resists being part of anyone’s orbit.”

As Moeini said, the relationship between India and Russia dates back to 1971 when India and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation to last for 20 years. Though India was one of the founding members of the Cold War’s Non-Aligned Movement, India entered into the agreement with the USSR because it was in India’s interest to receive weapons from the Soviets for its conflict with Pakistan, a nation the U.S. was arming and using as a go-between as it opened up to China.

The Soviets supplied India with arms for a bargain, and India continued to expand and modernize its military. This relationship has persisted despite the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. To this day, Russia remains the largest global exporter of arms to India. Two-thirds of India’s defense imports have come from Russia since 2010, and a majority of India’s weaponry is either Soviet or Russian in origin. One of the major developments in the Russia-India defense relationship was India’s purchase of five units of the Russian S-400 missile defense system for just under $5.5 billion, despite its opening India up to the possibility of U.S. sanctions through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). 

It seems the Biden administration is not keen to enact CAATSA sanctions on India in light of Russia’s invasion, given State Department spokesperson Ned Price told members of the media Tuesday that there was not “anything new to update you on when it comes to the applicability of CAATSA. We continue to work with Congress and our Indian partners on these issues.”

Certainly, putting more pressure on India via CAATSA sanctions would result in pulling India towards Russia and, indirectly, China. Though China is India’s second-largest trading partner (behind the U.S.), ongoing disputes between the two nations—such as their disagreements over their shared border that stretches 3,500 kilometers—makes it very unlikely India will fully embrace China. But India’s disposition towards America’s “over-reliance on sanctions, the weaponization of the Dollar, and the leveraging of the global financial system to advance perceived U.S. interests” is one of “extreme concern and tantamount to economic warfare,” Moeini told TAC.

Dan Caldwell, Stand Together’s vice president of foreign policy, said, “India’s response to the immoral Russian invasion of Ukraine is yet another example of why the ‘authoritarian vs. democratic’ framework that many in the American foreign policymaking community use is the wrong way to look at how countries behave.”

“Ultimately, even democracies like India are going to act in their own interests even if it means aligning themselves in certain situations with authoritarian regimes that don’t share their values–just like the United States has done repeatedly throughout its history,” Caldwell told TAC in an email.

Actions that force India to choose a side could incidentally pull India into China’s orbit, given Russia and China’s recent “no-limits” partnership that provides a loose framework for the two countries to cooperate in creating a Chinese-dominated political-economic system.

The same would hold true if the U.S. cracks down on India for having negotiated access to discounted Russian energy to ease energy-related inflationary pressures. Last week, Indian Oil Corp., under the ownership and purview of India’s Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, agreed to buy 3 million barrels of crude oil from Russia after Russia reportedly offered India a discount of 20 percent below global benchmark prices. Hindustan Petroleum Corp., another state-run energy outfit, has reportedly ordered another 2 million barrels.

After news broke that India would move forward with purchasing Russian energy at a discount, White House press secretary Jen Psaki urged India to “think about where you want to stand when history books are written.”

Psaki’s comment perfectly encapsulates the liberal impulse to turn every issue into an ultimatum. It is emblematic of the hubris that has squandered America’s credibility and played a major part in creating the mess we find ourselves in. A prudent U.S. foreign policy would avoid the use of such melodrama to ensure our words are taken seriously when the situation demands we speak in stark terms.

And for what? Five million barrels of Russian Oil? India’s energy demand is expected to rise nearly 10 percent this year to 5.15 million barrels per day, and Russian imports make up just about 3 percent of India’s total energy supply. India imports about a quarter of its energy from Iraq, almost another fifth from Saudi Arabia, and about 10 to 15 percent from the United Arab Emirates.

Other U.S. officials’ comments were slightly more tactful. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, who encouraged the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests in 2014, told an Indian media outlet after meeting with India’s foreign secretary that the U.S. wanted to help India “find alternative sources” to Russia over time, “whether it’s with regard to the security relationship, the energy relationship, etc.” Over the weekend, the United States, which provides somewhere between 8 and 9 percent of India’s energy, reportedly struck a deal with India to increase that figure by 11 percent.

But if India refuses to get on the off-ramp the U.S. has promised to provide and increases the amount of energy it imports from Russia, Russia’s share of Indian energy will probably remain far below that of European countries like Germany. Nevertheless, a marginal increase in India’s supply of cheap Russian energy could offer the country a way to curb the effects of surging energy prices, which India has felt acutely as the third-largest energy importer in the world, purchasing about 85 percent of the oil it consumes from foreign countries.

Its reliance on energy imports helps explain why India is reportedly working with Russia to establish a rupee-ruble mechanism to facilitate trade, as Western sanctions have limited Russia’s ability to deal in dollars and euros. Such a move on India’s part is not without precedent. During the Cold War, India and the USSR set up a similar rupee-ruble exchange system to circumvent the dollar-dominated economy.

A U.S. response that places excessive amounts of pressure on India to cut ties with Russia would surely backfire in the long run.

“Coercive pressures on New Delhi to forgo its strategic autonomy and bandwagon with the West will only alienate India,” and “likely accelerate trends toward the decoupling and the de-dollarizing of the global economy—threatening long term U.S. interest in retaining its financial primacy through the power of the dollar for short-term moralism that is of doubtful benefit in bringing peace to Ukraine,” Moeini claimed.

If America’s ideology-driven foreign-policy establishment doesn’t think carefully about how its schemes to exact punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could affect key strategic partners like India, Russia might not be the one who ends up isolated.

about the author

Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don't include the word "Daily." He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.

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