Russia and India’s strategic autonomy

C. RAJA MOHAN

DELHI’S election, at the end of 2020, as a member of the United National Security Council for the years 2021-22 was seen as a great strategic opportunity to showcase rising India’s potential to play a larger international role. India’s assistance to other countries in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 justified the image of a new and self-assured India contributing to the management of global challenges. But Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 demonstrated to Delhi that it had little freedom of action in addressing what could go down as one of the most consequential geopolitical crises of the 21st century. 

India’s enthusiasm for global leadership got a fresh lease of life as it took charge of the G-20 forum in December 2022. India’s efforts to pursue this ambition are likely to be dampened by the war in Ukraine and Delhi’s much valued special relationship with Moscow. Russia’s relations with the US and Europe are at a historic low thanks to its failing effort to occupy Ukraine. But Moscow does not appear ready to draw the lessons from the misadventure in Ukraine. As the war in Ukraine continues into 2023, Delhi’s chairmanship of the G-20 is likely to consumed by efforts to limit the impact of the European crisis on its international relations.

The war in Ukraine has brought into sharp focus the role of Russia in the Indian worldview. India’s reluctance to criticize Russian aggression against Ukraine, and its repeated abstention in the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) debates on the issue, have met with much criticism in western quarters but naturally won some approbation from Moscow as a balanced position. While India can live with some western criticism, Delhi cannot escape the fact that it is the entrenched Russian connection that now constrains India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ in the international sphere.

One of the great secrets of Indian foreign policy discourse is this: the idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ was in the past directed at the US and the West. It was always invoked to limit strategic cooperation with America and Europe and rarely figured in the context of other powers. In fact, Russia was seen as a critical element in securing India’s strategic autonomy from the challenges presented by the West. But today it is the United States that seems poised to boost India’s strategic autonomy amidst the rise of an assertive China; and Russia has increasingly become a complicating factor in the pursuit of India’s strategic autonomy. The essay is an attempt to capture this great inversion in India’s international relations. 

This essay begins with a brief assessment of the doctrine of strategic autonomy, then looks at the slow but definitive transformation in the context of the doctrine in recent years and reflects on the intellectual challenges for the Indian foreign policy elite in coming to terms with the nature of the Russian state and the consequences of its imperial ambitions under President Vladimir Putin. The longer Delhi takes to get out of the ‘long infatuation’ with Moscow – in the memorable phrase of Congress leader Shashi Tharoor – the higher will be the costs for India’s foreign policy.

Since the end of the Cold War, the idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ dominated India’s foreign policy discourse. Most scholars of Indian foreign policy argue that ‘strategic autonomy’ is merely a mutation of India’s non-alignment that dominated its diplomatic posture during the Cold War. Whatever its origins, ‘strategic autonomy’ has emerged arguably as the principal identity of India’s international relations in the 21st century. Others, however, point to ‘multi-alignment’ as India significantly expanded its engagement with all the major powers.

Delhi’s relations with the West have never been as close as they are today, while Delhi continues to abide by its Russian partnership while seeking to maintain a reasonable relationship with China despite the renewed border conflict. The academic discourse on ‘non-alignment’, ‘multi-alignment’ and ‘strategic autonomy’ tends to miss the role of ideology in shaping India’s foreign policy. The ideas of non-alignment and ‘strategic autonomy’ are not mere exercises in value-free navigation between the great powers.

Contrary to the image of abstract but important goal, strategic autonomy is an expression of persistent postcolonial Indian political discomfort with the West. In that sense it is no different from the concept of non-alignment. On the face of it, non-alignment is viewed as keeping away from rival powers. But in practice it became one of keeping distance from the West. Non-alignment was not about neutrality, or equidistance from great powers. It was tinged anti-colonialism, resisting western hegemony as well as notions of Asian and Third World solidarity. In the immediate post-Cold War period it moved towards the construction of an active anti-western coalition with other powers like Russia and China.

Looking back to a century, anti-colonialism has unsurprisingly dominated the Indian worldview that emerged in the interwar period. In seeking to develop an independent postcolonial foreign policy, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, actively distanced the country from the West. For the new nation builders in postcolonial India, the Soviet Union offered not only a political alternative to western imperialism, but also a model for accelerated economic development. His preference for the socialist economic policies privileged the public sector, constrained domestic capital, and weakened India’s commercial links with the West. This in turn was accompanied by a steady expansion of the Soviet role in the Indian economy.

