The Ukraine crisis and Bharat: Balancing triumph and tribulation.
27 February 2022
"In unison, these three compulsions also narrate the story of Bharat’s challenges today...."
As the crisis over Ukraine has entered a critical phase, most middle and great powers from Europe and Asia have rushed to either prepare for an eventuality or mediate by attempts to douse the flames. With the US recently calling a UNSC meet over the threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin travelling to Beijing to shore up its resolute stand on Ukraine, most nations find themselves on one side or the other of the emerging battle lines in Eastern Europe. Bharat, though, has avoided the strategic ensnarement. In the UNSC meet, Bharat abstained along with Gabon and Kenya, circumventing a perception of supporting the US-led coalition against Russia. In the same breath, Bharat also distanced itself from the Beijing Olympics through an official boycott, which in many ways has been projected and perceived as an anti-US as well as an anti-West congregation.
The two decisions reflect two different assessments of its interest’s vis-à-vis compulsions of the great power politics on New Delhi. While some interpreted Bharat’s absence from the UNSC meet as depicting the limitations of its closeness to the US (alongside a tacit support for Russia), its boycott of the Beijing Olympics evinced a coming of age in its strategic autonomy characterized by strong, independent, and interest-based decision-making irrespective of the nature of great power politics at play and a looming risk of antagonizing big powers. For Bharat, the decision to carefully weigh on the Ukraine crisis has balanced three strategic necessities:
1) Expectations of a close strategic partner in the US;
2) The need to maintain strong ties with Moscow and;
3) To avoid any perception of proximity to the emerging Sino-Russian axis.
In unison, these three compulsions also narrate the story of Bharat’s challenges today and the implicit need for a more accommodative evolution of its traditional strategic autonomy to a positioning that straddles balancing and hedging with occasional pushing. Bharat’s position on the ongoing Ukraine crisis undergirded by the desire to keep clear of the crosshairs of big power rivalry is reminiscent of its quintessential ‘strategic autonomy’. Bharat’s statement that it is closely monitoring the developments on Ukraine, including the diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia and its call for a peaceful resolution of the situation for long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond, showed a delicate balancing between the US and Russia. In some ways, Bharat’s position on the ongoing Ukraine crisis undergirded by the desire to keep clear of the crosshairs of big power rivalry is reminiscent of its quintessential ‘strategic autonomy’. Yet, its assurance of ‘monitoring’ the Ukrainian situation through its embassy in Kyiv and the dangers of perceptional support to one over the other has kept New Delhi’s balance in pragmatic check.
While Bharat’s choices on Ukraine may be geographically symbolic of the distance between strategic issues of the Eurasian heartland and Bharat’s core national interests, its growing role in Central Asia and increasing connect with Europe are adding compulsions against its hitherto non-committal foreign policy orientation to the region. With Bharat’s own growing role and aspirations, the tension in its decision-making could be felt more sharply in the future, especially as when the choice is between “comprehensive global strategic partnership” with the US on one hand, and its “special and privileged partnership” with Russia on the other. China’s direct conflict with Bharat and its ever-increasing bellicosity marks it as a relative outlier in Bharat’s great power calculations, where despite trade dependence on China, Bharat’s choices vis-à-vis Beijing are clearer in comparison to the other two great powers. Chinese aggression at the border and other steps against Bharat’s interests, both bilaterally and at the multilateral level, have imparted perspicuity in its China policies. The pulls and pushes in Bharat’s diplomatic balancing is likely to continue in its strategic choices in the future. Depending on how the issue weighs on Bharat’s own national interests, its navigation between the great powers could sway from one way more than the other on the strategic spectrum connecting the US and Russia.
China is likely to remain an outlier in Bharat’s calculations with more decisiveness in latter’s decisions, given the direct confrontation at the LAC along with its expansionist agendas in South Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific. Broadly so, because Bharat seeks to avoid an Asian future which is led by China. China’s direct conflict with Bharat and its ever-increasing bellicosity marks it as a relative outlier in Bharat’s great power calculations, where despite trade dependence on China, Bharat’s choices vis-à-vis Beijing are clearer in comparison to the other two great powers. In so far as Bharat-Russia relations are concerned, both New Delhi and Moscow while sharing strong bilateral ties with each other also have strong externalities to hedge against each other. These external factors have become stronger in the past decade, as Bharat’s partnerships and interests have changed and Russia continues to attempt a repositioning amidst shifting power balances between the east and the west. If Bharat’s strong relationship with the US keeps Russia on the edge, Russia has pared down its apprehensions by forging a strong relationship with China and by its intermittent signals through its relationship with Pakistan. Despite a recent controversy and somewhat mixed signals in the past, Russia remains steadfast in its support to Bharat on the Kashmir issue. Bharat also values Russian support at the multilateral level, especially in multilateral groups of which China is also a part, such as BRICS and the SCO. In larger multilateral groups like the United Nations, Russia’s permanent membership has proved even more useful to Bharat. In the immediate event of the crisis over Ukraine, the Russian deputy foreign minister’s (who also led diplomatic talks with the US over the Ukraine crisis) visit to Bharat just before Russia began its month-long presidency of the UNSC was a preemptive diplomatic scramble to balance any US pressure that may come Bharat’s way.
Bharat also values Russian support at the multilateral level, especially in multilateral groups of which China is also a part, such as BRICS and the SCO. Although the description of Quad as an Asian NATO has been rightly rubbished as a far-fetched idea, Quad members’ moment to assure each other of support along with the group’s expanding agendas could provide rationale for consolidating the Asia-Pacific front against China while the US is engaged with possible Russian invasion into Ukraine on the Eurasian front. The US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman’s discussion recently of Russia’s concerning military build-up on Ukraine’s borders is evidence that as a strong strategic partner, the US is likely to keep the diplomatic pressure on Bharat to engage on most issues of global peace and security. As the US Congress seeks a bipartisan consensus on the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022 or ‘the mother of all sanctions’, Bharat will be wary of how the proposed comprehensive list of sanctions under the bill may impact its defense trade and other transactions with Russia. Depending on the trajectory of the Ukraine-Russia tension, it may also impact how Biden administration reacts to Russian supplies of S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile defense system to Bharat which began last year, despite support within the Bharat Caucus. Above all, if Russia does invade Ukraine, Bharat should brace for a diplomatic offensive from the US, asking its partners to isolate Russia internationally.
Source: Hindustan times