India’s Strategic Alignment: The Role of Russia in Countering US-China Hegemony

TK Arun

Neither India nor Russia wants to be dominated by their main ally, the US and China. Looking out for one another is way to achieve this goal.

India did well to distance itself from the declaration of the self-styled Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland. The declaration called for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and there is no prospect of peace if it hinges on stripping Russia of its only warm water naval base, the one at Sevastopol in Crimea.

It is a measure of the influence of Western control over the media discourse that few appreciate Russia’s strategic interest in undertaking its Ukraine war. Russia cannot afford to have either its chief naval base to be located in enemy territory — which is what would happen if Ukraine were to join NATO, while Crimea remains a part of Ukraine — or for access to that naval base to be at the sufferance of a NATO power, as the land route runs through Ukrainian territory. If one does not factor in the Sevastopol naval base, the war would, indeed, appear to be a case of Russian land grab.

Crimea, At Every Pivot

Crimea has been an integral part of Russia’s geography and history. Vladimir 1, ruler of the proto-Russian empire known as Kievan Rus, with its capital in Kiev, the present-day capital of Ukraine, was baptized into Christianity in Crimea, leading to the Christianisation of polytheistic Russia. The Crimean war, made famous by Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade, was fought between Russia and an alliance that included Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire. The final collapse of the Soviet Union was heralded by Gorbachev’s arrest at his dacha in Foros, Crimea.

Crimea became a part of Ukraine in 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to Ukraine, on the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s union with the Russian empire, in order, perversely enough, to bind Ukraine ever more strongly to Russia. That this would create a vulnerability for Russia’s uninterrupted access to its Black Sea fleet based in Crimea never entered anyone’s head at the time, as Ukraine was seen as an integral part of the Soviet Union, whose disintegration into independent Republics could not have been imagined, leave alone foreseen, then.

Losing The Peninsula

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Ukraine assumed its status as an independent country, Russia was led by Boris Yeltsin, who was more interested in handing over the country’s assets to cronies and strongmen, who would go on to form a new class of oligarchs, rather than in safeguarding Russia’s long-term interests. Ukraine thus retained Crimea and the provinces through which the land route from Moscow to Crimea ran.

Location of its naval base in a foreign country was always fraught. And things came to a head when a pro-western government took office in Kiev in 2014. Russian president Putin promptly annexed Crimea. The US-led NATO had been expanding to the East, incorporating several former Soviet republics into the alliance. Ukraine became a focus of American influence that extended to arms peddling and energy. Hunter Biden, in the news for being indicted on charges of hiding his drug habit while buying a gun, served as a board member of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas business.

With Ukraine steadily moving away from Russia and seeking membership of NATO, the choice before Russia was to either accept constrained access to its naval base or annex the regions to the east of the Dnipro. Dnipro also served as the dividing line between the realm of Russian Orthodox Christianity and the Vatican’s spiritual sway.

What Russia Wants

Russia’s real interest is brought out by the peace terms offered by President Putin. He has said that peace is available tomorrow if Ukraine accepts that the four regions to the east of the Dnieper (Dnipro) river, besides Crimea, are Russian territory.

That Russia needs Ukraine to stay out of NATO and to have untrammelled access to its naval base in Crimea is understandable. But what is India’s interest in the conflict?

And What India Desires

India would hate to live in a bipolar world divided up as American and Chinese spheres of influence. China has hostile claims on Indian territory and India needs US help to fend off China. If there were just two power centres in the world, India would find itself under the US thumb. India needs Russia to continue as a world power, so that it has room to manoeuvre. And Russia needs a strong India as a counterweight to China, whose unbridled dominance would diminish Russia. The US is willing to put up with India’s autonomous stand on Ukraine, as it, too, wants India as a countervailing force against China.

Hence India’s reluctance to sign up to any peace formula for Ukraine that does not factor in Russia’s interests. It is core Indian national interest, rather than any nostalgia for any lal topi rusi that determines India’s Ukraine policy.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in Money Control as Why India and Russia have overlapping interest in a bipolar world on June 18, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.

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