The Great Debate Over India’s Neutrality in the Ukraine War

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The Great Debate Over India’s Neutrality in the Ukraine War

Commentators are split into critics, who stress both interests and values, and defenders, who focus only on interests.

The Great Debate Over India’s Neutrality in the Ukraine War
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Raimond Spekkin

India’s neutral position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine has drawn a lot of criticism in the West, although it has found a group of defenders as well. This division can be summarized as occurring between realists and normativists – or, in others words, those who consider national interests as prime drivers of international relations and those who consider both national interests and values, such as democracy and human rights, to be the prime drivers. 

To be honest, I am probably unable to be completely impartial when describing these two lines of argument: I would put myself in the realist group, and I have already presented my opinion on India’s position here. And yet, in this text, I would like to attempt a bird’s eye view of the rift between these two groups, in hopes that a summary can do justice to both sides. I will try to do this by first summarizing the positions of each side – by sharing the views of two authors per each perspective – and only then moving to my commentary.

Among the texts which in my view represent well  the normativist approach is Sumit Ganguly’s article for Foreign Policy. As the author says:

Although the abstention [of New Delhi from a U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn Russia] seems jarring for a democratic country, it is not a surprising move for India, which not only has a historic friendship with Russia but also depends on Russian weapons. […] [And yet] India’s diplomatic strategy of ducking when faced with unpalatable choices on the global stage may now have run its course. New Delhi cannot maintain neutrality under the guise of pursuing strategic autonomy, like the nonalignment doctrine before it. […] India’s failure to stand with the United States and other democracies on the Ukraine question could lead to some diplomatic isolation. India has already faced considerable censure over the erosion of democracy within its borders. It now has a moral obligation to take a stand based on its own principles. Its failure to uphold fundamental human rights and international norms of sovereignty to curry favor with Russia is likely to tarnish its image further.

Another good example is a commentary by Rand’s Derek Grossman for the Times of India:

…the geostrategic winds have shifted significantly in recent years, suggesting that India might want to reconsider the benefits of close Russia ties. Most glaringly, Russia and one of India’s top rivals, China, now maintain a robust strategic partnership. […]  Russia is also making inroads with India’s other top adversary, Pakistan. […] India’s close ties to Russia also are likely to become a liability with the United States, which has become the main counterweight for New Delhi as it competes against China. For example, India may be unable to avoid sanction under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if it continues to purchase Russian arms of a certain caliber. […] India will be expected to act like a responsible great power seeking to uphold the rules-based international order. Looking the other way on Russian misbehavior—or worse, appearing to endorse it—would show that New Delhi is not a reliable like-minded democratic partner.

Among the realists, the voice of Jeff Smith, from the Heritage Foundation, is worth bringing to attention:

We should not allow Putin’s unfolding misadventure in Ukraine to disrupt this understanding or prevent us from concentrating on the bigger prize, where India-U.S. cooperation matters most: the Indo-Pacific and the China challenge. […] On Russia-India ties, the best thing the U.S. government can do is take a step back. […] rather than publicly condemning India for abstaining at the United Nations or imposing sanctions for its purchase of Russian military hardware or energy, the U.S. government should recognize the complex India-Russia relationship for what it is: a relic of the Cold War, under duress and showing signs of age.

Another realist approach is that of James Crabtree, executive director of IISS-Asia in Singapore, in Nikkei Asia:

Much of this anxiety [about whether India is a reliable partner of the West] is overdone. India’s shift toward the West is genuine, as of course are its profound concerns about China. Recent events may even have the positive side effect of revealing India’s core interests as they actually are, and not as many in the West would wish them to be. […]  Most crucial of all, India is reliant on Russian arms, which accounts for more than half of its weapons imports, creating various profound dilemmas for Indian security. […] Finally, and most critically, there is the question of whether heavy reliance on Russian arms remains in India’s long-term interests. Recent events make clear that this curtails its strategic autonomy, an objective New Delhi prizes above all. Moves to diversify arms supplies will take time, but it nonetheless seems a likely outcome of the current crisis. […] Playing hardball [with India] risks damaging a relationship that remains critical to balancing China in the Indo-Pacific. A better approach would be to recognize that India’s security dilemmas with respect to Russia and China are real while working with New Delhi to reduce its long-term dependence on Russian weaponry.

