Declarations of the end of the liberal international order and half-hearted responses from its own stakeholders against Putin are being watched closely by key players, including India, in the international system.
India’s refusal to isolate Russia has been met with some disconcertment, even surprise, among its American and European friends busy implementing punitive measures against Moscow. India’s position, however, follows an entrenched strategic logic. This rationale goes further than its well-documented buyer-seller security relationship given India’s heavy reliance on Russian arms (60 pct of imports). If we take leadership travel as an indicator of a state’s foreign policy priorities, for instance, Russia ranks as the most-visited country by multiple Indian prime ministers between the years 1992-2019. Even Indian public attitudes towards Russia have remained largely positive, at times only second to the US in surveys.
Russia, like its predecessor the Soviet Union, has an important role to play in India’s grand strategy as it navigates its rise in the international system. This role is in line with India’s long-held belief in ‘strategic autonomy’, going beyond non-alignment, and rooted in the vision of an international order with greater representation and more equitable power distribution. Since the end of the Cold War, New Delhi has worked across consecutive governments to move closer to this ideal worldview by forging strategic partnerships with states as diverse as China, the US and Russia, some more successfully than others.
Ultimately, rising powers are happiest in an environment that maximises their options for growth and stability. For India, that environment is a multipolar order – first, within Asia in order to balance China and thereafter, the world – and Russia has prime place in it. This flexibility presents opportunities that a return to bipolarity (US-China) does not, especially given China’s border incursions in recent years. Not shutting the door on Russia today leaves New Delhi the opportunity to keep Moscow engaged and, if it chooses to, be a bridge to the West at a future time.
All of this is to not discount the many serious challenges the Modi government now faces – the first being critical defence diversification and indigenisation in the short-to-medium term. This crisis has undoubtedly further accelerated existing policies in this direction. With Russia overextending itself in Ukraine, there are serious questions in New Delhi over the long-term disruption to Moscow’s defence manufacturing industry. There are other pressing economic challenges such as soaring oil prices and serious disruption to cooking oil supplies even as the sanctions regime targeting Putin widens.
Russia’s war in Ukraine lays bare the fault lines of a world defined by interdependence. The pandemic hastened these fissures, forcing everyone to strongly reflect inward on their national capabilities and wants. These are interesting times indeed for those among us studying power shifts and how different states – whether rising, declining or great powers – react and respond to the future order taking shape before us.