Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of the 11th BRICS Summit in Brasilia, Brazil, on November 13, 2019. India has been reluctant to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Metzel

The last two months of the Ukraine crisis have pushed Europe to the center stage of India’s foreign policy. But what is more interesting is how this has brought India increasing attention and engagement from so many of European leaders, including the president of the European Commission.

What explains this growing Indo-European proximity, and what does it entail for the much-anticipated post-pandemic, post-Ukraine-crisis realignments in global politics?

For India, the last nine weeks have surely brought greater visibility, even greater credibility, to international narratives on the Ukraine crisis. This trend is expected to gain further traction next week when Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes his first foreign visit of the year to Germany, Denmark and France. 

At the least, this will see Modi confabulating with the leaders of seven European nations during this short but hectic three-day visit – reviving his hyperactive fly-by-night “hug” diplomacy that had been somewhat dwarfed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But this trip could also herald tectonic changes by accelerating the process of building a far more autonomous, even post-American, phase of India-Europe synergies. These trends may have been triggered by the Ukraine crisis evincing both the relative decline of US global leadership as well as the system-shaping potential of the rapidly growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing.

Modi’s Europe trip

After recent weeks witnessing a spree of foreign leaders’ quick-succession visits to New Delhi – including the seventh edition of India’s Raisina Dialogue this week hosting 17 foreign ministers, three former prime ministers, one former president and more than a thousand delegates from 99 countries – the coming week will see Modi engaging a much wider spectrum of European leaders and other relevant domestic constituencies.

Modi only recently hosted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and held audiences with the foreign ministers of China, Russia, the UK, Germany and others. Recent weeks also saw Modi holding online talks with President Joe Biden, President Vladimir Putin, President Volodymyr Zelensky, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and others.

Modi’s first stop on Monday will be Berlin. Germany is India’s largest trading partner in Europe, with more than 1,700 German companies operating in India while more than 20,000 Indian nationals are studying in Germany.

But what is most significant is that, like those of several other European nations, German leaders have also begun openly to express their belief that no major global problem can be solved without engaging with New Delhi. This new spirit marked their celebrations last year of the 70 years of Indo-German diplomatic ties plus 20 years of their strategic partnership.

Europe’s internal churning

In Germany, Modi will be taking his first in-person meeting with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who took office last December. He replaced the longest-serving German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who had come to be seen more like the leader of Europe and was credited for Germany continuing as Europe’s most powerful economy. 

The Ukraine crisis has seen Scholz announce a €100 billion (US$105 billion) boost in military spending that his Finance Minister Christian Lindner described as “an investment into our freedom.” And this Thursday, the Bundestag passed a resolution on “comprehensive support for Ukraine,” formalizing new proactive German posture. 

This not only shows Scholz claiming his share of European leadership while French President Emmanuel Macron was busy fighting tough election battles at home, and defending the failure of his shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kiev, but this shift in German strategy could also ignite dormant calls for greater European autonomy in international politics.

This also means that in the face of fast-changing circumstances, Ukraine is bound to be an important issue in Scholz’ deliberations with Modi. But as Tobias Lindner, minister of state at the German Foreign Office, indicated in his speech at New Delhi’s Raisina Dialogue this week, Chancellor Scholz will try to “pull” India closer to the German position rather than “push India” into condemning President Putin.

Bilateral partnerships

Though Ukraine will be an overarching issue during Modi’s Europe trip, he will be guided by India’s respective bilateral partnerships with his host nations. In Berlin, apart from their bilateral talks, Modi and Scholz will co-chair the sixth edition of the India-Germany Inter-Governmental Consultations (IGC) that meet every two years alternatively in India and Germany.

The IGC was last hosted in New Delhi in October 2019 when then-chancellor Angela Merkel came with a large delegation including 12 of her senior ministers, providing a new boost to Indo-German partnerships. This should make Modi’s deliberations with Merkel’s successor less vulnerable to their variance on the Ukraine crisis.

Likewise in Copenhagen, Modi and Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen will co-chair a meeting of the India-Denmark Green Strategic Partnership, which was set up during their virtual summit in September 2020. It aims to build bilateral partnerships in various green technologies aimed at exploring sustainable solutions in sectors like renewable energy.

Modi will also attend an India-Denmark Business Forum, address the Indian diaspora and call upon Queen Margrethe II. The fact that only last October, India hosted Frederiksen as the first head of government to visit India after the pandemic period should provide some guidance to their bilateral dialogue.

But the most substantial part of Modi’s Denmark visit will be the second India-Nordic Summit. Here, in addition to host Denmark, Modi will interact with the leaders of four other Nordic nations: Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of Norway, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland.

This six-nation India-Nordic Summit will focus on such issues as their post-pandemic economic recovery, climate change, innovation and technology, renewable energy, the evolving global security scenario and the Arctic region. 

New regional alignments

The US is the only other major power ever to have had such a summit with all five Nordic national leaders. A US-Nordic Summit was hosted by then-president Barack Obama in May 2016 in Washington.

China has since come to be the other new energetic contender cultivating Nordic leaders. There has been much focus on China’s investments in the Arctic regions, estimated at roughly US$90 billion between 2012 and 2017. It is against this backdrop that the first India-Nordic Summit was held in Stockholm in April 2018. This second India-Nordic Summit was delayed by the pandemic, though Modi has held online summits with individual Nordic leaders. 

Moreover, India has been historically engaged with this larger region, which undergirds New Delhi’s newfound alignment with Nordic leaders. India was one of the original High Contracting Parties to the Svalbard (formerly Spitsbergen) Treaty of February 1920 that had set up the first formal legal frameworks for the Arctic region.

India is currently an observer in the Arctic Council and has carried out 13 expeditions to the Arctic region. But the Ukraine crisis has surely accelerated India’s interest in this region, leading last month to the Ministry of Earth Sciences issuing “India’s Arctic Policy: Building a Partnership for Sustainable Development.”

The last short, yet most critical, stopover by Modi on May 4 will be in Paris. Modi last visited France as a special invitee to the 2019 Biarritz Group of Seven Summit. Next week’s stopover will make him the first foreign leader to be hosted by Macron after his historic victory for his second term in office.

This was Macron’s most intensely contested presidential election, and the rising popularity of far-right leader Marine Le Pen – who lost in the end – has triggered speculations of its implications for the overall unity of Europe. That unity remains a prerequisite for Europe becoming a more autonomous player in world affairs, and for its collective engagement with India.

The way forward

Speaking at New Delhi’s Raisina Dialogue this week, the president of the European Commission and chief guest of that event, Ursula von der Leyen, underlined her commitment to ensuring that Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustified” aggression in Ukraine will turn out to be a “strategic mistake.”

That sentiment certainly remains pervasive across Europe, with several leaders reflecting their discomfiture with India’s proactive neutrality in the Ukraine crisis. It remains troubling, though the West in general, and European leaders in particular, have begun to appreciate India’s neutral posture. 

India so far has not called out Russia’s so-called “special military operations” in Ukraine as an instance of open aggression, let alone condemned it altogether.

But far from distancing itself, India’s posture of proactive neutrality has evolved over time from showing “concern” or “regret,” to “deploring” events in Ukraine, to then calling for respect for the UN Charter and international law, to underlining the sanctity of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and finally calling for an independent investigation into the the Bucha massacre

This surely makes the West hopeful about European nudging India closer to their perspectives, if not making India openly condemn Russia’s actions. Modi’s Europe trip next week is expected to fine-tune some of the continuing disjunctions.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.