Russia-Ukraine Crisis: An Indian Perspective

There is a new churning in world’s geopolitics following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The world responded strongly, with the US leading in imposing crippling sanctions against Russia. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin warned the West to stay out. Even when the Russian military continued to make inroads, Putin upped the ante by keeping his nuclear assets on alert. The world found itself suddenly on the brink of an unparalleled crisis. Powered with veto power, Russia prevented the UNSC resolution in condemning the Russian move. India, China and UAE abstained from voting, saying that dialogue is the only means to resolve the crisis.

India’s stance stemmed from two visible reasons. Russia is a time-tested friend of India and has stood by it at times of crises. Besides, Russia is a major source of military procurement by India, which India is unable to overlook. Secondly, nearly 20,000 Indian students, mostly undertaking medical courses, were trapped in the crisis and their safety and safe return was a priority for the government. The death of an Indian student on 1 March 2022 led India to augment its evacuation process. There are several related issues that led to the Ukraine crisis. These need close scrutiny in order to understand the issue dispassionately and objectively. But before doing that, an understanding of the background of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine that reached dangerous proportion shall put this study in perspective.


The root cause behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence and felt unease as Ukraine was seen drifting closer to the West. The possibility of Ukraine joining the NATO or the European Union unnerved Putin as NATO shall be on the border of Russia, exposing its security vulnerabilities. At present Ukraine is part of the neither but the very fact of a possibility of that happening worried Putin. Ukraine is dependent upon both the US and Europe for financial and military aid. Putin felt that Ukraine’s potential membership of the NATO posed an existential threat to Russia.

The tensions between Russia and Ukraine started in 2014 when Russian military entered into Ukraine territory when Ukraine’s President supported by Russia was replaced by a pro-Western candidate. Russia saw this as a provocation and annexed Crimea, triggering a separatist movement in the east. Though a ceasefire was arrived the following year, fighting continued. Putin maintained the military’s presence near the Ukraine border for months. On 21 February 2022, Russia signed decrees recognising two pro-Russia breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. Two days later, Putin declared the start of a “special military operation”, justifying that he responded to the plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. Putin justified his action to stop ethnic cleansing carried out by the Ukraine forces. This has precipitated a crisis of global proportion. 

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s response was swift. The same day, he declared a 30-day state of emergency to halt further damage to government institutions by cyberattacks. This was followed by the declaration of martial law. Ukraine’s President and foreign minister appealed to the world leaders to prevail upon Putin from causing further damage to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Before analysing what transpired after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the world’s reactions of the action, it might be instructive to analyse the import of the remarks by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wherein he warned about the danger of a future war that could be World War III and nuclear wherein the NATO, the European Union and the United Nations shall be pitted against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Lavrov warned that the next World War would involve nuclear weapons and be destructive. He further warned that what if Ukraine acquired nuclear weapons, the two may lead to that eventual conflict with perilous consequences. Lavrov was only echoing Putin’s threats of the use of nuclear force if the NATO forces got directly involved in defending Ukraine. Putin ordered Russian nuclear deterrent forces on alert, which placed several European officials on edge. 

This brings us to the debate on the larger question, would Putin have attacked Ukraine had it kept its nuclear stockpile after the Budapest accord in 1994? It may be recalled when the USSR collapsed in 1991, Ukraine inherited 176 strategic and more than 2,500 tactical nuclear missiles. At that point of time, Ukraine had the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world after the US and Russia. The control systems, the so-called black suitcase with the start button, were however with the Russian President Boris Yeltsin at that time. Since Ukraine’s coffers were empty and it would have cost $65 billion to manufacture and maintain them, it could not have maintained those weapons and readily agreed to give up. The Ukrainian missiles were either transported to Russia or destroyed. As compensation, Ukraine received financial assistance from the US, cheap energy supplies from Russia, and security guarantees that were enshrined in the Budapest Memorandum. It soon transpired that the Budapest Memorandum was not an agreement on security guarantees, but only committed to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. It did not matter that Russia’s action violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  

The world reacted as swiftly as Putin’s military action on Ukraine, with the US and the EU leading the condemnation of Russia’s aggression and imposed economic sanctions against Russia. Germany halted certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. Like India, China refused to call the attack an “invasion” and called for dialogue. As Russia controls vast global resources such as natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular, the conflict left almost immediately with far-reaching consequences. Energy and food prices quickly spiked, spooking investors. Global banks too came up with sanctions crippling Russia’s banking infrastructure and choking Russia’s banking business transactions with the outside world.            