What I find notable is that while Ganguly and Grossman mention both interests and democratic credentials as crucial aspects, Smith and Crabtree in comparison talk only of various national interests. The latter authors suggest that the United States and the West should not push or preach to India, but the rationale for this is that there is another interest at stake: containing China. 

In other words, both sides understand that there is a convergence of interests between New Delhi and the West on China (both see Beijing’s actions as a threat and want to contain it), and that there is no convergence between New Delhi and West on Russia (contrary to the West, India does not see Moscow’s actions as a threat to itself). Both sides also understand that the West should pursue cooperation with India whenever the two sides have common interests. Thus, I am not claiming that normativists do not understand interests, or that they are downplaying the China factor – it is clear they are not. The difference is that the normativists assume that despite this calculus of interests the West should still call India to condemn Russia for its invasion, as it the moral thing to do. 

Conversely, the realist authors quoted above are not really apologetic about India’s stand on Russia and do not claim that New Delhi-Moscow ties are good for the West (they are not). Both Smith and Crabtree present these ties as a reality to be accepted by the Western governments, though as individuals they make it clear they personally would prefer these ties to be weaker (with Smith declaring that the U.S. should take a step back, and Crabtree suggesting West should work with New Delhi on deals that would weaken India-Russia relations in the long term). In other words, the realists declare that Western governments have to understand that it is currently in India’s national interest to deeply cooperate with Russia and these governments should not make a diplomatic storm out of it. The normativists in turn believe that it is New Delhi that must understand that it is not in India’s interest to work deeply with Russia and Western governments should diplomatically convince India of this.

Trying to represent the normativist approach, I should also probably assume that authors of this persuasion view the image of being a democratic state as a national interest in itself. This is probably where the biggest disagreement arises. India’s loss of reputation for not condemning Russia is something Ganguly and Grossman suggest, while Smith and Crabtree do not.

On the purely normative level, Ganguly and Grossman are right, but in diplomatic practice their insistence on reputation causes a reverse effect: New Delhi will be more likely to rhetorically push back against Western criticism than to condemn Russia. This is for few reasons. First, the normativist authors conflate Western opinion with global opinion. What they declare to be India’s loss of reputation will only be a loss in the West, not necessarily everywhere. Second, what the normativists do not talk about is how such opinions are received in India (and elsewhere). They are usually read as sermons. Third, India will rightly consider this criticism as selective and hypocritical. Democratic governments also have a long track record of not condemning others when it suits them. This insistence of condemning Russia will likely be viewed by Indians the same way as the fact that Europe continues to buy Russian oil and gas while criticizing India for purchasing Russian oil. 

I think it may be quantitatively and qualitatively proven that India is being called out for not condemning Russia more than other Asian countries (other than West-allied ones, like Japan, which naturally did condemn Russia). And I do think this is precisely because India is a democracy. India is in fact, a rather exceptional case of an Asian state retaining a democratic structure throughout most of its independent existence ever since the fall of colonialism (save for the Emergency period). But in a paradoxical way, this otherwise positive fact is now working against India in the context of Ukraine’s invasion by Russia – because India is viewed as a democratic country, the bar of expectations is being lifted higher for New Delhi.

Finally, I would like to clearly state that I do believe that the democratic system and human rights are important. In fact I believe that human rights are among humankind’s greatest achievements. While over centuries states rose and fell, together with their national interests, the steady progress of human rights led to a decrease of some the worse practices, such as torture or slavery. This is a much greater development than the history of one particular country or the another. But while as an individual I view these aspects as important, I am just as aware that for governments engaging in international relations, it is not always politically prudent to uphold these values – I would prefer this to be different, but that is the reality. The U.S. government, one of the greatest orators when it comes to these values, is also the most relentless pursuer of its national interests whenever it needs to. Preaching about values to others while not upholding them ourselves was never a good way to promote them. The better way is to introduce the standards whenever we can, in our own territory, show that we are really committed to them, and hope they will spread. 

The closest parallel about the right way to deal with the interests-values conundrum is how governments should ideally treat big international companies. We generally understand that firms chase after profits and in this pursuit often undertake unfair practices, for example in the way they treat their employees. However, the way to deal with it is not to tell others to condemn these firms, but for governments to impose legal limitations on these companies within their authority (this may include limitations in our territory for how these firms behave elsewhere), and to be ready to face the consequences in terms of national interests, such as rising prices. Once these legal reforms are implemented and the governments are seen as standing firmly by them, and once the benefits of such rules are recognized by the public opinion and the media, we may hope for such standards to spread to other countries.