India Is Stuck in a New World Disorder

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an appearance at the G-7 summit last month in Hiroshima, Japan, he may have been confused by what he heard from one world leader in particular. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “is a big issue in the world,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. “I will do whatever we can for the resolution of war.”

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an appearance at the G-7 summit last month in Hiroshima, Japan, he may have been confused by what he heard from one world leader in particular. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “is a big issue in the world,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. “I will do whatever we can for the resolution of war.”

Modi’s words could easily have been those of a leader whose country had taken an active part in Western sanctions on Russia. But New Delhi’s actions over the past year and a half tell a different story. India has dramatically increased its imports of Russian oil: In December 2022 alone, it bought 33 times more than it had the December prior. And though India has diversified its arms suppliers in recent decades, it continues to rely heavily on Russia for weapons and spare parts. In implementing these decisions, New Delhi has shown little interest in hewing to Western policy: This spring, for example, it reportedly bought Russian oil at above the U.S.-brokered price cap, which was intended to reduce revenue to Russia.

New Delhi’s support for Moscow has manifested diplomatically as well as economically. India has abstained from votes censuring Russia at the United Nations. Last month, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Goa, India. A Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry statement hailed the “specially privileged strategic partnership between our countries,” while Jaishankar tweeted his appreciation for Russia’s support of India’s SCO presidency.

India’s foreign policy matters, perhaps more than in previous years. In addition to holdingthe SCO presidency, India assumed the G-20 presidency in 2023 and has used its platform to declare itself the West’s bridge to the global south. But while New Delhi has positioned itself as an increasingly important world power, the war in Ukraine has highlighted clear differences not only between Indian, Russian, and U.S. interests, but also in how the three countries define the very concept of global leadership.

To listen to the current U.S. and Russian administrations, the world is currently engulfed in an ideological battle. Last year, in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden framed the conflict as a war for democracy. It was a familiar theme for Biden, whose administration had previously stressed that it saw India as a potential partner in a broader battle between democracy and autocracy—in particular as it related to China.

Russian officials, meanwhile, often speak of not wanting to be a part of a Western-led liberal international order. “The Russian conception now is to strive toward a multipolar world,” said Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. One way for Russia to achieve this goal, Radchenko said, was by raising the status of some countries and lowering the status of others—namely, the United States. (Others have argued that Russia’s vision is of not only a multipolar world, but one that is antagonistic toward liberal democracy. John Tefft, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, traces this vision to 2012, when Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency and imposed a desire to promote autocracy on Moscow’s foreign policy.)

If the United States and Russia bookend two ends of a spectrum on democracy, what does it mean for countries that have traditionally shunned aligning with great powers? It depends on where they are in their trajectories. Scholars in India, for example, point to a growing self-confidence in New Delhi’s foreign policy that stems from its increasing economic clout. “The fact that the United States and other partners are willing to accept that India won’t openly criticize Russia demonstrates that the world has accepted India’s vision of its being a global power and is comfortable with that,” said Aparna Pande, the director of the India Initiative at the Hudson Institute.

It may seem that the United States, Russia, and India each have contrasting visions of how the global order should run. But there are at least some areas of overlap between each country’s foreign policy. “Geography matters,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, where he leads the Eurasia Program of Studies. “Where you sit is how you see the world.”

India would like more of a say in Western-led organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and United Nations—particularly the U.N. Security Council, where New Delhi has long coveted a seat. And that means that when it looks at the globe, Unnikrishnan said, “India is not against the world order being rocked a little bit.”

Lavrov, for his part, has repeatedly lauded India as a key partner in an emerging multipolar order. But despite Moscow’s best hopes, India and Russia are not in lockstep either.

“We definitely don’t see the world as Moscow does,” Unnikrishnan said. In part, that’s because India has benefited economically from the rules-based liberal international order, becoming a growing destination for Western business. While New Delhi may see reducing the extent of U.S. hegemony in its interest, it doesn’t see itself locked in an existential battle with the United States as Russia does.

Instead, there is substantial symmetry between the United States and India today, according to Rudra Chaudhuri, the director of Carnegie India. “India’s not a country designed to follow one pole or the other,” he said. “Indian interests globally will at some level complement those of the United States,” he added, pointing to the potential for increased economic and technological ties.

While Moscow, New Delhi, and Washington each have varying visions of their place in the world, Russia’s war in Ukraine has revealed uncomfortable frictions between them, especially for India.

One of the driving motivations of the current Indian government, Unnikrishnan said, is to lift people out of poverty. “This economic project is under strain not so much because of Russia’s war on Ukraine, but sanctions,” he said. New Delhi now faces the threat of secondary sanctions from Washington, which could be a major irritant in the U.S.-India relationship. And if Western sanctions on Russia have their intended effect, it could also make things more difficult for India beyond the economy, since India continues to rely on Russia for spare military parts. Perhaps realizing this, Moscow is reportedly pressuring New Delhi to help Russia avoid being blacklisted at a Financial Action Task Force meeting later this month.

A second complicating factor is the issue of sovereignty. The United States has made a subtle shift from underscoring the importance of democracy to framing the war in Ukraine as a test for the strength of international borders—an issue New Delhi cares about greatly. India has a disputed border with China and has recently lost several kilometers of territory to Beijing—a fact that leaders in New Delhi have avoided acknowledging in public.

Many in the Indian policymaking community have long said that India needs to work with Russia to avoid losing Moscow to Beijing. But the war has made Russia more dependent on China, and thus less empowered to challenge either it or the United States.

Modi’s message to Zelensky at the G-7, then, wasn’t wrong. The Russia-Ukraine war is an issue for the rest of the world, just not in the sense Biden and Zelensky have in mind. The fate of India’s new multipolar world order may well depend on it.

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