FEBRUARY 25, 2022
From the windows of India’s new embassy in Budapest, the paint on its walls still not dry, the young chargé d’affaires Mohamed Ataur Rahman watched a tiny nation rising up against an empire. Tens of thousands of protestors gathered as the intellectual Péter Veres read out a manifesto demanding independence from foreign powers, and democracy. A statue of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was brought down and decapitated; communist emblems were torn out of the national flag.
Rahman watched as the Soviet Union’s tanks rolled in. Thousands died in street-fighting, as Second World War hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s soldiers snuffed out the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Imre Nagy, who became prime minister in the revolution, was later executed after a secret trial.
Like it did in 1956, New Delhi has responded to the crisis in Ukraine with pious but anodyne words: “all sides,” “deescalation,” “diplomatic engagement” and stepped-up diplomacy. For generations, India’s grand strategy for dealing with Great Power conflicts has consisted of sitting on the fence—but this time around, the country might find it’s impaled self on one of the spikes.
Equivocation reaches an impasse
The salvos of sanctions the United States and its allies are firing against Russia is the stuff of Indian nightmares. The US is yet to grant a waiver exempting India from sanctions against purchasing Russian military equipment. Getting Washington to now sign off on the purchase of the S-400 air-defence system seems near-impossible. There’s no clarity on how India will be able to continue defence imports from Russia, critical to its military preparedness.
From the 1950s—spurned by the West—India slowly turned to the Soviet Union for military equipment and technology. Even though imports from Russia have slowly declined, expert Sameer Lalwani and others have estimated that 81 per cent of all Indian defence equipment is estimated to have originated in that country. India was responsible for the purchase of a third of all Russian defence exports in 2010-2020 period — and that equipment needs spare parts and service.
India’s tenacious commitment to equivocation has reached an impasse. New Delhi can’t break with partners it needs to hedge against China, like the United States, Australia and Japan. The costs of severing its relationship with Russia, though, aren’t trivial.
New Delhi’s unhappiness with the sanctions isn’t hard to understand—and it’s not just about military dependence. From research conducted by RaboBank analysts, it’s clear that genuinely-effective sanctions on Russia will also impact India. Russia is one of the world’s three largest suppliers of crude oil, along with the US and Saudi Arabia.
India doesn’t buy much Russian crude, but if other producers don’t compensate for Russian supplies knocked out of the global market by sanctions, prices could surge up to $135 a barrel. Inside hours of the Russian invasion, prices crossed $100 for the first time in seven years.
The last significant supply disruption—caused by the Libyan civil war in 2011 — kept crude oil above $125 for months. The rising tide of inflation which brought down regimes worldwide, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.
Although trade between India and Russia is small—just about 1.6 per cent of all imports in 2020 came from the country, and about 1.3 per cent of all exports went there—there will be other significant impacts. Russia is a significant source of grains, fertiliser and metals.
The country provides about half the world’s nickel and palladium—used for everything from kitchen-sinks to mobile phones—as well as a quarter of the world’s aluminium. Earlier US sanctions on Russian aluminium, interestingly, were rapidly dropped after their impact on car costs became evident.
Even harder to assess is what the impacts might be on India if the West introduces secondary sanctions on banks and corporations in China that continue to trade with Russia.
Non-alignment fails the test
Like other leaders, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was appalled by the Soviet invasion. “The events in Hungary,” an Indian memorandum handed to Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko stated, “have shattered the beliefs of millions of people who had begun to view the USSR.” Along with the leaders of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Indonesia, he demanded that Soviet forces be withdrawn, and Hungary’s people be allowed to choose their own government.
The question, then: if it didn’t stand up for less-powerful countries being bullied by superpowers, of what worth were its assertions of anti-imperialism and non-alignment?
In the United Nations, though, India refused to vote for a US-sponsored resolution condemning the Soviet invasion, and calling for the withdrawal of its troops. New Delhi even opposed the inscription of the Hungarian crisis on the agenda of plenary sessions the General Assembly. Later, India quietly accepted the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
To the irritation of his bosses in New Delhi—and his personal credit—Rahman lobbied hard for humane treatment of dissidents like of Árpád Göncz, who went on to be elected president of Hungary in 1990. He used his own car to smuggle out a dissident who had liaised between the Embassy and Imre Nagy’s government to Vienna.
For New Delhi, though, the issue wasn’t about honour and morals. India suspected that Pakistan was planning to raise the Kashmir issue in the United Nations again. New Delhi would then need the Soviet Union to veto any hostile resolution, since it had no other friends on the Security Council. Like now, there was also the issue of arms, which the Soviet Union had just started providing. There was the need for Russia as a counterweight to China.
And there was frustration at Great Power double standards: France and the United Kingdom, after all, had invaded Egypt the previous year.
Every leader since has found equivocation to be of utility. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often condemned Prime Minister Nehru’s purportedly weak-kneed foreign policy, his language on Russia hasn’t been significantly different from that seen in 1956.
Following Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, the Prime Minister said his effort would be to get the adversaries “to sit together and talk, and to resolve problems in an ongoing process.” And again, like Nehru, Modi has had words of reproach for the hypocrisy of Great Powers, reminding some criticizing Russia that “they too have sinned.”
The Ukraine crisis is the outcome of many things, including the US’ dangerous effort to push the frontiers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation eastward. The principle asserted by President Vladimir Putin—that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must,” as the classical historian Thucidides put it—is, however, profoundly dangerous for India. For its own good, New Delhi cannot accept that the future of the world will be shaped by Great Power spheres of influence, and the use of hard power.
There’s no way to tell how hard the sanctions sword will fall, or how deep it will cut—but, in its own interests, New Delhi must prove itself willing to share the pain.