At the same time, a large section of the elites at the centre and left of the political spectrum had developed genuine political warmth towards the Soviet Union. In the interwar period, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 inspired left wing movements in India. For the progressives, Soviet Russia was a natural ally in the struggle against neocolonialism and the continuing hegemony of the West. For the foreign policy community, Russia was a valuable instrument in blunting the Anglo-American diplomatic activism on Kashmir in the UNSC. In the 1950s, Russia repeatedly used its veto in the UNSC to block proposals on the Kashmir question. The 1960s saw India turn to Russia for weapons and over the decades it emerged as a reliable supplier of advanced weapons for India.

As Indian politics took a leftward and populist turn in the 1960s and 1970s, anti-Americanism acquired a powerful hold within the Indian political and intellectual classes. The US tilt towards Pakistan in the 1971 War to liberate Bangladesh consolidated anti-US sentiment. The Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971, the deepening distrust of the United States (US) through the Cold War was matched by growing popular trust and faith in Russia.

There was a moment during the Cold War when this pattern appeared set to break President John Kennedy’s plans to build a significant security partnership with India in the wake of the Chinese aggression in 1962 petered after his assassination. Sino-US rapprochement in the 1970s ended up reinforcing the India-Soviet strategic partnership from the 1970s. India’s close ties with the Soviet Union were not without costs. Despite its commitment to non-alignment and opposition to great power aggression, Delhi found it hard to criticize the Russian invasions of other countries – Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979).

India’s ambivalence towards Russian actions amid strong criticism of western interventionism surely made Delhi appear tilted to one side (pro-Soviet) rather than non-aligned. Clearly, the Russian support on Kashmir and the growing military relationship with Moscow shaped India’s attitudes. This situation did not immediately change after the Cold War. Russia continued to loom large even as India’s political and economic engagement with the US and Europe picked up after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In fact, the 1990s saw India move towards forming a coalition with Russia to constrain the United States in the name of promoting a ‘multipolar world’. That was a major departure from the
idea of non-alignment – staying away from great power blocs. The 1990s saw the idea of strategic autonomy increasingly replace non-alignment as the foreign policy doctrine of India.  

In the early 1990s, strategic autonomy was about creating space for India against the overweening American power after the collapse of the Soviet Union – the so-called unipolar moment. What were the specific circumstances of the early 1990s that led India to emphasize strategic autonomy against America? And how have they changed over the last three decades?

In his first term (1993-97), President Bill Clinton questioned the legitimacy of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India and declared the US’s intent to resolve Delhi’s Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. On top of its Kashmir activism, Washington insisted on rolling back India’s nuclear and missile programmes. If Pakistan fanned the fires of a fierce insurgency in Kashmir, the US declared that J&K was the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint.

All that changed over the last three decades. Under Clinton’s successors, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, Washington discarded its itch to mediate on Kashmir, resolved the nuclear dispute, and widened economic and political cooperation with Delhi to become India’s most important strategic partner. A rising China, in contrast, has emerged as the biggest challenge to India and the US is increasingly an important part of the answer. This structural change has made the traditional perception of strategic autonomy as a counter to the West disconnected from ground realities.

First, with China’s growing military power, the PLA has become more assertive on the contested boundary in the Himalaya. The agreements on maintaining peace and tranquillity on the border negotiated in the late 1980s and early 1990s unravelled amidst a series of military crisis with China in 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2020. As Delhi came to terms with the intensity of the Chinese challenge, support from the US and its allies became valuable. Second, on the Kashmir question, it is China that rakes up the issue at the UNSC while the US is helping India to block China’s moves. Third, on cross-border terrorism, the US puts pressure on Pakistan and China protects Rawalpindi.

Fourth, the US has facilitated India’s integration with the global nuclear order while Beijing blocks Delhi’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Fifth, the US backs India’s permanent membership of the UNSC, China does not. Sixth, Delhi now sees the trade with China hollowing out India’s manufacturing capability. Its objective on diversifying its economy away from China is shared by the US and the Quad partners. Seven, India opposes China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a project that undermines India’s territorial sovereignty and regional primacy. Delhi is working with Quad partners to offer alternatives to the BRI. Eight, Delhi sees China’s rising military profile in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean as a problem and is working with Washington to redress the unfolding imbalance in India’s neighbourhood.

These trend lines have evolved over a period and cast a shadow over the Indian strategy to build an anti-western coalition with Russia and China that eventually became the BRICS forum along with Brazil and South Africa. China’s economic and political weight today overshadows BRICS. India also finds the deepening alliance between Russia and China – rooted in their sharpening antipathy towards the West – complicates India’s bet that Moscow would provide a measure of balance against Beijing. Meanwhile, the pressure from China has nudged India towards building a coalition with the United States and its Asian allies, Japan and Australia under the so-called Quad framework.