India’s Dependence on Russia and compulsions

Where did India position itself in its foreign policy narrative given its historical friendly relationship with Russia, seen as a reliable allay, while maintaining its strategic autonomy in any crisis situation? It abstained from the US-sponsored UNSC voting condemning Russia’s military action against Ukraine, the other two being China and the UAE. India viewed the decision in order to maintain its own national interests and thought was the correct decision to stay away. India also joined 35 countries in the 193 member UN General Assembly by abstaining from voting on a resolution deploring in its strongest terms Russia’s actions in Ukraine and demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally” withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised border.

India’s abstention was in line with what the government described as its consistent position that allows it to reach out to both sides to find the middle ground and foster dialogue and diplomacy. Explaining India’s position, Indian ambassador T. S. Tirumurti subtly sent a message to Russia that the UN Charter, international law and principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. India’s decision to abstain did not mean support for Moscow but reflected India’s reliance on its Cold War ally for energy, weapons and support in conflict with neighbours. But at the same time, questions are being raised if India can revisit its policy of overdependence on Russia for its military needs.       

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke with Putin on telephone and appealed for an “immediate cessation of violence” and return to the dialogue process with the NATO group. In the past, Russia stood by India by using its veto power in the UNSC whenever the Kashmir issue was put to vote and therefore cannot afford to go against the interests of its time-tested friend. Interestingly, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan landed in Moscow the day Russia launched its military operation against Ukraine and felt ‘excited’. Both Pakistan and China have territorial disputes with India. By abstaining from the UNSC resolution, China was seen to be on the Russian side. Though this could be a matter of worry for India, India is confident that Moscow would navigate its policies in such a manner that Beijing’s hard stance against India on the border issue could be managed. Seen from a larger perspective, India’s stance at the UNSC and General Assembly might not be ideal but was a better option in the circumstances. While maintaining its strategic autonomy in its foreign policy, India has to balance between the US with which it has warmed relations recently, and the Western world and Russia. Russia shall always continue to enjoy India’s priority when it comes to global strategic issues.             

This brings us to the discussion on another critical issue on the India-Russia relations, namely India’s continued reliance on Russian weapons. That has remained and shall continue to remain for quite some time as the bedrock in the India-Russia relationship. On the trade front too, both sides have set a target of $30 billion in bilateral trade by the end of 2025.

Russia has remained as the main supplier of defence procurements for India. This single issue underlines the depth of India-Russia friendship and commitment to stand by each other. The latest in this journey was that in October 2018 India signed a $ 5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system, despite a warning from the then Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may invite US sanctions. When Modi and Putin met in 2021, both leaders signed an agreement to extend their military technology cooperation for the next decade.

India’s acquisition of the S-400 missile systems is critical in countering China, though it remained as an irritant in its relations with the US. The S-400 is a sophisticated surface-to-air defense system and India expects these would give it strategic deterrence against rivals China and Pakistan. Though the Modi government has put stress on Atmanirbhara or self-reliance including that on strengthening India’s defence capability, that is a long-term goal and unlikely to be achieved in the near term. This means reliance on imports of weapons and technology shall continue. India has also diversified sources of procurement such as from the US and France in order to reduce dependence on Russia. During the Trump presidency, India concluded with the US defence deals worth over $3 billion. Similarly, it is procuring Rafale system from France. India had ordered 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France in September 2016, seen as a major capability booster for the IAF. The induction of 36 aircraft into the IAF would be a major capability booster for the IAF. The twin-engine Rafale jets are capable of carrying out a variety of missions: ground and sea attack, air defense and air superiority, reconnaissance, and nuclear strike deterrence. The Rafales carrying the long-range Meteor air-to-air missiles are considered to have an edge over fighter planes with Pakistan and China. The planes equipped with the Hammer missiles have enhanced India’s capability to carry out air-to-ground strikes. 

This being so, as the Ukraine crisis deepens, the real problem for India is how it navigates international sanctions against Russia. The missile system deal with Moscow put India at risk of US sanctions, after Washington asked its partners to stay away from Russian military equipment. It is to be seen if India can break out of its dependence on the Russian weapons. The US and others are expected to understand India’s compulsions as it would be difficult to alienate India. The realism that countries balance principles with real politicking and diplomacy could possibly bail out India from being understood.

The spate of sanctions imposed by the US and its NATO partners on Russia could adversely impact India at multiple levels, particularly with regard to materiel supplies for which New Delhi is hugely dependent upon Moscow. There is a fear that India’s military faces the grim and worrying prospect of interrupted and interminably delayed Russian defence kit.

