India's Ukraine Dilemma Could Have Consequences for Years to Come

Citizens of the world’s largest democracy, with Satyameva Jayate as its motto, must do some soul searching if they hope to be on the right side of history.

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has spotlighted the ambivalent attitude of many Indians towards the US and the West. The love-hate relationship is best exemplified by the fact that even as many Indians aspire to study in, and eventually immigrate to, the US, there is a movement supporting Moscow on social media, arguing that President Joe Biden is at fault for the war, and that NATO expansion policies forced Russia to invade Ukraine.

The casus belli for the war can and should be debated, and India’s foreign policy stance in abstaining on UN resolutions and maintaining strategic neutrality is explainable given the reliance on Russian armaments and historical ties with Russia. The prime minister of Australia has indicated that even the Quad has accepted and understands India’s “balanced” position and he noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for an end to the conflict.

WhatsApp groups are replete with posts expressing an almost visceral hatred toward the US, and the cognitive dissonance is especially stark when the angriest voices are of Indians with family members studying and living in the US as immigrants or citizens. Many condemn the US as a hypocritical nation full of arrogant and uncaring human beings, posting a video of Nelson Mandela in which he states that “…if there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.” Others are sharing a Twitter post stating that “These 3 American men (Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama) have invaded 9 countries in 23 years, killed 11 million civilians and no one calls them ‘war criminals’.”

To call the country their children and grandchildren want to live in as loyal citizens as a nation of war criminals exemplifies the hypocritical Indian mindset, even as these same people often proclaim that fellow Indians from minority communities who dare to protest over feelings of discrimination and prejudice should be deported to a neighbouring country. Democratic nations like the US and India stand for higher ideals like truth, freedom and justice, and they keep working on bettering themselves to achieve those ideals, in sharp contrast to Russia’s current regime which stands for the opposite of all of these.

To be clear, the US has earned sharp criticism for the misbegotten Iraq invasion in the name of subsequently disproven claims about WMD production, and for other misadventures over the years. There can also be little disagreement with calling out the hypocrisy of self-righteous pundits in the West who whitewash the death and destruction unleashed by the Iraq War while waxing eloquently about the horrors of the Ukraine invasion. Lastly, Ukraine’s own less than friendly foreign policy toward India and racist statements and actions by Ukrainian officials and border guards during the repatriation of Indians and Africans from Ukraine cannot be easily forgotten. However, one historical wrong does not justify another, and it’s a tu quoque fallacy to use past or present actions by the US or Ukraine to justify the illegal and brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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It would be wrong to draw a false equivalency between the Iraq War and the Ukraine War, given many substantive differences. First, and perhaps most important, the US never denied Iraq’s sovereignty or demonstrated any intentions throughout the prolonged conflict to occupy Iraq permanently or impose a puppet regime. The occupying forces encouraged the establishment of an Iraqi-elected democracy, though we now know this to be the beginning of the end of the American doctrine of nation-building. Second, the US armed forces were composed of volunteers, similar to the Indian armed forces, unlike the disorderly “contract” soldiers invading Ukraine. Notably, these volunteer forces are trained to demonstrate restraint and avoid civilian brutalities and deaths. Soldiers committing war crimes are subject to discharge from service and prosecution. The free press in the US and India provides additional checks and balances. These practices were all put in place to prevent the brutal, criminal, tactics seen in recent weeks that clearly attempt to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people, such as the decimation of entire cities like Grozny and attacks on civilian facilities, such as hospitals.

With all that said, the toll of civilian deaths was terrible in the Iraq War and will be terrible for the Ukraine War. The key difference is that residents of the US are protected when they criticise national policy, both from prosecution and from accusations of “anti-American” speech. Western media and watchdogs have freely investigated, reported and criticised the US in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, Russians continue to be fed state propaganda, and anti-war protesters are being arrested by the thousands. President Putin denounced those that dared to oppose the war as scum and traitors and called for a “natural and necessary self-purification of society” to strengthen the state. The contrast between a democracy that accepts open discourse and accountability, and a nation ruled by an autocratic leader intent on repressing dissent, could not be clearer. Thus, citizens of the world’s largest democracy, with Satyameva Jayate (“Truth Alone Triumphs”) as its motto, must do some soul searching if they hope to be on the right side of history.

