India´s Balancing Act in Ukraine

av Renu Rana, Associate Research Fellow at the Hainan Institute for World Watch, China. 

Amidst continuing crisis and regenerating animosities over sovereign claims, the war over Ukraine and Gaza has spread beyond the usual territorial boundaries. The wars over Ukraine and Gaza have proven how the fragilities in international politics can hold cooperation and globalization hostage. These unraveling tendencies of conflict are fundamentally destructive to the world in the 21st century when the world aspires to eliminate existential challenges posed by developmental and non-traditional challenges. The churn of principles and realistic opportunities has produced self-interest as the prime conduit of nationalistic foreign policies worldwide across spectrums. India is not an exception to this.

Traditionally, India’s position as a key player in world politics has been based on its equitable and principle-based decision-making in foreign affairs. However, India has pursued a non-condemnatory approach as a response to international wars or crises since the Nehruvian era, be it during the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979, or the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. India’s Prime Minister Nehru stressed in 1957, after the Soviet intervention in Hungary, “There are many things happening in the world from year to year and day to day, which we have disliked intensely. We have not condemned them… because when one is trying to solve a problem, it doesn’t help calling names and condemning.” The present set of foreign policy dispensations underlines this when India balanced between principles and national interests and chose neutrality in the Ukraine war and the Gaza crisis.

Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict, India has abstained from resolutions moved against Russia in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the UN General Assembly, and the UN Human Rights Council. At the same time, India also refrained from openly calling out Russia as the perpetrator of the crisis but called for a peaceful resolution. Though there was an increase in oil procurement from Russia, which India terms ameliorating the impact of the war on its economy, Moscow sold oil to India at 30 percent above the Western price cap and “insisted on payment in yuan, dirham, and US dollars.” Interestingly, Russia’s military hardware procurement, i.e., delivery of weapons and spare parts, has stalled for several reasons. India’s choice to balance its position on Russia signifies changing dynamics in its neighborhood and the newly emerging strategic realm called – Indo-Pacific, where Russia remains a vital player vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. These countries’ relations with India are far from pleasantries, and Russia’s role plays a balancing act.

The visit of Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, to Delhi in March 2024 raised expectations over India’s realistic stand over the looming crisis in erstwhile soviet compatriots and the Gaza crisis in West Asia whereby both Kuleba and Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar remarked that the two countries agreed to restore the level of cooperation that ‘existed prior to the full-scale war launched by Russia.’ With these recent developments seen between India and Ukraine, it is evident that the ties between the two countries are strengthening despite a pushback in the US budget towards Ukraine. India’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Ukraine war bespeaks how India’s relationship with Ukraine is not inversely proportionate to its ties with Russia or the US. The high-level strengthening of the relations was witnessed despite no compromise on India’s relationship with Russia.

India’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been distinctive among major democracies around the world; however, it is not so different from the stance taken by many in the global south. Among the UN members that abstained or voted against resolutions proposed in the UN General Assembly, many included countries from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. One of the major arguments from some countries in the Global South echoes their annoyance at Western hypocrisy towards violations of sovereignty.

India’s neutrality on the war has been dubbed by many in the West as the condonation of Russia’s aggression. On the contrary, India occasionally reiterated its interest in peaceful resolution of the conflict through diplomacy and dialogue. A few days before the conflict escalated, India’s Prime Minister Modi, in his separate telephonic conversations with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, called for an immediate cessation of violence and a return to dialogue and negotiations. Moreover, India’s statements on various international platforms, including UNGA and UNSC, emphasized international law and respect for states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Overall, India’s foreign policy behavior is poised to re-adjust its positioning in matters of acute international crisis by ensuring its constructive role and not choosing a side. Keeping its traditional stance over the void in the international financial system, governance, and multilateralism, India has been contesting the structural biases. This required India to challenge the Western disposition over institutions and structures and their self-focused policies. At the same time, India actively promotes regional stability, maritime security, and counterterrorism efforts and seeks the West’s activism. This sums up that India has been choosing its battles by calculative moves and maintaining neutrality in conflict and resolution. This transition to a pole-positioner indicates India’s belief in its ability to not only re-frame its foreign policy choices but also influence the behavior of all major and emerging powers.