India has developed in collaboration with Russia in the production of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and successfully negotiated a $375 million export deal of the BrahMos with the Philippines and now fears the US and European sanctions could jeopardise this. If embargoed, it could seriously threaten India’s first major overseas contract to boost materiel exports fivefold to $5 billion by 2025. India has always pursued an independent foreign policy and its defence acquisitions are guided by its national interests.

In view of the changing dynamics in global politics with shifting alliances and new configuration of power relations, the debate arises whether India should abandon its decades-old policy of strategic autonomy and take positions on global issues. If that could be the case, India might reconsider its dependence on Russia. In view of the possible change in India’s stance, Russian ambassador to India Danis Alipov dispelled the fear that the Western sanctions on Russia would be a hurdle in the supply of S-400 missile systems to India. India’s Vice Chief Air Marshal Sandeep Singh also said that the Indian Air Force (IAF) will not be significantly impacted by the US sanctions on Russia and India’s relations with both the countries remain strong.

Pressure builds up on India to review ties with Moscow

Despite its compulsions and past history of dependence on Russia on many areas, India did feel the political heat on Putin’s military operation on Ukraine. Both the US and Russia are strategic partners of India and India have carefully navigated between the two by adhering to its policy of neutrality. That has become untenable in the present context. India is a coveted vendor of arms imports for both the US and Russia. It is unlikely however that the West would recognise India’s strategic vulnerability as the limit of India’s ability to persuade Putin to change course is limited. In abstaining from the UN voting, India was seen to have sided with its archrivals, China and Pakistan. Yet, India defended that the position was in the country’s best interests. India was clearly seen ploughing a lonely furrow at the online Quad summit on 3 March when Prime Minister Modi refusing to join the three other members to directly condemn Putin’s action. The differences were directly in the open. Veteran media commentators too opined that India needs to reset its foreign policy prioritised and shift gears to deal with the new world order. The Ukraine crisis exposed India’s timidity in choosing a bold stand when needed, giving allowance to critics go see Modi’s tall claims to make India a vishwaguru, or ‘teacher to the world’ a hoax and empty slogan.           

Impact of Russia’s action on Ukraine in Germany

Russia’s military operations in Ukraine influenced other countries’ long-standing foreign policy stances. Germany initiated process of shedding its doctrine of pacifism behind its foreign policy since World War II. This speaks volumes to the gravity of Putin’s actions. Criticised for its initial placid response to Kremlin’s aggressive posturing and then invasion, Germany was awakened to the possibility that in the event of a Russian victory in Ukraine, its position in the world could be challenged. This persuaded Chancellor Olaf Scholz to take a swift position and a harsher stance against Russia. 

Amid pressure from allies and horrors at Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Germany initiated a virtual U-turn and announced to strengthen its military. It took an invasion of a sovereign country nearby and threats of nuclear attacks for Germany to shake its decades-long faith in a military-averse foreign policy that was born of the crimes of the Third Reich. As Chancellor Scholz remarked in an address to a special session of Parliament, 24 February 2022 marked a “historic turning point” in the continent when Putin ordered Russian forces to launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine. 

Scholz announced that Germany would increase its military spending to more than 2 per cent of the country’s economic output. He announced the release of immediately a one-off 100 euros billion or $113 billion to invest in the country’s woefully underequipped armed forces. He too announced to speed up construction of two terminals for receiving LNG, part of efforts to ease the country’s reliance on Russian energy. 

Japan’s economic stake in Russia

Japan, which was hesitant to impose sanctions on Russia in 2014, strongly condemned the invasion. Opinions surfaced if strengthening its military could be an option. Japan has the festering territorial disputes over the Kurile islands chain, north of Hokkaido, and this has led to the troubled relationship since the end of World War II. Japanese firms started mulling over exiting from Russia as sanctions started biting. The Japanese move came after rapid exit of Western companies from Russian ventures in response to the military invasion of Ukraine. Earlier Shell Plc of Britain announced that it was pulling out of energy enterprises in Russia, including the Sakhalin II liquefied natural gas project. Japan is an energy deficient country and depends on imports for bulk of its energy needs. Japan decided to go ahead with the European nations and the US.  Though two Japanese trading companies, Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Co. have stakes in the Sakhalin II project, which is a major source of LNG for Japan, the companies decided to cooperate with the international community, including Group of Seven nations, from the standpoint of energy security. ExxonMobil of the US also announced on 1 March it was pulling out of the Sakhalin I project in Russia.

