Squeezed Between the West and Russia, India Holds Fast on Neutrality

The arrival of Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister in New Delhi this week is, depending on whom you ask, either the routine meeting of a government official (according to the Indian side) or a chance to send a strong message to Russia’s president (according to the Ukrainian side). In fact it is neither. For the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, a Ukrainian minister has landed in India. The arrival of Emine Dzhaparova is the first step in a renewed charm offensive to persuade India to relinquish its determined neutrality.

Since the start of the war, India has tried to maintain a neutral stance. Without criticizing the West, it has nonetheless refused to sanction Russia and has even increased its purchases of Russian oil as European markets have cooled. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Vladimir Putin in the autumn and declared their friendship “unbreakable.” Even then, Modi has spoken little about Ukraine. In fact, India has tried very hard this past year to speak about anything but the war.

This year, it holds the presidency of the G20, a grouping of the world’s wealthiest countries, and hoped to shift the conversation away from the war, to little avail. At the first meeting last month, attended by Russia’s Sergei Lavrov and America’s Antony Blinken, Modi did not mention Ukraine in his opening address. But by the end, India’s foreign minister was forced to concede there were too many “divergences” between the countries. Unusually, the G20 ended without a joint communique.

This has been India’s stance for more than a year, trying to avoid getting swept along by one side or the other.

But the Indian stance on Ukraine runs deeper than merely avoiding picking sides. It’s about whether this is a localized war that the rest of the world has little to do with, or a war that requires all countries to take sides.

Certainly that is how Dzhaparova sees it. In an interview during her visit, she said the war had a global impact and should not be viewed merely as a European issue – and that India could play a greater role in resolving the conflict.

For the West, the Ukraine war is a simple, deadly test of the international order. Can international borders be changed by force? Does might make right? If Russia is able to take parts of Ukraine by force, what stops other countries from doing the same to their neighbors?

The starkness of the question, fueled by the very real fear that an emboldened Russia might continue to threaten countries closer to the heart of the European Union, like Sweden and Finland, has created a unity among Western leaders rarely seen in recent years. But much of the rest of the world, even after a year of war, sees it very differently.

A glimpse of this can be seen in the most recent United Nations vote on the invasion, at the end of February.

While the majority of the world’s countries voted in favor, and a handful of pro-Russian countries voted against, a vast stretch of Asian countries abstained: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, along with all the Central Asian countries and China. Taken together, that’s easily 40 per cent of the planet, who not only want to remain neutral, but are comfortable saying so in public.

For India, historically a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War that tried to remain independent, staying neutral has special historical resonance. There is, of course, a political case to be made that, with China increasingly siding with Russia, India can leverage its neutrality into a leadership role. But neutrality actually matters a great deal across Indian politics.

And this is the central dilemma that India, and by extension the rest of the Global South, has faced. Tilting into either camp would be a propaganda coup for that side, but would cost India dearly. Better to stay above the fray – or as critics would categorize it, turn a blind eye to a brutal war.

Behind India’s resistance to Ukraine’s overtures is also an unspoken consideration: The Ukraine war will almost certainly not end the way the West hopes.

The sudden unity among Western countries has rekindled hopes that there could once again be a resurgence of a Western-led global order, of the kind seen in the 1990s before the Iraq debacle and the rise of China. Some even claim a Russian defeat would accelerate such a scenario.

Yet the previous two decades have marked a major – and almost certainly decisive – shift towards a multipolar world. Countries of the size of India expect and even want to balance their strategic interests, allying with some and rivaling with others. Some countries will even be both rivals and allies in different spheres.

A version of this is also happening in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to balance its relations with countries beyond the United States. Last month, Riyadh joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a dialogue partner, and last week, for the first time, a Russian warship docked in Jeddah.

Even the best case scenario for Ukraine, one in which Modi traveled to Kyiv and even issued clear condemnation of the war, wouldn’t change the underlying trajectory. India spent decades being wooed by both sides of the Cold War. Now, as it prepares to step into a multipolar world, is an unlikely moment to change.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai