October 09, 2022

Why US Tolerates India’s Diplomatic Support to Russia?

B Arjun

AMERICA is unhappy and disappointed about Indias ambiguity on the Russian military actions in Ukraine. Brian Deese, the director of the White House National Economic Council has stated that the consequences of a more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow would be significant and long-term.” Likewise many India-watchers in the west are criticising Indias foreign policy stance to be hinging on ultra realism”.

Last week India joined China, Brazil and Gabon in abstaining from voting on a UNSC resolution which condemned "illegal" referendums held by Russia to annex four regions of Ukraine. Unlike Americas other strategic partners in Quad – Australia and Japan – New Delhi has refused to join the oppressive sanctions regime unleashed by the west against Russia.  India has continued to import Russian oil building its reserves with reasonably cheap oil.

India-Russia closeness has been bothering some, however, by and large Washington has been considerate enough in instating on India-Russia decoupling. Earlier in July this year the US Congress approved a waiver to India against the punitive CAATSA sanctions for its purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. CAATSA authorises the US administration to impose sanctions on countries that purchase major defence hardware from Russia. This development was in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

‘The United States must stand with India in the face of escalating aggression from China,’ was the reason given by Congressman Ro Khanna, while introducing the  amendment during floor consideration of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA). The CAATSA waiver came after India along with China and 33 other countries abstained from voting with the UNSC March resolution censuring Russia for its military actions.

Is America really bothered about Indias relations with Russia? India abstaining from voting alongside America against Russia in the UNSC hardly derails America's strategic plans. America is more concerned about growing India-China trade which now stands at around $125 billion. What America would loath to see is resolution of the India-China border dispute. The establishment of peace and cordiality between the two Asian giants has the potential to upset American plans against its peer competitor. Washington knows that if China was to be as adventurous as Russia, New Delhis stance would be completely different and more aligned. It is on the China front that Indian strategic autonomy remains constrained.   

Washington appreciates the fact that India cannot abruptly abandon Russia, its important partner in a variety of areas.” Russia has been its most trusted ally on the Kashmir issue.  The erstwhile Soviet Union vetoed a number of resolutions seeking international interventions in Kashmir – 1957, 1962 and 1971 – in the UN Security Council Resolutions. This is the time when Pakistan was the most trusted non-NATO ally of America,

In 2019, India's move on Kashmir (scrapping Article 370 and bifurcation of the state) when Russia became the first P-5 country to describe India's move on Kashmir as purely an internal matter and called for resolution under the Shimla Agreement of 1972 and Lahore Declaration of 1999. Ever since this position has been reiterated by Russian foreign minister and senior officials.

On the Russia front, America's strategy does not envisage constraining India beyond a point. Firstly, Indias reliance on Russian arms imports has been gradually reducing. US arms sales to India have reached up to $20 billion with more purchases, such as that of six additional P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, in the pipeline. US aerospace major Boeing is pitching hard to sell its F/A-18 Super Hornet, the deck-based jets, for the newly inducted aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.

America is definitely not equipping India with any expectation that one day India would fire these weapons systems against Russia. However, there is a greater probability that the interpretability it is establishing with the Indian forces in the Indo-Pacific could be directed against China.  

Another reason America does not intend to disengage India completely from Russia is New Delhi's importance in playing a crucial role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). India has recently taken over the SCO rotating presidency, and will be hosting the SCO summit next year. Russia has consistently supported India on the Kashmir issue. American strategic aim is to drive a wedge between Russia and China and break the emerging Eurasian connectivity that challenges the control of the global political economy by Anglo-American control of the maritime commons. Indias proximity to Russia could play a role in checking China within the SCO matrix. A role which both America as well Russia would like India to play.  India too feels that it cannot allow China a free run in determining the Eurasian geopolitical dynamics.

India questioning the USs logic behind supplying the F-16 jet package to Pakistan or America raising issues about Indias voting pattern in the UNSC and informing New Delhi that both South Asian rivals are its partners” with differing points of emphasis” are inconsequential.  These are mere empty statements of two close friends who want to hide the extent of their involvement with each other. Indulgence in such polemics also helps the two strategic allies to ward off domestic criticism of their policies. It is to be noted that  the Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankars growing popularity on social media has come more from his nationalistic diatribe against the west than China.

The west is giving a lot of leeway and platforms to the external affairs minister to prove that India enjoys strategic autonomy despite penetration of American technology in its civilian as well as defence sectors. Prime Minister Modi who believes in total concentration of power within the PMO is also letting the external affairs minister to pocket all the praise mainly because he knows that whatever Jaishankar does will eventually go down in the books as Modis foreign policy. Unlike the former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, who allowed Manmohan Singh to hog all the credit for economic reforms, Modi wont let Jaishankar pocket all the praise.

A vote here and a statement there will not derail the India-America relations because the worldview of the Indian elite continues to be guided by the strategic dictates of anglo-sphere. The India and American strategy are aligned to the extent that both want to see the Sino-Russian split. The only difference is America knows why it wants to achieve the split, the Indian foreign policy seems to be oblivious of what exactly will accrue to it from splintering of Eurasian unity.