Why India doesn’t support Western sanctions on Russia

Author: Priya Chacko, University of Adelaide

Commentators have expressed surprise at India’s failure to criticise Russia for its incursion into Crimea. Not only did India abstain from voting on the UN General Assembly Resolution condemning Crimea’s annexation but it has also opposed the imposition of Western sanctions. Together with its fellow members in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) forum, India has rejected Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop’s suggestion that Russia be excluded from the G20 summit.

Also, India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon has delivered the US a political snub stating that ‘there are legitimate Russian and other interests involved and we hope they are discussed and resolved’.

India’s actions have been explained as a hangover from the Cold War, during which India and Russia developed close ties, or as a reflection of India and Russia’s burgeoning contemporary economic links. Russia has emerged as an important source of energy supplies for India and, together with Brazil, China and South Africa, the two countries are seeking to redraw international financial architecture through the establishment of a BRICS development bank. Russia is also a key source of sensitive defence technologies.

But India’s links with the United States are also substantial.

India’s overall two-way trade with Russia remains small, while the United States is currently India’s third-largest trading partner. It is true that various points of tension between India and the US have cropped up in recent years — for instance over intellectual property rights, agriculture, foreign investment in India’s retail sector and the treatment of an Indian diplomat in New York. But this can also be said of India’s engagement with Russia. Last year, for example, Russia’s ambassador to India raised concerns about the Indian government’s transparency when awarding military contracts. Russia has long been India’s biggest defence supplier but is facing increased competition from Israel and the US.

This suggests that India’s stance on Crimea is more than just a reflection of the strengths or weaknesses of its bilateral relationships with Russia and the US. Rather, it is the product of India’s ongoing adherence to a foreign policy doctrine of strategic autonomy and its broader foreign policy goal of creating what its officials have termed a ‘poly-centric multi-state system’. In such a system, Russia and strategic coalitions — like the BRICS, which engage Russia, India and other ‘rising powers’ — are viewed by India as key players.

What is driving this vision of world order?

Those who expected India to help uphold a US-designed-and-led world order were always going to be disappointed. This appeared to be the US interpretation of the ‘strategic partnership’ agreed to in 2006. In a 2007 article, Nicholas Burns, one of the US negotiators of the partnership, pinpointed several areas in which India could be expected to help further US foreign policy objectives. These included military responses to global contingencies and isolating Iran.

Yet, India’s self-image as a civilisational state committed to fashioning its own independent path to modern statehood means that it will never be reduced to becoming a cog in another state’s grand strategy. Moreover, the Indian leadership has made no secret of the fact that its primary focus both domestically and in terms of foreign policy is facilitating economic development through the growth of the Indian private sector. This is seen to require changes in the international economic and political system through the creation of a number of ‘strategic partnerships’, including with countries that have tense relationships with the West, such as Iran and Russia.

India’s stance on Crimea and its rejection of Western attempts to isolate Russia reflects the importance of its strategic partnership with Russia as well as its view of Russia’s role in its desired poly-centric world order. Recently, the Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran, praised Russia’s growing profile in Central Asia and its heightened global presence, as evidenced by its role in ‘managing’ the Syrian conflict. Saran further encouraged Russia to take a more active role in the ‘emerging theatre of the Indo-Pacific’ in the interests of creating a more ‘balanced security architecture’.

None of this means that India is a radical revisionist state which is seeking sweeping changes in the international system. There will be limits to what India will tolerate from Russia and other states that challenge the system. Ultimately global stability is important for India’s economic development. But what India’s response to the Crimea situation does suggest is that the assumption that with a little wooing India would line up beside the West in the post post-Cold War era is an assumption based on faulty premises. India wants more than just a seat at the table — it wants to reshape the design of the table itself.

Priya Chacko is a Lecturer in International Politics in the School of History and Politics, the University of Adelaide.