India’s terrible predicament over Russia and Ukraine highlighted by student’s death

Mayank Chhaya-


The death of a 21-year-old Indian medical student in Kharkiv, Ukraine, due to heavy shelling by the invading Russian forces may not force New Delhi to fundamentally alter its policy of diplomatic tight rope walking.

However, it certainly has the potential to force Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to internally question the wisdom of not condemning Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s gratuitous war and openly siding with Ukraine. India’s two successive abstentions at the United Nations over serious global moves to compel Russia to back down have caused a great deal of consternation in world capitals.

There are those who understand New Delhi’s terrible predicament over a decades-long friendly country’s brazen war being waged essentially under the command of one man, Vladimir Putin. But the death of the medical student, Naveen Shekharappa(Above photo) can at the very least compel Modi and his External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to recalibrate the language New Delhi uses in its observations of Putin’s actions.

It would be extravagant to think that a single death could reverse India’s decades-old policy towards Russia, but it can galvanize those who want the Modi government to be more forthcoming and assertive in the way it has so far dealt with Putin. So far India’s political parties, including the main opposition Congress Party, have gone along with Modi’s balancing act in recognition of the enormous importance of Russia for India’s national security.

Russia is India’s largest arms supplier and has been so almost since the country’s independence in 1947. Even though the Russian share of India’s weapons portfolio has gone down from an overwhelming 70 percent to about 49 percent now, it is still the single biggest. India’s defense readiness is directly connected to its relations with Russia.

It also bears noting that in December last year Putin visited New Delhi for a remarkably short four-hours and signed 28 agreements, one of which involved the manufacture of AK-203 rifles in Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. More significantly, Moscow is also supplying New Delhi the S-400 air defense systems which give the country a crucial edge over Pakistan. The total deal for five squadrons of S-400 is worth $5.4 billion. These are serious commitments for India which finds itself constantly looking over its shoulder to its two main adversaries, China and Pakistan.

India is acutely aware of the growing ties between Russia and China and their implications. Keeping Putin in good humor could be New Delhi’s way of moderating China’s President Xi Jinping through the Russian leader. These are all very delicate and subtle leveraging acts that the Modi government has to keep in mind.

The New Delhi-Moscow relations have deep roots starting right from the time India became independent in 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru as the country’s first prime minister emulated the erstwhile Soviet Union’s model of the commanding heights of economy. Nehru built big projects such as dams, factories and academic institutions inspired by the Soviet model. However, the real Soviet role in came in 1971 during India’s defining national security crisis as part of the India-Pakistan war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. The United States was openly supportive of Pakistan by giving its military and financial assistance. It was the Soviet Union that stood by India and possibly helped swing the war in its favor.

Add to that the fact that Russia has generally voted in support of India at the United Nations and at other international forums over issues such as Kashmir and its nuclear program. Taken together it is an abiding relationship that India cannot jeopardize even if it means taking manifestly ambiguous positions over Ukraine, especially from the standpoint of the latter’s sovereignty. Although New Delhi has clearly pointed out that Ukraine’s sovereignty ought to be respected and a ceasefire enforced immediately, it has not gone the distance expected of the world’s largest democracy.

With that as the backdrop the medical student Shekharappa’s death, while a powerful and wrenching illustration of Putin’s ruthlessness, is not likely to reverse or even alter New Delhi’s approach. It is possible that behind-the-scenes India is expressing much more candid disapproval of Russia but there are no expectations that publicly much would change. After all there are over 18,000 Indian students in Ukraine whose safety too is India’s primary concern.

At the same time, India has to be extremely mindful its very strong, strategic relations with America. One figure alone should tell the story. In less than a decade New Delhi increased its spending on US defense equipment from practically nothing to $20 billion now. India is America’s crucial defense partner as well one of the four countries that constitute the arrangement known as the Quad along with America, Japan and Australia widely viewed as a group meant to contain China.