Two leading Japanese trading houses Itochu Corp., Marubeni Corp., and government affiliated oil companies had set up the Sakhalin Oil and Gas Development Co. (SODECO). In total, Japan holds a 30 per cent stake in Sakhalin I. Japan’s automobile industry too has a strong presence in Russia. Mitsubishi Motor Corp. has a plant in western Russia through a joint venture with European automaker Stellantis. Toyota Motor Corp, and Nissan Motor Co. too have plants in Russia that are currently operating. These companies have started facing difficulties in shipping parts from Japan and Thailand to the Russian facility and considering if they shall continue operations or pull out stakes. Mitsubishi manufactured around 21,000 vehicles in 2021 in the Russian facility and this could be dented because of problems on the availability of parts.      

As economic sanctions imposed by the West excluded major Russian banks from the international settlement network known as SWIFT, Japanese companies that sell products in Russia would now face the problem of receiving payment. There are other Japanese companies engaged in other business activities in Russia and their interests would too are heavily affected. For example, Komatsu Ltd., construction machinery manufacturer accounted for 10 per cent of annual sales of its products to the former Soviet Union region. That could be hit now. As fallout of the worsening situation, Japanese companies engaged in corporate social responsibility would now ponder if such activities could continue in the changed situation. 

In 2021, Russia was Japan’s second biggest supplier of thermal coal, making up 12.48 per cent of its thermal coal imports. Russia was Japan’s fifth biggest supplier of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2021, accounting for 3.65 and 8.84 per cent of its total imports respectively. Japan accounted for 4.1 per cent of Russia’s crude oil exports and 7.2 per cent of its natural gas exports. Though Japan has sufficient stockpile of oil and LNG, the disruption of Russian supplies shall have a significant impact on energy supplies, at least in the short-term. International oil prices have already risen and its impact on companies and households not only on Japan but on many countries, including India, is being felt.    

Interestingly, in the past on such occasions Japan had adopted rather a softer stance. The return of the four Kurile Islands presently under Russian occupation since the end of World War II remains a contentious issue between Japan and Russia and therefore did not want to unnecessarily complicate bilateral ties and choose to give priority on dialogue and diplomatic negotiations to resolve the issue. This time on the Ukraine issue, Japan choose a tougher stance along with the West.  

Japan sensed the gravity of the crisis as governments, citizens, organisations and businesses around the world shared the crisis from the same prism. By coming together and condemning the Russian move, Japan stood with the world as one by sending a sharp message to Putin for his misadventure and by imposing crippling sanctions. 

As the Ukranians stood firm to defend their sovereignty and terrirtorial integrity, the world came to their rescue with Germany, France, the US, Australia  and others providing with defence equipment to strengthen the hands of Ukraine. Japan too provided with defence equipment, such as bullet proof vests, gloves, tents and helmets. This is besides the $100 million (11.5 billion yen) in loans that Japan pledged to Ukraine to support its efforts to fight against Russia. An additional $100 million was too pledged for humanitarian assistance. Respecting the spirit of Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan had eschewed from exports of any defence equipment. 

Japan’s response to nuclear threat

When Putin announced to keep its nuclear asserts on alert, putting his nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” to ensure the Russian military be able to unleash its nuclear arsenal at a moment’s notice, the threat looked real. Russia’s foreign minister upped the ante further by saying that there could be devastating consequences if a nuclear conflaration takes place. Being the only victim of nuclear bomb in history, Japan was alarmed. Japan saw the world on the brink of unparalled crisis with Putin’s nuclear threat. The influential Asahi Shimbun observed in an editorial that the use of nuclear arms would be the ultimate inhumane act and the international community must express in the strongest possible terms its utter abhorrence to Russia’s such pronouncement and threat.  

In view of the deteriorating scenario in the Northeast Asian region, this nuclear debate has been going on for quite some time in Japan and South Korea as doubts increase on the continued US nuclear deterrence and because of pressure from the US to increase security burden. Abe found an ideal opportunity on Russia’s military action on Ukraine to float the idea of “nuclear sharing”, which would allow Japan to host US nuclear weapons for use in a security crisis. (21) Whether such an idea when and if implemented would lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is in itself a different matter. But what matters is the impact of Russia’s incursion on Ukraine could have on the political consciousness in various capitals where security threats loom large.      

As expected, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida flatly rejected Abe’s idea, saying that in view of Japan’s position to adhere to the three Non-Nuclear Principles, nuclear-sharing idea cannot be acceptable. Kishida argued that nuclear-sharing would mean that the US shall be allowed to deploy its nuclear weapons in Japan even in peacetime and maintain an arrangement in which the country can load nuclear weapons onto its own fighter jets in the event of emergencies. So, the issue is very complicated. As it transpired, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has opened up a Pandora box in many countries’ security narrative. (eurasia)

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