This is a republication of a post authored by Andrew Korybko, which was first published in OneWorld. It has been adapted with full permission obtained from the author.
Indian opposition member Shashi Tharoor published a piece in the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) Foreign Affairs magazine titled “Modi’s Big Mistake: How Neutrality On Ukraine Weakens India”. As could be discerned from its subtitle, he proceeds to explain why he believes that India should publicly condemn its special and privileged Russian partner in full compliance with the US-led West’s demands and even perhaps seriously consider sanctioning it too. In his view, India’s policy of principled neutrality towards Russia’s ongoing special military operation in Ukraine is contrary to his country’s grand strategic interests. The purpose of the present piece is to politely respond to Tharoor’s main points since there’s an altogether different way of assessing the situation. What follows is a collection of 21 points and counterpoints, after which some words will summarize the difference between these two worldviews.
Points and Counterpoints
1. Point: “In February, as Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border and Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities, India equivocated.”
* Counterpoint: India’s policy of principled neutrality isn’t equivocal and has been clearly articulated on numerous occasions by its representatives, who’ve unambiguously explained the reasons behind it.
2. Point: “Despite the rhetorical care the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted to appear neutral, the time may have come for India, in its own interest, to rethink its stance. Sharp criticism at home and abroad appears to have prompted India to take steps in that direction. It has toughened its language and reiterated the principles of international law it has traditionally upheld: respect for the UN Charter and the sovereignty of states, the inviolability of borders, and opposition to the use of force to resolve political issues. By hardening its tone while refraining from full-fledged repudiation, New Delhi is signaling to Moscow that even if it is unwilling to condemn its old friend, it does not exactly approve of its actions either. Thus a stance that began with equivocation has progressed to mild disappointment.”
* Counterpoint: India isn’t walking back its principled neutrality but is simply clarifying it in detail since this policy has prompted a global discussion about its position. It’s not so much the criticisms that pushed it to explain its approach even more than before, but the false portrayal of it by the US-led Western Mainstream Media (MSM). India has consistently expressed the three points that Tharoor touched upon in the final part of his quote above. There’s nothing new about any of this and it’s inaccurate to interpret it as a veiled criticism of Russia. India, like Russia, unilaterally defends what its policymakers regard as their national security red lines in the region regardless of the pressure that’s been placed upon it from abroad for doing so. In all actuality, some Indian policymakers might secretly sympathize with Russia’s position but can’t openly say so because of their policy of principled neutrality.
3. Point: “After decades of marginalization, India became a force to be reckoned with, a player of consequence in global councils, and a growing regional counterweight to an increasingly assertive China. Now, however, the West has implied that there could be consequences for India’s ambivalence.”
* Counterpoint: India’s position isn’t ambivalent but unambiguous. The West’s warnings that there’ll be consequences for its principled neutrality are a hegemonic attempt to pressure it into remaining a second-class member of the international community. They fear its strengthened strategic autonomy.
4. Point: “Despite a number of statements by Western visitors to New Delhi expressing understanding for the Indian position, India seems out of step with the passions felt in the West.”
* Counterpoint: India is indeed “out of step with the passions felt in the West” and purposely so since it sees no strategic benefit in unilaterally worsening its relations with Russia just to please the US and EU.
5. Point: “According to Indian publications including ThePrint, Germany is considering disinviting India to meetings on the sidelines of the G-7 summit, solely because of its stance on Ukraine. While the German government has denied those rumors, such reports have heightened apprehensions among Indians that their country has damaged its standing and marginalized itself in the eyes of its valued partners.”
* Counterpoint: Regardless of the veracity of such rumors, what they’ve succeeded in doing is heightening apprehensions that the US-led West is plotting the escalation of its ongoing pressure campaign against India as punishment for its principled neutrality, the policy of which has improved its standing in the eyes of the Global South where the majority of humanity lives.
6. Point: “The irony is that India has never needed Russia less. Yes, India depends on Russia militarily, with the Kremlin supplying some 45 percent of its weaponry and defense equipment. But that share is down from 75 percent a decade ago, and India has diversified its purchases to include U.S., French, and Israeli armaments. Yes, the Indian government has a history of relying on Russian support when problems with Pakistan and China—notably over Kashmir—come to a head. But support from the United States has meant that India no longer needs a Russian veto at the Security Council to keep Kashmir off the agenda.”
