Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Photo: AFP / Kenzo Tribouill

As Ukraine enters the second month of standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s so-called “special military operations,” Kiev’s Western friends continue to escalate their anti-Russian rhetoric, but with little impact. It is anyone’s guess how long Ukraine will be able to sustain itself in this manner.

So far, other than their fitful, late and limited military supplies, Ukraine’s Western friends have shown indulgences only in their repeated standing ovations to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s online speeches followed by one more bout of escalating frenzy about economic sanctions. 

What explains the inability of the US and its Western allies to stand up to Putin’s military adventures one after another starting from Moldova, to Georgia, and Crimea to now? What does it mean to US global leadership, to its equations with its newfound friends like India and to its standing up to China in the Indo-Pacific region?

Reality vs rhetoric

The reality is that the West has stood firm only in its refusal to give in to Zelensky’s requests to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, supply him with more potent defense equipment, or immediately stop purchasing of Russian oil and gas, let alone granting Ukraine membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or even the European Union, to which he has formally applied. 

Doing any such thing, they say, would entail directly engaging Putin and facing prospects of a nuclear confrontation and World War III.

The reality is that even on its main weapon of economic sanctions, the West remains a divided house, with the European Union pushing complete cessation of Russian energy imports to the end of the year, hoping that the Ukraine crisis will be over by that time. 

Indeed, in the first four weeks of the crisis, Europe paid US$18.7 billion for Russian gas and oil, thereby continuing as the world’s second-largest importer of Russia energy.

In fact, other than China as the largest buyer of Russia oil, the next five largest buyers – the Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Poland and Italy – are all close US allies. More than 40% of German gas is imported from Russia.

Therefore, Western sanctions are bound to have only a limited impact, that too in the long run, and such symbolic long-term punishment has failed to make any dent on the Russian military’s firepower on the ground. 

Upping the ante on India

It is against this backdrop that India’s decision this week to buy 3 million barrels of Russian oil seems to have tipped the balance for the US and its allies to attempt to tame India’s “divergent” behavior.

This has triggered a flurry of visits, starting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, plus online conversations between the prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom and India’s prime minister, among others.

Having barely managed to ban its own oil imports from Russia and get its European allies to agree gradually to reduce and ban Russian imports by end of this year, the US feels threatened by the possibility of India becoming another large-scale buyer of Russian gas and oil.

After all, India is the world’s second-largest oil importer, and its oil imports account for more than 85% of its total oil consumption. Especially in the face of rising oil prices and its pandemic-hit economy, India is bound to be attracted by deep discounts on Russian oil, gas and other commodities.

However, considering that India imports less than 2% of its crude oil from Russia, this paranoia only betrays the Americans’ shaken self-confidence in facing Putin’s audacity.

Indeed, in the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, India’s repeated abstentions from UN resolutions had led the US to initiate private conversations to convey to New Delhi how its “stance of neutrality” placed it “in Russia’s camp,” which it saw as “the aggressor in this conflict.”

But Moscow has had similar expectations of India standing by its side. Staying non-aligned and steering clear from military alliances has been the central axis of India’s foreign policy, and New Delhi understands the costs of taking sides.

But India standing its ground against Western prodding has made European and North American governments increasingly impatient.

On Monday, for instance, US President Joe Biden publicly called out India’s stand as “somewhat shaky,” while State Department spokesman Ned Price went a step further, alluding to America’s inability to fathom India’s argument of its time-tested defense ties with Moscow when “the times have changed. They have changed in terms of our willingness and ability to be a strong defense and security partner of India.”

On Thursday, the same sentiment – that “times have changed” – was expressed by Victoria Nuland, who after her interactions with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in New Delhi acknowledged that she saw “an evolution of thinking in India.”

She also described the Ukraine crisis as a “major infection point in the autocratic-democratic struggle” and how the US and its European allies could help India overcome its dependence on Russian defense supplies.

Western experts repeatedly allude to the annualized value of India-US trade being $150 billion compared with $8 billion between India and Russia. But that again does not seem enough. Successive US leaders have repeatedly made it clear that they would like to replace Russia as India’s main defense supplier.

India’s proactive neutrality

Without doubt, the Ukraine crisis has impacted India in multiple ways beyond this increasing cost of Western displeasure. Indeed, neither Moscow nor Washington had anticipated India standing firm on its stance of proactive neutrality as shown by its abstentions from all UN resolutions on Ukraine, including this Wednesday’s resolution by Russia. 

New Delhi’s expressed first priority was safely bring home home more than 22,500 Indian citizens, which it has done, along with 147 foreign nationals of 18 other countries. The next step for India is to explore a possible role in bringing an early cessation of the violence in Ukraine by urging talks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken with Putin three times and to Zelensky twice and suggested that “a direct conversation between President Putin and President Zelensky may greatly assist in ongoing peace efforts.”  

Showcasing its proactive neutrality, India has also already provided 90 metric tons of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

India has of course refrained from publicly condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This is attributed to India’s long-standing defense and strategic ties with Moscow.

Addressing the upper house of India’s Parliament on Thursday, Jaishankar explained what drives this proactive neutral posture of India.

He outlined this in terms of six principles: India’s call for the cessation of violence and hostilities, a return to diplomacy and dialogue, recognition that global order is anchored on international law and respect for territorial integrality and sovereignty of all states, a call for humanitarian access to conflict situations, India providing humanitarian assistance, and finally India being in touch with the leaderships of both Russia and Ukraine as well as with all other stakeholders.

He also responded to a question from a member of Parliament on Biden’s comment on India’s stand on Ukraine as being “somewhat shaky” and maintained that India’s stand in this matter has been “steadfast and consistent” and that it knows how to respond to changing geopolitical dynamics.

The China factor

Remember, India is not the only country exploring deeply discounted Russia oil in the middle of the Ukraine crisis. As noted above, China is the largest buyer of Russia oil, followed by European and Asian allies of the US that have also continued to buy Russian gas and oil. 

In fact, unlike India’s state-run oil refineries following an open process of calling for tenders, Chinese companies have been discreetly purchasing cheap Russian oil and keeping their negations confidential. 

China being the real and more enduring challenge for Western nations perhaps contributes to their expectations from and overreactions to India’s neutral posture on Ukraine, one that appears nearly identical to China’s posture. 

Russia waving the nuclear threat to keep the US engaged in the European theater and Russia becoming all the more dependent on China (and India), leaving the Indo-Pacific region vulnerable to China’s adventures, explains the US upping the ante on India. 

Or worse, it is the imagined Russia-China-India triangular partnership synergizing in the midst of the Ukraine crisis that explains Western paranoia about India’s neutrality on Ukraine crisis.

This Western skepticism of course gets especially reinforced by how, in the midst of India-China border tensions and the Ukraine crisis, Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi visits New Delhi and the Chinese media begin, out of blue, to criticize US “hypocrisy” on India’s “refusal to follow the US lead in condemning and sanctioning Russia.” 

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; president of Association of Asia Scholars (asiascholars.in); adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).