India will be under tremendous US pressure to back its stand on Ukraine, but will try to remain neutral

A war in Ukraine will be disastrous for the world. Nobody wants it. Neither Vladimir Putin nor Joe Biden and not Europe, especially not Germany and France. Yet accidents do happen on the frontline that can lead to war. World War 1, was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist. So, nothing can be ruled out in a volatile high-pressure situation, where nerves are on edge.

For New Delhi a war will be a nightmare, considering Russia is a time-tested friend, that has stood by India in its time of need. India has also an excellent and expanding relations with the US, and is part of the quad, a new grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia, primarily to take on China in the Indo-Pacific. Since China’s recent incursion across the LAC in Ladakh, New Delhi has moved closer to the US. India has been able to maintain good relations with both the US and Russia. Yet, in case of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, which American leaders are loudly proclaiming each day, India will be in a spot. There will be tremendous pressure by the Biden administration for India to line up with Washington against Moscow.

Ukraine And The US-Russia Mind Games

As it is, Washington was not too pleased when India refused to take sides on a vote seeking discussion on Ukraine at the United Nations Security Council, on January 31. India’s abstention got a big 'thank you' from the Russians. TS Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said at the meeting, "India’s interest is in finding a solution that can provide for immediate de-escalation of tensions taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long term peace and stability in the region and beyond. Everyone is aware that the rapid expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) that is encircling Russia and impinges on Moscow’s security is at the root of the current crisis.

The Americans were reportedly not amused by the Indian stand. When the US can be so sensitive about not siding with the west on a discussion on Ukraine, imagine the pressure that is likely to be exerted in case a real war breaks out and New Delhi tries to play both sides. Indian diplomats have so far done a fine balancing act, keeping India’s strategic interests in mind. But in case the situation escalates into a full-fledged war New Delhi would need to tread carefully.

However, India is no push-over and the Americans are well aware of that. Despite massive pressure from the former Trump administration and threat of sanctions, India went ahead with its commitment to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. Turkey, a NATO ally has been punished with punitive sanctions by the US for buying the same missile system. The Biden administration may be pushed to slap sanctions on India in case the situation escalates, through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This will also impinge on India’s future military purchases from Russia, which is already under tough sanctions, with threats of more to come in case of war. India’s investments in Russia’s energy sector as well as Russia’s Far East will not take off if more punitive sanctions are slapped on Moscow by the Biden administration. As is the case with Iran, also under heavy US sanctions, India’s private sector is averse to doing business with countries under US sanctions, for fear of being banned from the US financial market.

The Americans may be under the impression that India is in a vulnerable position because of China, and could be pressured into abandoning its neutrality. But they also realise that Delhi is not prone to taking dictation. Sanctions against India, would also queer the pitch at a time when Washington is hoping to balance China’s clout by siding with India, another major Asian country. At the moment the US and India’s strategic interest’s vis-à-vis China coincides. Washington is going slow on sanctioning India for now. But in case of war in Ukraine that attitude can quickly change. Domestic political pressure from the Republicans to punish India for buying the S-400 missiles from Russia, when it is at war with Ukraine, may make the Biden administration change its mind.

"So far India has navigated the choppy waters reasonably well," says Nandan Unnikrishnan, well known Russian expert, at the Delhi-based think tank the ORF (Observer Research Foundation). When asked what would be India’s stand if a war actually breaks out, he said: "It is too early for India to take a call. Many factors will come into play. So, it would be foolish to take a decision right now and limit India’s options."

India’s former envoy to the UN, Asoke Mukerji says that in case of a war, the issue will certainly come to the UN Security Council. India is currently serving a two-year term as a non-permanent member and can play a leadership role. The 15-member council will discuss the situation and vote on the issue. Nine of the 15 members will likely vote for an immediate cessation of hostility and get the warring parties to sit down for talks. Tirumurti had already made it plain on January 31, that India is for a peaceful negotiated settlement. On the table will be the Minsk and Normandy agreements, which will form the basis for discussion.

In view of the tense situation in Ukraine, the Indian embassy in Kyiv has asked Indian nationals including the 18,000 students, to leave the country unless their stay is absolutely necessary. Family members of embassy staff have also been asked to return home.

Nobody is quite sure how the situation will pan out, but the fact remains that a war in Ukraine is certainly against Indian interests as it takes US and western focus away from China. It serves India’s interest for the world to work at containing China’s aggressive moves in Asia.