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Ukraine War: As Russia-US Crisis Escalates, India Is Realising It Has No Safe Hand to Play

Source : The Wire

Ukraine War: As Russia-US Crisis Escalates, India Is Realising It Has No Safe Hand to Play
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India can presently be likened to a bewildered and perplexed rabbit caught in the headlights of two of its strategic and defence allies – Russia and the US – both of who are demanding its commitment to their hostile line-up on warring sides over the former’s military invasion of Ukraine.

India’s predicament just sharpened following its decision to abstain at the UN Security Council when a US-sponsored resolution condemning Russia was put to vote on Friday, New York time.

Security analysts, diplomats and senior services personnel believe that New Delhi’s paradoxical predicament presents hugely uncertain outcomes, in which it is likely to get badly scalded. But it remains to be seen, over the next few days, how severely it gets singed, as it plays out its poor hand in the high-stakes poker game underway in Ukraine, Moscow, Washington and several other European and world capitals.

The choices for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government remain stark, against the backdrop of the Indian Army’s continuing standoff with China along the disputed line of actual control or LAC in eastern Ladakh, and also with regard to India’s future long-term security alliances.

Condemning Russia for its ongoing offensive against Ukraine by land, sea and air, and backing the harsh US-led sanctions against Moscow, runs the assured risk of India annoying a dependable ally and long-standing material supplier, albeit with close ties to China.

Not doing so would similarly aggravate strategic partner and defence equipment provider Washington which is also a Quadrilateral partner along with Australia and Japan. The US had also ably supported Delhi over its Ladakh impasse in addition to being a close naval collaborator in the Indo-Pacific region.

A Grim Hobson’s Choice

Regrettably, however, much to the Modi government’s discomfiture, settling for India’s timeworn ‘strategic autonomy’ option of equitably balancing its strategic, military, political and diplomatic relations with Moscow and Washington, simply does not appear to be the default option anymore.

Ironically, the prevailing fraught circumstances, with limited alternatives, present India with the hackneyed fait accompli of whether it is with the US or Russia; both possibilities are simply unacceptable.

Serving and retired military officers in Delhi claimed that Ukraine’s annexation by Russia had, without doubt, put India in the unenviable and pincer-like situation of damned if it condemned Russia for its Ukraine misadventure; and damned by Washington and its NATO allies, if it did not.

Smoke rises from the territory of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s unit, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. (Photo: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko.)

“It’s a poisoned chalice-like situation for India,” said retired Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle of the Security Risks consultancy group in Delhi. It faces a grim Hobson’s Choice in this crisis and has to tread warily to try and find a compromise solution which will be difficult to attain, he added.

In his telephonic conversation with President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, Modi had incredulously called for restraint and “honest and sincere dialogue” at a juncture when Russian tanks, artillery and ground troops had already encircled the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and firefights in the streets were audible in television reports. Russian combat aircraft and attack helicopters circled the skies overhead, leaving no doubt that Russia’s sole goal is Ukraine’s eventual annexation. The time for Modi’s suggestion for conciliation and negotiation seemed long past, as Putin was already headed for the finish.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Delhi too expressed his “deep dissatisfaction” with India’s non-committal position on the Russian invasion, and called upon Modi to prevail upon Putin to end hostilities.

“We are waiting, we are asking, we are pleading for the strong voice of India (to condemn the aggression),” ambassador Igor Polkha told ANI news agency on Thursday. The Ukrainian ambassador, it seems, will have to wait.

US Congressmen in Washington, interviewed by CNN, too echoed analogous views, criticising India for neither condemning the military intervention nor supporting the subsequent sanctions. One Congressman even paired India with China in this regard, as one of two major (nuclear-armed) countries who had neither denounced Russia’s military campaign nor backed the ensuing embargoes. China’s stance, he inferred was understandable as it was Russia’s close ally, but not India’s, which was a democracy.

Road Ahead For India

But like the perilous rabbit, India’s alternatives in the Ukrainian calamity are daunting as sanctions on Russia would most certainly impinge on its military’s operational readiness, while supporting Washington’s stand would in no way alleviate this situation, only exacerbate it.

The US-led embargoes on Russia would most definitely impact the imminent transfer to India of four of five Russian Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems it had ordered in 2018 for deployment along the LAC and over 20,000 Kalashnikov Ak-203 assault rifles, badly-needed by Indian Army units in Ladakh and others employed on counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir.

Sanctions would also stem the supply of assorted Russian missiles, ammunition, ordnance, spares and components, essential to keep the Indian military’s predominantly Russian platforms operative. Indian Army officers warned that this paucity could prove “worrisome” in the upcoming summer months along the LAC in Ladakh when the snows had melted and an emboldened PLA, aware of its rivals’ handicaps, re-emerged as a palpable threat.

And if these sanctions endured, which by all indications they would, considering Moscow’s aim of eventually occupying Ukraine, the transfer to the Indian Navy of four Admiral Grigorovich Project 1135.6M stealth frigates – two of which are being built in Russia and two indigenously under a technology transfer – and the leasing of one more’ Akulka’ (Schuka-B)-class nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) would be endangered, if not altogether terminated.

Alongside, the export to India of critical components and sub-assemblies for the Indo-Russian BrahMos cruise missile, for which India had recently bagged a $375 million order from the Philippines, too would be imperilled and could be scrapped.

Over the past two decades, in which India has acquired almost $20 billion worth of US defence equipment, Delhi had managed to balance its strategic and defence ties equitably between Moscow and Washington. The latter had turned a Nelson’s eye to India acquiring Russian military hardware, provided Delhi also placed adequate orders for US equipment, which it did.

Under this unstated ‘accommodative’ agreement the US had also desisted from sanctioning India for recently deploying in Punjab its first S-400 system under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) enacted in 2017. The Act was aimed at penalising almost all Russian military design and production units, amongst other facilities, for its annexation of Crimea and for reportedly interfering in the US Presidential elections two years later. So far CAATSA has been invoked against China and Turkey for installing S-400 system, but Delhi seemed to have been provided a ‘silent waiver’, with Washington making occasional anodyne references to the matter and little else.

Furthermore, industry officials said that in anticipation of Washington’s pique and displeasure over acquiring the S-400, India’s ministry of defence (MoD) had, in July 2018, quietly approved the $1 billion import from the US of Raytheon’s National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-2 (NASAMS-2) for the Indian Air Force to fortify the country’s missile defence shield over Delhi.

Thereafter, the MoD also sanctioned the $3 billion import of 30 weaponised General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that were to be divided equally between the three services.

However, both these ‘placatory’ buys have since been shelved and with the Ukraine crisis erupting, it is quite likely that an agitated and frustrated US would, in all likelihood, end up sanctioning India over the S-400 as it was in the pipeline, easy to accomplish and would hurt Russia.

If so, it would only intensify Delhi’s prevailing vacillation and overall sense of simply not knowing what to do.

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