The Wider View

Jun 30, 2022

A Different Dynamic in EU-India Relations

When India abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it caused unease in Europe. But the EU should focus on what it can reasonably expect from New Delhi, and that means looking for cooperation on dealing with Beijing not Moscow.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a military honours ceremony ahead of the German-Indian government consultations at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany May 2, 2022.
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Have ties between the European Union and India entered a new era of turbulence? After two decades of a relationship marked by notable ups and downs, the EU-India Leaders’ Meeting, held in May 2021 in the Portuguese city of Porto, had been greeted as the beginning of a new phase of strategic convergence. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, triggered a different dynamic. The next day, on February 25, a draft resolution condemning Russia was submitted to be voted on by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Predictably, Russia vetoed the resolution and China chose to abstain. But to the surprise of many in Europe, so did India.

New Delhi’s position visibly ruffled its European partners. EU envoys in the Indian capital tried in vain to convince Indian foreign ministry officials to adopt a tougher position but India abstained from condemning Russia’s actions in the five votes which took place at the United Nations even though it did reiterate its “commitment to the principles of the UN Charter, to international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.”

European policymakers, hoping for closer relationships with India, felt disappointed at what they saw as India’s implicit support to Russia. Even the ever-cautious European Commission expressed its unease with New Delhi’s position. At the Raisina Dialogue, on April 25, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, subtly criticized India by reminding her audience that “the outcome of the war in Ukraine would not only determine the future of Europe but also deeply affect the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the world,” wondering aloud about what the “seemingly unrestrained pact” that China and Russia had forged meant for Europe and Asia, and therefore implicitly, for India. Indian Foreign Minister, Subramanyam Jaishankar, meanwhile, kept insisting that India would stand its ground. Furthermore, addressing the GLOBESEC Bratislava Forum in June, he added that “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problem, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”

A Different Hierarchy of Objectives

New Delhi’s differences with Europe are real but should not be exaggerated. They primarily concern relations with Russia, not Ukraine. And they reflect a different hierarchy of foreign policy objectives in Europe and India, not a difference of values. The joint communiqués released at the end of the visits by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Germany, Denmark, and France in early May expressed, in the exact same terms, India and the visited country’s “serious concern about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. They reiterated the need for a cessation of hostilities. They emphasized that that the contemporary global order has been built on the UN charter, international law and respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states,” an indirect but real condemnation of Russia. But while all three visited countries expressed their “strong condemnation of the unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russian Forces,” India did not.

It is important to note, that India’s abstention in the UN vote should not be confused with support or sympathy for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This invasion created a series of immediate and very practical problems for India. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion New Delhi had to evacuate some 20,000 students from Ukraine, a logistical nightmare for the Indian authorities who had to ensure that the students could cross over to Ukraine’s neighboring countries from where they could be repatriated. More importantly from a security and political perspective, it contravened all of India’s principles on the respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, introducing a contradiction in its foreign policy and tensions with its Western partners. Moreover, it increased the rapprochement between Russia and China at a time when Chinese troops are yet to be withdrawn from India’s Himalayan territories.    

In reality, New Delhi’s refusal to condemn Russia has little if anything to do with the fate of Ukraine and is almost entirely dictated by the state of India’s complex relationship with China. India is highly dependent on Russia in two areas: Politically, New Delhi’s priority is to ensure that Russia does not slip further into the Chinese orbit; Militarily it remains structurally dependent on Moscow for is defense systems as well as their maintenance. Indeed, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2016 and 2020, India absorbed 23 percent of Russia’s arms exports, while Moscow is also willing to provide weapons systems and technologies that no other country will export to India, at an affordable price.

Leverage in Dealing with the West

India’s public stance on Russia is therefore unlikely to change any time soon, but it will continue to reduce its dependence and bring it back to more manageable levels. The growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing will continue to diminish the former’s political relevance for New Delhi while arms dependence on Moscow, which has already considerably decreased since 2014, will continue to decline, including due to the poor quality of much Russian equipment.

Yet the process is likely to be slow and complicated as Russia can blackmail India at every step of the way by getting closer to India’s adversaries like China but also Pakistan, which has been pursuing closer ties with Moscow, or by delaying the delivery of much needed ammunition and spare parts to the Indian armed forces. With 60,000 Chinese troops on its Himalayan border, alienating Moscow could seriously undermine India’s security. Last but not least, the relationship with Russia gives New Delhi leverage in its dealings with the West that it is unlikely to give up. Europe, on the other hand, has no choice but to stay the course on Russia as any sign of weakness or division would dramatically affect the European and international order.

Both sides seem to understand the equation and if the Ukraine crisis remains an irritant in India’s relations with Europe, it is unlikely to change their current trajectory. Despite her criticism of the Indian position, Ursula von der Leyen agreed on the creation of a new bilateral “Trade and Technology Council” with India, a structure that had previously only existed with the United States, as well as a promise to “deepen bilateral cooperation upholding the rules-based global order.” Similarly, the language and the form of the joint communiqués released at the end of Prime Minister Modi’s visits to European member states indicate that while neither the European nor the Indian side were willing to compromise on their respective positions vis-à-vis Russia, they were equally willing to highlight their convergence on their assessments of the conflict and its potential consequences for the existing international order. Both understand that the main threat to the latter is Beijing, not Moscow, even though President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the more immediate problem for Europe.

Interests Converge in the Indo-Pacific

With this in mind, Europe should focus on what it can reasonably expect from India. New Delhi’s current position does not really affect Europe. What really matters is that India does not mitigate or even compensate for the impact of sanctions imposed by the EU and/or the United States on Russia. Insisting on India condemning Russia would be futile. Not only is Europe unlikely to obtain it but such a condemnation would have little or no impact on the outcome of the war. Russian retaliations on the other hand would weaken India’s position vis-à-vis China, which would diminish the raison d’être of India-Europe relationship.  

Ultimately India will be most useful for Europe in the Indo-Pacific, where their interests truly converge and where many European policymakers are at a loss about how to approach the China question. New Delhi and the European capitals may not like each other’s policies, but they need to find a quid pro quo based on their real, not symbolic, interests.   

Frédéric Grare is a Senior Policy Fellow with the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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