The BRICS was part of India’s strategy in the unipolar moment that dawned at the end of the Cold War. Delhi’s current enthusiasm for the Quad is about limiting the dangers of a unipolar Asia dominated by China. Notwithstanding the new partnership with the US, India chose to maintain the relationship with Moscow in the post-Cold War era. This rooted in the need to sustain the arms supply relationship with Russia that was deemed so critical for coping with a challenging regional security environment. Yet, there is no escaping the reducing overall salience of Russia in India’s international relations.

India’s annual trade in goods with the US at about 160 billion is nearly eight times larger than the trade with Russia at US$20 billion in 2022 (boosted by the surge in oil purchases). India’s own GDP at $3.5 trillion in 2022 is one and a half times that of Russia at $2 trillion. Despite India’s relative rise in relation to Russia, Delhi is stuck with a deep dependence on Russian arms. Although the US, France and Israel have emerged as important new suppliers of arms to India in the post-Cold War era, Russia still accounts for nearly 60 per cent of Indian military inventory. This has created a lock-in effect on India’s political relations with Russia.

Tied down by the arms relationship, India finds it hard to take positions critical of Russia’s international actions even when they are unacceptable. Put simply, the military dependence on Russia limits India’s freedom of action and its much-celebrated doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’. Indian decision-makers do recognize the primary-level importance of reducing this dependence. PM Modi has put a special emphasis on cutting down arms imports and promoting the production of weapons in India, including by the private sector. These measures, however, will take a long time to reduce the weight of imports in the Indian arsenal. Meanwhile, the continuing conflict with China on India’s northern frontiers makes the dependence on Russian weapons stark. India, which joined hands with Russia and China to enhance its ‘strategic autonomy’ from the US, now finds the military dependence on Russia constraining India’s freedom of action on global issues.

Regaining India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ from Russia is made even harder by ideological attachment to Moscow in the Indian political and strategic communities. While the government is carefully navigating the challenges presented by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the public discourse has been appalling to say the least. Despite the tradition of a strong commitment to territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations, India’s foreign policy community can’t even get to call Russian action in Ukraine by its name – aggression.

It is one thing for official Delhi to finesse the question of Russian aggression, as part of its calculus of costs and benefits in dealing with the Ukraine war, but there is little justification for the India elite’s refusal to call out Russia’s brazen use of force to occupy and annex a neighbour’s territories. The Indian elites who are ever ready to denounce the West for its interventions have tended to be silent on Russian aggressions. But in 1956, 1968, and 1979 there was significant public criticism of Russian interventions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan respectively that forced the governments of the day to respond and adapt.

In 2022, there has been little questioning of India’s silence on Vladimir Putin’s brutal war that has seen deliberate destruction of civilian targets – including apartment buildings, power plants, and water utilities – against the Ukrainian people that he claims as its own. Shashi Tharoor has been the sole exception in the political class when he called on the Narendra Modi government to denounce the Russian aggression. He had little support from his own party. In the past, the Jan Sangh – the precursor of the BJP – was among the consistent critics of Delhi’s tilt towards Moscow. Today it is in power. While it has little ideological empathy for Moscow it is trying to manage the difficult inheritance of military dependence on Russia. But sections of the Hindu right share the visceral anti-western attitudes on the left of the Indian political spectrum; and some sections of the right appear to admire Putin’s muscular policies and would like to see India emulate them.

Together much of the political class, the retired ambassadors and generals, and the commentariat appear ready to buy into many outrageous Russian justifications for its invasion of its neighbour and its claim that Ukraine has no right to exist. One of them is that NATO’s relentless expansion has compelled Russia to take over Ukraine. Implicit in this is a complete Indian failure to see, let alone understand, the enduring fear of Central European states bordering Russia that have long suffered Moscow’s overbearing hegemony and domination. Underlying this is the blank space in the Indian mind on the historic role of Russia and Soviet Union in Central Europe. The Indian image of Russia as a progressive state and a legatee of Soviet role in standing up against western colonialism was always at odds with the enduring reality of Russia as an empire.

The return of autocracy at home and imperial ambitions abroad in the last decade and a half under Putin barely register in the Indian discourse on the Russian war in Ukraine. The only thing that is etched in the mind of the Indian foreign policy community is the idea that Russia is our ‘best friend forever’. The Indian foreign policy elite was shocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It might be in for a similar experience in the coming years as Putin and Russia come out very diminished from the failing war in Ukraine.

Official Delhi will have to eventually deal with a world of declining Russian influence. It has no desire to go down with Russia, whose fortunes have been squandered by Putin. But its geopolitical room for manoeuvre and its global ambitions will continue to be constrained by the costs of coping with the military dependence on Russia. India’s foreign policy community, however, appears utterly reluctant to see Czar Putin’s terrible mistake in invading Ukraine and unable to objectively assess the consequences of his disastrous attempt to reclaim a long lost sphere of influence in Central Europe.