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Ukraine tensions to make India’s balancing act with Russia, US difficult

Source : Deccan Herald

Ukraine tensions to make India’s balancing act with Russia, US difficult
US President Joe Biden (left), PM Narendra Modi (centre) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right). (Credit: Reuters/PTI photos)



Russia has “legitimate interests” in Ukraine, Shivshankar Menon, the National Security Advisor to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said in New Delhi on March 7, 2014 – just days after President Vladimir Putin’s “Little Green Men” – soldiers with no insignia on uniforms – seized the government buildings and the airports in Crimea. The Crimeans later that month voted overwhelmingly in favour of merging the Black Sea peninsula with Russia.

Notwithstanding protest from Washington and other western capitals, Putin signed legislations in a brief ceremony at Kremlin on March 21, completing annexation of Crimea into Russian Federation. But eight years later, as tension between Russia and the western nations led by the United States escalated once again, India chose to tread cautiously.

It didn’t speak up for weeks and when it broke its silence on January 28, it carefully avoided endorsing Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine and rather called for “a peaceful resolution of the situation through sustained diplomatic efforts for long term peace and stability in the region and beyond”. The spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi said that India was closely following “the developments relating to Ukraine, including ongoing high-level discussions between Russia and the United States”.

New Delhi has reasons to be worried over escalation of tension between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine, as it is likely to make it all the more difficult for India to maintain the delicate balance between its strategic partnerships with Russia and the United States. Moscow is likely to expand its security partnership with Beijing if a conflict between Russia and the US-led West cannot be avoided. Notwithstanding India’s growing strategic synergy with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, Russia remains the origin of over almost 86% (according to a study of the Stimson Centre) of weapons and other military hardware being used by the Indian Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Russia has been the source of about 55% of defence equipment imported by India since 2014. Even after the stand-off between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army started along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh in April-May 2020, India relied on Russia for emergency supply of arms and ammunition to bolster its defence capabilities. So, a closer defence cooperation between Russia and China, which could eventually also turn into Russia-Pakistan-China axis, is no way in the interest of India. India has already been walking on a tightrope to manage its ties with Russia and the US.

The spectre of the US CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions still looms large over India for its October 2018 deal to procure five S-400 air defence systems from Russia at an estimated cost of nearly Rs 39,000 crore. Though several US lawmakers and strategic affairs analysts argued in favour of granting India a waiver from the CAATSA sanctions, President Joe Biden’s administration remained non-committal and informally signalled that even if New Delhi gets an exemption for the S-400 contract, it should not expect the same for future big-ticket deals to procure defence equipment from Russia.

Ned Price, the spokesperson of the US State Department, said as recently as on January 27 that Russia’s “destabilising role” in the region was reflected in its move to sell the S-400 missile systems to India. India has been pointing it out to the US that while it has been diversifying its defence procurement, it cannot abruptly lessen its dependence on military hardware from Russia, given the decades-old defence ties between the two nations. It also pointed out that it needed the S-400 missile defence systems from Russia, in view of escalating tension along the India-China disputed boundary. The value of India’s weapons procurement from the US too jumped from $6.2 million in 2019 to a whopping $3.4 billion in 2020.

India is also discussing several big-ticket defence deals with the US, including one for buying 30 MQ-9 Reaper (a.k.a. Predator B) drones at an estimated cost of nearly Rs 21,000 crore. Russia has also been conveying to India its “serious concern” over the US role in Asia-Pacific “in the name of so-called Indo-Pacific strategies and (through) creation of closed bloc-type structures”. It had earlier called the Quad a ‘divisive’ and ‘exclusivist’ tool being used by the US to implement its “devious policy” of engaging India against China as well as to undermine Russia’s close partnership with India. Though India argues that its own vision for the Indo-Pacific is inclusive and not against China or any other nation, it obviously could not yet convince Russia. India is not only deepening its engagements with the US, Australia and Japan within the framework of the ‘Quad’, but also working with Germany, France and the United Kingdom to counter China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region.

A conflict between Russia and the western nations over Ukraine, however, is likely to distract the attention of the US and other nations from the region – an opportunity, which Xi Jinping’s Middle Kingdom will utilise to expand its geopolitical influence, including in the Indian Ocean. So, New Delhi clearly has a stake in the success of the negotiations to avoid a conflict between Russia and the US-led West over Ukraine. That is why it kept in touch with both Moscow and Washington over the past few weeks. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had phone-calls with his Russian and American counterparts early this month. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla received a call from US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and they discussed Russia’s troop build-up around Ukraine. New Delhi’s envoy to Moscow, Pawan Kapoor, too recently had a meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, when the progress of the negotiations to avert a conflict was discussed. The Embassy of India in Kyiv meanwhile asked Indians living in Ukraine to register with it – obviously preparing for emergency evacuation in case the escalating tension leads to a conflict.

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