India and the US are on opposite sides of the Russia-Ukraine divide. While the US is leading the western reaction to the war, India’s stand has been much more nuanced and it has refrained from calling out Russia as the villain. Instead, India’s constant mantra is to end the fighting and get back to diplomacy, as it struggles to bring Indian nationals home from the war zone.
Will India have to pay a price for taking an independent stand in keeping with its national interests? India has refused to condemn Russian action. The war in Europe has united the western world under American leadership as never before. The Cold war barriers are back with a vengeance and Washington expects its friends to stand up and be counted.
At the UN Security Council, New Delhi had abstained from the US and Albanian resolution against Russia. It has so far abstained four times at the UN, keeping its national interest in mind, despite tremendous pressure from Washington.
The question is how will this affect the future of India-US relations? Russia has been slapped with unprecedented sanctions, making it tough for any country to do business with Moscow. The US may not put boots on the ground in Ukraine but is waging a crippling economic war to isolate Russia. India relies on Russia for its military hardware. Will these deals get affected, especially the new agreements signed during Putin’s visit to India in December?
“This is an evolving situation, and we have to see what kind of impact the sanctions will have on our own interests,” said foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, at a news conference, last week. “We have to study this carefully because any sanctions will have an impact on our existing relationships. We have to acknowledge that factor.”
“US understands India’s compulsions and dependence on Russian equipment and desire to evacuate its citizens. And US India relations are stronger today than at any other time,” said Aparna Pandey of Washington-based Hudson Institute. She added, “The issue is, India for its own sake, needs to move away from such strong dependence on Russia.” India has been trying to do just that as in the last decade bought defence equipment worth over 20 billion dollars from the US.
India’s purchase of a five billion worth S-400 Russian missile system has been hanging like the proverbial Damocles sword over India. Turkey had been slapped with US sanctions for buying the same missile system. India says that negotiations for the system began much before the law against buying weapons from America’s enemies came into force in 2017. The US had not punished India with sanctions then but that could change now. Joe Biden and his administration may not want to do slap sanctions on a country that the US hopes to use to counter China’s rise in Asia.
Washington is aware that China is a major security concern for India, and for that, it needs both US and Russia on its side. India joined the US, Japan, Australia for the quad, mainly to ensure that China’s growing military and economic clout is checked around the Indian Ocean where the PLAs naval presence is growing by the day.
But the major threat that New Delhi faces from China is around its land border in Ladakh. Russia’s presence in the region helps to bolster Indian interests. Russian hardware is the backbone of Indian defence. Delhi and Moscow co-operate closely in Afghanistan. After the Taliban took control of Kabul, President Putin was on the phone with Prime Minister Modi calling for better coordination on Afghanistan. Yes, today China and Russia have excellent strategic relations and the current crisis will make Moscow more dependent on China. Yet India is confident that Russia will not act against India. It was clear when Russia quickly supplied much-needed spares to India during the 2020 military confrontation with China. Like India, Russia does not want China calling the shots in Asia.
“India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we have with Russia,” Ned Price, US State Department spokesman said when asked about India’s abstention from the UNSC vote. Price said the two countries had “a very close relationship” and were in regular discussion about “our shared concerns.”
James O’Brien, President Biden’s point-person to oversee US sanctions policy at the State Department, was quoted as saying that the question of penalizing India would have to be weighed against the “important geostrategic considerations, particularly with the relationship to China.”
The Biden administration is aware of India’s compulsions. However, the President may have to give in to Congressional pressure if lawmakers push hard against India. With mid-term elections later in the year Biden may be persuaded by Democratic candidates standing for elections to act tough with India. As Pandey explains “While US government understands why India voted the way it did, the US public opinion and hence views in the Congress will be hurt by India’s stance and may have an impact on Congressional views on CAATSA sanctions,” she added.
Otherwise, it is unlikely that a President with decades of foreign policy experience will come down on India like a ton of bricks. He knows that it is better to have India on America’s side than push it into a closer bear hug. Yes, Washington will express its disappointment behind closed doors. But, chances of a dramatic change in India-US relations are unlikely.