Impact the Ukraine War can have on the G20 Presidency

Harsh V Pant

Earlier this month, national security adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval was in Moscow to attend the fifth multilateral meeting of secretaries of security councils and NSAs on Afghanistan, where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was remarkable that a leader who has become increasingly reclusive decided to break protocol to undertake a “wide-ranging discussion on bilateral and regional issues” with NSA. This underscores a desire on the part of Moscow to keep its ties with New Delhi on an even keel when it is getting increasingly isolated and is being widely viewed as a junior partner of China.

Even as India’s G20 presidency has gathered pace, there are signs that the Ukraine war is reaching a flashpoint, with Moscow preparing for a fresh offensive to mark the first anniversary of its invasion. Kyiv is stockpiling arms, hoping to repulse any new aggression and is upping the ante on the delivery of fighter jets by its allies. An escalating crisis in Eurasia will be catastrophic for the global economy. But it would also make it hard for India to achieve anything substantial with its G20 presidency.

In a recent intervention, Russian envoy to India Denis Alipov acknowledged that though the relations between the two countries have always been friendly, equal, trusted and robust, the ties are under “stress” due to tectonic geopolitics shifts. Refuting the suggestion that Russia might become a satellite State or a “junior partner” of China, he underlined that Russia has never been junior to anybody and does not know what being junior is like.

Marking a distinction between the American and Russian approaches to defence cooperation, he said: “It is sometimes amusing to read about US cooperation with India. They offer nothing like what we do in terms of advanced technology and technology transfer. We do not mix technology transfer with policies. Our projects compliment Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat policies of India, unlike the West, [which] does not offer all this.” At a time when India’s defence ties with the US are growing rapidly, and Washington is keen on offering cutting-edge defence technologies to India, Moscow doesn’t want to lose a traditional defence partner.

The recent operationalization of the US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, announced by US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2022, is geared toward fostering a new defense-industrial cooperation road map to accelerate technological cooperation between both for co-production and co-development.

Interestingly, there was assurance from the Russian envoy that Moscow had no intention of doing anything with Islamabad that would hurt ties with New Delhi, even as he underlined that “we [Russia] want to expand our economic partnership with Pakistan.”

There was a subtle hint about a future engagement in his suggestion that “a destabilised Pakistan is not in the interests of any in the region.” In recent years, there have been some gestures from Islamabad and Moscow towards building a serious relationship. But when Pakistan is facing turmoil and an economic collapse, an alignment with Russia can hardly be at the top of its agenda. It is difficult to see what economic partnership Russia can establish with Pakistan when a seemingly all-weather friend such as China has not been able to help much, despite lofty announcements.

As Russia completes one year of its Ukrainian invasion, India is yet to condemn Russian actions and has imported a record amount of Russian crude oil. India’s diplomatic balancing act has been done almost to perfection, with recent statements from American policymakers making it clear that Washington is not looking to sanction India anytime soon as it is comfortable with the approach that India has taken.

There can be no debate that India’s much-vaunted strategic autonomy is being challenged by the Russian misadventure in Ukraine. New Delhi’s arms dependence on Russia has created a paradoxical situation where the issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are at the heart of its contestation with China, are being sacrificed at the altar of trying to keep ties with Russia on an even keel. India wants its G20 presidency to be decisive and action-oriented. It remains to be seen if Russia’s awaited offensive over the next few weeks will allow New Delhi the luxury of shaping an ambitious global agenda.

This article was first published by The Hindustan Times as How Russia’s Ukraine offensive can impact India’s G20 presidency on February 19, 2023.

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