India’s balancing act on the war in Ukraine is becoming more difficult, but New Delhi’s unique position – as a friend of both Russia and the West – could see it emerge as a key mediator, experts have told Al Jazeera.
When war began on February 24, New Delhi was quick to support Ukraine’s humanitarian needs.
But India has abstained from condemning Moscow’s actions at the United Nations – a consistent position that the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi says is in line with India’s foreign and defence policies.
In a November interview with Times Now, an Indian media outlet, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar argued that he is not trying to cater to the demands of “other people”.
“Sometimes, I have lived with things that you [the West] did. Now, live with it [India’s foreign policy],” he said.
But as the war intensifies, global energy and food shortages are prompting India to re-evaluate its restrictive stance towards Russia.
On the sidelines of September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin: “I know that today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.”
The premier reiterated this sentiment weeks ago at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Bali.
“We have to find a way to return to the path of ceasefire and diplomacy in Ukraine,” he said.
Vivek Mishra, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that India’s stance is in a state of transition.
“Over the past 10 months, we’ve seen India’s spectrum of mediation in the war increase. This became evident with New Delhi indirectly telling Moscow that it is time to end the war. Moreover, over the next year, India leading the G20 will mean that New Delhi’s role in mediating the end of the war will gain more prominence,” he said, highlighting that the role of mediator signifies leadership.
‘Upgraded form of non-alignment’
New Delhi is set to take on the G20 presidency from Indonesia from December 1 and will host the next G20 meeting in 2023.
John-Joseph Wilkins, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said that with its new responsibilities, India is likely to focus on protecting its strategic autonomy.
“India has always had a tradition of balancing world powers, but this year we’ve seen the country’s foreign policy establishment possibly embrace an upgraded form of non-alignment. This has the potential to increase New Delhi’s global influence going forward,” he told Al Jazeera.
Will India’s evolving position impact ongoing trade with Russia?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged India’s recent concerns about the war and reassured Modi at their meeting in Uzbekistan that Moscow would do everything to stop the war “as soon as possible”.
Typically, he blamed Ukraine for prolonging the conflict.
Increasingly isolated by Western powers, Putin has been keen to forge closer ties to India by boosting trade relations.
“Our trade is growing, thanks to your additional supplies of Russian fertilisers to the Indian markets, which have grown more than eightfold. I am hopeful that this is going to be of huge help to the agricultural sector of India,” Putin told Modi.
Ahead of the Uzbekistan talks, Russia’s Ambassador to India Denis Alipov had hailed growing economic cooperation, telling Moscow’s TASS news agency: “In the first half of 2022, we saw an unprecedented growth in trade – by July it reached more than $11bn, and was $13.6bn for the entire 2021. This is a solid figure, which allows us to discuss the likelihood of achieving the goal of bringing the level of mutual trade to $30bn by 2025.”
India and Russia have shared a special relationship since the Cold War, and Moscow remains the Asian nation’s biggest arms and crude oil supplier.
According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2011 and 2021, Russia accounted for 60 percent of weapons imports in India.
Meanwhile, Moscow supplied 22 percent of New Delhi’s total crude needs in October 2022.
According to the ORF’s Mishra, New Delhi’s evolving stance is unlikely to impact trade relations.
“In the case of oil imports, for example, India’s petroleum and natural gas minister Hardeep Singh Puri recently clarified that there is no moral conflict in buying oil from Russia because as a responsible nation, India also has to cater to domestic needs and on the global stage, oil has to be bought in order to ensure global prices are low. So this trade is bound to continue,” he said.
But Wilkins said India has been trying to diversify in areas such as hydrocarbons.
“The country has been slowly shifting its general position on Russia for some time now,” he said.
“The conflict in Ukraine really highlighted for the country’s policymakers the need to reduce their dependence on Moscow, especially in the hydrocarbons sector,” he said.
“India has a National Hydrogen Mission and it is quite clear that it eventually wants to and could become an exporter of ‘green hydrogen’, which essentially means establishing solid solar and hydro power infrastructure and diversifying supply chains. In that sense, reducing dependency on Russian hydrocarbons, which the country is heavily reliant on, aligns with its overall national mission,” he added.
India’s prominence to make it a peacemaker?
At the same time, the European Union has also been pushing for stronger ties with India, as the bloc’s relations with Russia and China cool.
The EU held its first round of trade talks with India in July this year, and the discussions are set to resume on Monday.
New Delhi aims to establish comprehensive free trade agreements not only with the EU, but also with the United Kingdom and Canada next year. Similar trade deals have already been signed with Australia and the United Arab Emirates this year.
Meanwhile, the United States has also fostered its defence partnership with India, after recognising New Delhi as a central figure in maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific – a sentiment shared by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has also broadened its security ties with India.
Some geopolitical analysts say the Ukraine war has played a role in increasing India’s prominence on the global stage.
But Mishra argued that this theory undermines India’s achievements.
India’s potential as a stable market, he said, is what prompted the push.
“India’s economy recently surpassed the British economy, with India becoming the fifth largest economy in the world. This was scripted before the war,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that the war brought India into the spotlight, because of New Delhi’s unique position as an ally of the West and Russia.
“So I think in this aspect, the spectrum of the role that India is playing has increased,” he added.
While Russia’s war in Ukraine has no end in sight, talk of negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the conflict has increased.
With India at the helm of the G20 from December, Mishra said the West might lobby New Delhi to play a bigger role.
“If this initiative for peace is really pushed and Ukraine agrees to come to the negotiation table, the West could ask India to convince Russia to do the same due to India’s G20 role and special relationship with Moscow,” Mishra told Al Jazeera.
“Overall, India will continue being the bridge between the two sides,” he said, “but is also going to be in a good position to bring this war to an end.”
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