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India’s abstentions in the February 25 vote in the UN Security Council and on the February 27 UN General Assembly resolution “deploring” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine were hugely disappointing to the UK.
In contrast, the UK has taken a leading international role in halting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The prospective escalation of the Ukraine war and its impact on the UK will have an adverse impact on India-UK ties. Skilful Indian and British diplomacy will be required to mitigate this.
India’s abstentions in the UN on Ukraine
India and two other countries, China and the UAE, abstained in the first crucial UN Security Council vote on Ukraine on February 25; the UK and 11 others voted in favour of condemning Russian aggression. This was vetoed by Russia.
India again abstained in the vote in the UN General Assembly, along with 34 other states (including China and Pakistan), with five countries opposing it. But, with the support of 141 countries (including the UK), the resolution against Russia was passed.
India sees its abstention as an act of ‘neutrality’; a ‘balanced’ position that does not take sides and is not supportive of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the UK expected, largely unrealistically, that the world’s largest democracy and a champion of a rules-based international order would vote against Russia on the basis of ‘principles’.
Moreover, as a “natural partner” of the UK with “shared values” and agreeing to act together “as a force for good in the world”, it felt that India should have taken sides against Russia.
It is now clear that India acted on the basis of its own national interests, largely the result of its strategic dependence on Russia for sophisticated arms denied to it by the West. Indeed, earlier in February, when India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar was challenged at the Munich Security Conference as to whether ‘principles’ should apply across the world uniformly, including in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific, he responded that “principles and interests are balanced”.
Despite the escalating violence in Ukraine and the death of an Indian student in Russian shelling, India has not changed its diplomatic position. However, its criticism of Russia, although indirectly, has increased. This includes its emphasis on respect for the ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity of states’, disappointment over false official Russian narratives over the plight and safe evacuation of a sizeable number of Indian students and provision of humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
India continues to express “deep concern” over the situation in Ukraine, while consistently emphasising ‘diplomacy and dialogue’.
Official British response
In view of the comprehensive nature of their strategic partnership, the UK political leadership has not publicly criticised or expressed its disappointment with India. Instead, it encourages India to mount diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia while seeking closer UK-India security and economic ties, the latter influenced by the prospect of a free trade agreement (FTA) with India.
On March 6, the UK’s deputy prime minister Dominic Raab noted that India, as a country that has a “close relationship” with Russia, could “play a greater role” and urged India to “step up the diplomatic pressure and indeed the pressure on Putin via sanctions to make sure that we can reverse this illegal invasion into Ukraine”. But, India is currently not contemplating any sanctions against Russia; it will also only support UN-mandated sanctions.
Two days later, at a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss stated that she had “encouraged India to stand against Russia”. But, the way forward was for a “closer economic and defence relationship with India, both by the United Kingdom, but also by our likeminded allies”.
She added, “we are working on those closer security links…we are now negotiating a trade agreement…we also need to work with countries like South Africa and India to reduce their dependence –whether it be on Russian defence, Russian oil and gas, or their export markets”.
Despite such an official UK conciliatory position as well as a renewed call towards a heightened security and economic partnership with India, the Ukraine War will adversely affect bilateral ties for five reasons:
1. Emergence of a UK-India ‘trust-deficit’.
India’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a serious divergence of views and has created a ‘trust-deficit’ between the two countries, despite UK ministerial rhetoric. This is especially true during the ongoing highly-charged political and emotional environment in the UK over Ukraine.
The UK’s ambitions for India to take on larger, high-profile roles and responsibilities on the world stage have been jolted and dampened, exacerbating their existing divergences on Russia.
In June 2018, India voted against a UK-led motion to authorise the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to apportion blame for the poisoning on UK territory of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal. A year ago, the UK’s Integrated Review viewed Russia as the “most acute threat” to its security, whereas India rhetorically refers to Russia as a ‘special and privileged strategic partner’.
2. Escalation of the Ukraine war
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine escalates, casualties mount and the number of refugees increase, the UK-India ‘trust-deficit’ will widen in the absence of deft Indian diplomacy. In sharp contrast to India’s diplomatic stance, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now urging world leaders to mount a renewed effort to halt Russia’s invasion.
It will no longer be considered enough to simply support the rules-based international order, but this order must be defended “against a sustained attempt to rewrite the rules by military force”. Johnson has also stated in Parliament that Russia’s use of munitions on innocent civilians in Ukraine qualified as a “war crime”.
The UK has provided defensive weapons to Ukraine, sent its personnel to train its army and encouraged and imposed economic sanctions on Russia.
3. The centrality of Europe for the UK.
The enormity and implications for the UK of Russia’s expansion in Europe need to be better understood in India. Influential members of India’s strategic community perceive this simply as an ‘East-West conflict centred in Europe; a continuation of the cold war’. But for the UK, this is far from reality.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents the first ‘state-on-state’ conflict in Europe since the Second World War; precisely what the establishment of a rules-based order was meant to prevent. An expansion of the conflict represents an existential threat to the UK in a change to the security architecture of Europe.
In response, the UK and the West seek to degrade Russia’s economy and isolate it politically, as never before. Although the UK and India have had political differences in the past, this one over Russia is qualitatively different and has the prospect of being the most serious in decades. Never before has India’s abstention in a UN vote also caused such an international stir.
4. The centrality of the Indo-Pacific for India.
For India, China remains the principal threat to its security. There has been a growing convergence between the UK and India in the past year over the Chinese military’s assertive policies in the Indo-Pacific, including its aggression against India. But, with the UK’s political attention consumed by the Ukraine war, the implementation of its ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific is likely to be distracted and delayed.
5. Defence cooperation could suffer.
In the short term, it is likely that bilateral defence cooperation will suffer. The Indian Air Force’s first-time participation in the multination Cobra Warrior air exercise in the UK will not take place since the exercise stands cancelled. Similarly, the UK will not participate in the DefExpo in Gandhinagar which was scheduled to take place this week, but has been postponed.
However, the UK foreign secretary’s intent to deepen defence cooperation with India, seeking to provide an alternative to Russia, is important, but ambitious. This will need far better UK-based assessments on India’s dependence on Russian arms and the phasing out of older Russian weapon systems and spares from India’s armed forces.
It would also need to incorporate the strain and impact of western sanctions on Russia’s arms supplies to India. Currently, the UK has a less than 3% share in India’s defence; the UK will also need to overcome some serious ‘legacy issues’ on the supply of arms to India.
The UK and India have not faced such a ‘trust-deficit’ between them in decades. This is expected to widen with the escalation and expansion of the Ukraine war. Agile Indian diplomacy could seek to mitigate this by seeking to facilitate engagement between Russia and Ukraine, being one of a handful of countries that is able to engage with both at the highest political levels. The prospect of Russia’s increased political and economic isolation, amidst India’s strategic dependence on it, should spur these efforts, while seeking credible alternatives both diplomatically and strategically.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is a Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London