* Counterpoint: India actually needs Russia more than ever before. By functioning as its irreplaceable valve from Western pressure, India preemptively thwarted the scenario of Russia potentially becoming disproportionately dependent on China. Military ties remain important, as does political coordination at the UN, but they’re not the entirety of their relationship nor can they be replaced by growing ties with the US. Indian-American relations should be mutually beneficial and not ever develop at the expense of India’s ties with third parties like Russia. Tharoor’s presumption that this is a zero-sum choice for India is certainly how the US sees it but that’s not in his country’s objective interests.
7. Point: “Moscow, moreover, has become ever less reliable as it gravitates closer to Beijing, which India’s hostile neighbor and traditional antagonist, Pakistan, calls its ‘all-weather friend.’ Russia has even conducted military exercises in Pakistan—which began in territory India claims—and on the very day the invasion of Ukraine began, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was welcomed in Moscow for meetings.”
* Counterpoint: Russia has never been more reliable for India, which it regards as its counterbalance for preemptively thwarting the scenario of potentially becoming disproportionately dependent on China. Ties with Pakistan are mutually beneficial and not at India’s expense. They mostly concern anti-terrorist cooperation and commodity deals. Nevertheless, they upset the US so much that former Prime Minister Khan speculated that his trip to Moscow was one of the reasons why America supposedly ousted him.
8. Point: “Washington’s interest in India was always predicated on the justification of ‘shared values’ between the two democracies—the world’s largest and the world’s oldest, as U.S. presidents never tire of reiterating.”
* Counterpoint: Washington’s interest in India was always predicated on shared economic and security interests, not on “shared values”, which were just window dressing for disguising their concerns about China’s rise but were promoted by both for mutually beneficial perception management reasons.
9. Point: “A secular and democratic India, committed to the rule of law and the liberal international order, was thought to be an invaluable partner in global governance. This was the implicit deal, and it was a good one for India, opening up markets, supply lines, and global influence for New Delhi, as well as the new partnership of the Quad. The recent wishy-washiness on Ukraine, however, has raised fundamental questions about the extent of India’s commitment to those norms.”
* Counterpoint: The US’ support of “democracy”, “human rights”, and “values” abroad is always insincere since it solely serves to disguise the strategic reasons for why it meddles in any given society. It already accepted India’s socio-political imperfections prior to agreeing to enter into a military-strategic partnership with it but is only now weaponizing some issues related to them in order to pressure it as punishment for its policy of principled neutrality.
10. Point: “An India behaving increasingly undemocratically at home could hardly be expected to make common cause with democracies worldwide.”
* Counterpoint: India’s national model of democracy is a lot closer to the US-led West’s than China’s is, which is the only socio-political factor that’s of strategic importance to them.
11. Point: “One way for India to salvage its reputation in the West would be to leverage its nonaligned position to play peacemaker on Ukraine. So far, it hasn’t tried to do so, even while Israel and Turkey have. Ahead of the first Security Council debate on the war, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted that in a call to his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, he had asked ‘India to use all influence in its relations with Russia to force it to cease military aggression against Ukraine.’ Clearly, New Delhi’s influence with Moscow did not extend that far. India’s strategic autonomy had not won it such an influential role on the world stage.”
* Counterpoint: India has already called for both sides to de-escalate and peacefully pursue political solutions to their disputes. It cannot play peacemaker on Ukraine when Russia hasn’t requested for it to do so since both parties to the conflict must agree to this in order for it to be effective. They settled on Israel and Turkey for various reasons, which are already enough peacekeepers as it is since any more could complicate this very sensitive process. Kuleba doesn’t sincerely want India to play a similar such role but hopes to pressure it into diplomatically meddling in the conflict against Russia’s will, all with an intent to create problems in their relationship as punishment for New Delhi’s principled neutrality.
12. Point: “India’s lack of influence on Russia and failure to take a clear stand on the war have also undermined its case for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.”
* Counterpoint: India doesn’t aspire for “influence on Russia” since it sees it as an equal partner, nor a junior one, and its principled neutrality has actually strengthened its case for a permanent UNSC seat.
13. Point: “As it happens, India is currently serving a two-year term as a nonpermanent member of the council; it was from that perch that it abstained on the resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine. That decision makes it harder to argue that India would advocate a liberal vision of world order if it were given a permanent seat.”
* Counterpoint: The US-led West’s interpretation of the liberal world order isn’t perfectly shared by India. They agree on some general points like those that Tharoor earlier touched upon, but they differ over some details too. Moreover, the liberal vision of world order isn’t the only model, nor is the US-led West’s interpretation of it. Including India in the UNSC can diversify the global discussion about this.