Shivshankar Menon, a former national security adviser and foreign secretary of India, pointed out in an interview that while Russia has legitimate concerns about NATO encroaching on its turf, NATO nations too would have concerns about the Russian occupation of Ukraine which is less than 100 km from Vienna, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw. And especially so when Russia, unlike NATO, has invaded and occupied parts of sovereign neighbours, in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not to mention many parts of Ukraine including Crimea. More importantly, he adds that Russia cannot replace the West for India, and “…we need the West if we are to transform India in terms of civilian technologies…in terms of access to markets…[and] educational access.”

In the context of the claim that India needs to toe the Russian line to ensure their support in the event of a war with China, Menon points out that Russia will take positions “which suit her interest” at any given time. When China invaded India in 1962, Russia needed Chinese support because of the Cuban missile crisis and they were not supportive of India at a time of need. The Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union, T.N. Kaul, writes in his memoirs that “…their (Soviet) attitude at the end of October 1962 was not even neutral but slightly tilted in favour of China, and this was, as Khrushchev explained to me later, due to the fact that the Cuban crisis was at its height and the Soviet Union could not afford to relax its combat readiness for a possible conflict with the USA over Cuba.” Menon also noted that Russia chose to be neutral in the 1965 war with Pakistan.

To paraphrase Lord Palmerston, nations have no eternal allies or perpetual enemies. Only interests are eternal and perpetual for any nation, whether Russia or India, and “those interests it is our duty to follow”. If the US stands by in a future China-India border conflict, and Russia defers providing assistance to India for armament supplies and support because of the help China gave them during the Ukraine war, India will only have itself to blame.

Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago amongst many others has blamed the US for the crisis in Ukraine in criticising NATO’s expansion as an unnecessary provocation to Russia. George Kennan, who wrote the famous foreign policy “X Article” under the pseudonym “X” and is considered to be the architect of the successful containment of the Soviet Union, was prescient in predicting back in 1998 that NATO expansion was a mistake and “…the beginning of a new cold war. “…the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake,” he wrote.

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Yet it would be an exaggeration to conflate and equate a decision dating back to the 1990s to expand NATO, which led to four NATO member states – Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – becoming Russia’s direct neighbours, in a self-defensive posture, with a Russia that has invaded neighbouring nations time and again in recent times.

The current justification for invading Ukraine is especially absurd, with false claims of a threat from a much weaker neighbour, led by a democratically elected Jewish president but in the name of de-Nazification, and denying Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign nation.

President Valdimir Putin miscalculated badly, expecting to win the war in 2-3 days with the intention of replacing the democratically elected government with a puppet government. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was asked on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS if the war could have been avoided if Ukraine had formally rejected any plans for NATO membership. His answer was that NATO had clearly indicated that they did not see Ukraine becoming a member any time soon, but the doors would remain open publicly, presumably as a matter of principle. This fact was also likely being conveyed to Russia in private negotiations, which makes the invasion of Ukraine even more pointless. Russia will likely get a neutral Ukraine that will commit to stay out of NATO, but the ground reality will be tragic beyond comprehension, with two devastated economies and thousands of unnecessary deaths on both sides.

Looking ahead, India and Indians should not be looking back in time to how the US or Russia behaved in the past, noting again that all nations have no eternal allies or perpetual enemies. India is aiming to become an economic and military superpower, but as a democratic nation that values free speech and open markets. It may not make strategic sense to align so closely with an autocratic nation with an economy that pales in comparison to the US or China. Furthermore, Russia’s economy is likely to shrink sharply in the face of draconian sanctions against financial and trade relations with most major economies other than China and India. “…the West blindsided Mr. Putin with the speed and aggressiveness of its retaliatory sanctions,” according to Edward Fishman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Center for New American Security, in his interview with Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal. Allying with a pariah state which Fishman evocatively called “North Korea on the Volga” does not seem like a particularly smart strategic move.

India’s democratic ethos aligns more with the US, which is not perfect by any means, and yet is a free society where wrongs are publicly discussed and acknowledged, and a change for the better can be brought about by free citizens. Russia, meanwhile, is increasingly emulating the example of the “Great Firewall of China” in shutting down access to the world, and fostering nationalism and jingoism to justify the unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

India has a lot to lose in Ukraine if it continues down its current path. Betting on the wrong horse in supporting a failing and flailing former major power that is violating the sovereignty of a neighbouring nation is a risky proposition. India has to contend with a belligerent and undemocratic neighbouring nation that continues on its relentless rise as a true military and economic superpower. India could end up without friends in the free world exactly when it needs them most if it does not stand on the right side of history today and now.

Ram Kelkar is a Chicago-based columnist and works for a privately held investment firm.