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Ukraine crisis: India's hour of reckoning to deal with challenges to national security?

By Ajit Singh* 

Western world has confined itself to a role of mere spectator watching traumatized Ukrainians from safe bubbles who are bravely fighting their own decisive battle against an aggressor state. The financial sanctions imposed by United States and other European members on Russia is just a face saving exercise and exposes the failure of the American-led coalition to ensure peace and territorial integrity of its allies in the region.
This has created a dilemma for India who is slacklining on a tightrope to effectively balance its relations with Russia and the Western allies. This is evident by the fact why India opted to abstain and not voted in favour or against the resolution of the UN Security Council drafted by the US to stop Russian military advances against Ukraine and compel it to come to the negotiating table for resolving differences diplomatically.
A paper published by Sameer Lalwani and others for Stimson Center have shown that 86 percent of Indian military hardware are of Russian origin and the country is still heavily dependent upon Russia for spare parts and regular maintenance of these equipment and weapons.
But cooperation between the two nations is limited mostly to the defense sector. Russia is not even among the top 20 trading partners of India. Bilateral trade between both countries is less than USD 10 billion.
On the other hand, the United States is India's biggest foreign trade partner with a trade volume exceeding USD 100 billions in 2021. Similarly India receives USD 14 billion worth of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from America, which is second only to Singapore.
These statistics largely explain that our economic interests are tilted more towards western counterparts. Yet India cannot take a clearer position and dare speak against the invasion, as it may lead to compromised defense capability due to heavy reliance on the Russian military complex.
The cordial relations between the two countries has stood the test of time. India along with Yugoslavia and Egypt had established the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1956. The goal was to not join either American or the Soviet power block during the Cold War era. But India due to its early socialist outlook deviated from its early non-aligned position to side with the latter power.
Under the leadership of Indira Gandhi and Leonid Brezhnev the two countries signed a security pact, according to which the Soviet Union was bound to defend India in case of external aggression. This treaty obligation greatly helped India in the 1971 war when Soviet nuclear warheads blocked the 7th navy fleet of the US in Bay of Bengal, and this moment became a deciding factor in the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistani occupation.
The Soviet Union that later became Russia vetoed sanctions against India after the nuclear test of 1974 and 1999. In the Kargil conflict as well India received Russia's imperative support. Similarly Russia has always come to India's rescue on the contentious Kashmir issue at the critical times in UN Security Council.
Even though India is now one of the key members of Quad nations and a major strategic ally of the US in the Indo-Pacific region, it hasn't fully shed the garb of neutrality, and that is why backed Russia in the current conflict, but will Russia reciprocate the same gesture and back India in an escalation with China or Pakistan? We already know the answer, it most likely won't.
In the Galwan valley clash last year between Indian defense forces and the People's Liberation Army of China, the former lost 20 soldiers in a bloody violent confrontation. At that time, Russia had taken a minimalist stand and even ruled out mediation between Asian powers.
Self-congratulatory wisdom and blind praise for the Indian military forces won't help to maintain deterrence let alone secure borders
This change of heart is not sudden but over the decades economic ties and strategic cooperation between Russia and China have been strengthened to strive a balance against the western power.
The unfolding Russia-Ukraine standoff poses a big conundrum in front of domestic foreign policy makers. India is steadily losing a trusted and reliable partner due to its collaboration with America and European countries. If tension with China escalates and turns into a full blown non-nuclear military conflict, India will be backstabbed by its new-found allies and destined to suffer the same fate as Ukraine if not worse.
India's top Generals and Marshals have tried to take the audience into confidence, as they argue India has acumen and wherewithal to deal with the formidable threat of two front war like scenarios involving China and Pakistan.
In 2019, India faced the real war like situation after Indian Air Force broke into Pakistan's territory to strike on alleged Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist camps. The skirmish between sub-regional nuclear nations exposed India's self proclamation of being a superior power.
India largely failed on all fronts. We shot down our own Mi17 Military helicopter in a friendly fire which left 6 IAF personnel dead. India also faced a huge embarrassment when its MiG21 Bison aircraft crashed in neighbor's territory and Pakistan got its hand on living war booty to show-off the entire world that they managed to capture a prisoner of war. Most importantly due to lack of proper communication channels between the Foreign and Defense Ministries, India badly lost to Pakistan in building a media narrative in its own favour.
India needs to get its act together. Self-congratulatory wisdom and blind praise for the Indian military forces won't help to maintain deterrence let alone securing borders. The government must focus to expand the indigenous defense capacity which is in a nascent stage; at the same time India should diversify its defense purchases to erase the demand inelasticity vis-a-vis our dependence on Russia for critical technology and platforms.
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*Sophomore in Bachelor's in Education (BEd) programme

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