Kuleba doesn’t sincerely want India to play a similar such role but hopes to pressure it into diplomatically meddling in the conflict against Russia’s will, all with an intent to create problems in their relationship as punishment for New Delhi’s principled neutralityAndrew Korybko
14. Point: “It is true that India, a founder of the nonaligned movement during the Cold War, has historically been allergic to alliances and disinclined to put all its strategic eggs in one star-spangled basket. But China’s recent belligerence has made it increasingly necessary for India to make common cause with others—to use their collective diplomatic, geopolitical, and military leverage to limit Beijing’s ambitions and constrain how much it can get away with.”
* Counterpoint: Shared economic and security interests unite India and the US-led West, which don’t’ have to enter into a formal alliance in order to bolster their mutual capabilities vis-à-vis China. It’s already made common cause with others for the ends that Tharoor proposed, but those same partners are now pressuring India as punishment for its principled neutrality. Not only is this unlikely to stop if India capitulated to their pressure, but it would likely get a lot worse if they sensed weakness from it.
15. Point: “At a time when Russia, weakened by its Ukrainian misadventure, risks becoming a satellite state of a rising Chinese imperium, reliance on Russia makes even less sense in the future. With Pakistan already reduced to a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the potential emergence of a hostile axis on India’s borders points to the imperative need for New Delhi to find and shore up its own partnerships.”
* Counterpoint: It is precisely to avoid the scenario of Russia potentially becoming disproportionately dependent on China that India is practicing its policy of principled neutrality in order to serve as Moscow’s irreplaceable valve from Western pressure. Moreover, there’s no credible possibility that Russia will create “a hostile axis on India’s borders” together with China and Pakistan. This false fearmongering is spread solely to sow the seeds of distrust between Russia and India.
16. Point: “If Russia can do this to a neighbor and get away with it, China could easily try the same approach next. An India that equivocated on Ukraine cannot blame others for responding with the same indifference if China decided to teach it a lesson and redraw the Chinese-Indian border by force.”
* Counterpoint: The Ukrainian Conflict cannot be compared to Chinese-Indian tensions. Those two are nuclear-armed neighbors, have the largest populations in the world, and are among its most impressive economies. Their security issues are fundamentally different than Russian-Ukrainian ones.
17. Point: “An increasingly autocratic, antiminority Modi government at home might find itself the object of greater Western criticism rather than the recipient of enhanced Western support.”
* Counterpoint: As was earlier explained, the US-led West accepted India’s socio-political imperfections but is now weaponizing them as levers of pressure to punish it for its policy of principled neutrality.
18. Point: “Worse, China could take advantage of the situation by forcibly attempting to absorb parts of its disputed border with India while the world is distracted by the war in Ukraine.”
* Counterpoint: Any clashes along their disputed Himalayan border would be due to those Asian Great Powers’ differences with one another and thus be completely independent of the Ukrainian Conflict.
19. Point: “The Quad has been weakened by India’s failure to go along with its other three members on Ukraine and on challenging the emerging geopolitical convergence between China and Russia.”
* Counterpoint: The US weakened the Quad by trying to expand its focus from the Indo-Pacific to Eastern Europe while India’s principled neutrality helped preserve this group’s original purpose.
20. Point: “India finds itself in a position where its traditional reluctance to choose sides on any major international question could come back to haunt it—when it wants other nations to choose its side.”
* Counterpoint: Despite India’s differences with the US-led West over Russia, it’s unrealistic to hint that they wouldn’t support it against China if those two Asian Great Powers once again clash.
21. Point: “At the UN, one of India’s pieties was that the developments in Ukraine ‘had the potential to undermine peace and security in the region.’ It is becoming increasingly clear that they also have the potential to undermine India’s own peace and security—in the region and beyond.”
* Counterpoint: India’s peace and security aren’t undermined by Russia, but by the US-led West’s intense information warfare against it as punishment for the country’s principled neutrality. Instead of respecting India’s strategic autonomy, they want to erode it in order to make India their junior partner.
With all due respect to Tharoor as an esteemed figure in Indian society and politics, the worldview that he expressed in his piece for Foreign Affairs is one where his country voluntarily sacrifices its hard-earned strategic sovereignty in order to become the US-led West’s junior partner in a desperate attempt to alleviate the pressure that they’re putting it under through their ongoing infowar against it. It would be in complete contradiction of India’s objective national interests to risk ruining relations with Russia simply to please the US and EU. Once they sense such weakness, they’ll likely double down on their pressure campaign and potentially evolve it in multifaceted ways in order to proverbially go in for the kill by dealing a deathblow to India’s strategic autonomy. Instead of appeasing these hegemonic bullies, India should continue standing up to them. Anything less is the path to strategic suicide.