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Central and Eastern Europe’s emerging relations with India in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War

Much has been made of India’s seemingly neutral position on the war in Ukraine. Whilst the country has maintained many traditional links with Moscow, New Delhi’s growing importance on the global stage offers a range of new opportunities for states across Central and Eastern Europe.

June 7, 2022 - Jakub Bornio Priya Vijaykumar Poojary - Articles and Commentary

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech to the nation during Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi in 2018. Photo: PradeepGaurs / Shutterstock

The consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine reach far beyond the two states and the region of Central and Eastern Europe. The West-Russia structural rivalry, in fact, has been involved in the conflict since its very beginning in 2014. The Kremlin’s large-scale operation only intensified this process. What is more, contrary to Moscow’s expectations, its activities in Ukraine have resulted in the unprecedented growth of unity among most NATO and EU allies. The invasion not only triggered coherence but also contributed to further NATO enlargement, given that Finland and Sweden have officially applied for membership of the Alliance. As a result, Moscow has weakened its seemingly eternal “divide and rule” policy with regards to the West.

The security of Central and Eastern Europe, however, is an inseparable part of a larger international structure. Therefore, one cannot ignore the global processes in international relations that determine the state of affairs in the region and the Russia-Ukraine war at its core. This is especially true as Russia may still count on comprehension, or at least tacit agreement, from a relatively large group of states. They, unlike the West and its allies, are not harsh on Russia’s activities in both a material (sanctions) and symbolic sense (e.g., UN resolutions that condemned Russian aggression and suspended it from the Human Rights Council). It should not be excluded that they might even be able and ready to provide Moscow with necessary support if it is in their interests.

Furthermore, the emergence of Chinese power and assertiveness as well as the American attempts to counter such clout in an increasingly multipolar world are bound to have deeper implications – political, economic and structural – in Central and Eastern Europe. This became evident as early as 2012, when the official “17+1” cooperation format between China and the region was first officially founded. The impact of these structural changes on the region became clear in late 2013 as Washington, a major security provider in the area, had almost completely rolled back its heavy military equipment from Europe. This was part of the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” plan announced two years earlier. Facing two rivals in Eurasia has made the US push its allies to take greater responsibility for their own security and the stability of their respective regions, including Central and Eastern Europe. Washington is also attempting to turn non-aligned states against Russia, China or preferably both. Usually, such a shift may be achieved through a military alliance, trade agreement, or arms purchases. At the same time, Moscow’s strategic goal is to undermine US hegemony and further intensify multipolarity. In such circumstances, India is expected to be one of the world’s new “poles” with its rising political and economic clout. This is due to its potential as the world’s second most populated country and sixth largest economy according to World Bank data. New Delhi also has one of the world’s largest armies equipped with nuclear capabilities. The complex relations of this state with Russia and China make it an extraordinarily important actor in global politics.

A unique position

Despite unease over the war in Ukraine, India has adopted a very neutral stance towards Russia. India abstained from voting in all multilateral platforms – the UN Security Council, Human Rights Council and General Assembly. This position of neutrality initially disappointed many and even angered a few, as it reflected divergence between western nations and India. While many would interpret India’s position as being more subtly pro-Moscow than entirely neutral, the country still stands strong with the US in opposing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. This understanding was further cemented during the most recent Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the US, Japan, India and Australia in mid-May. At the summit, the four states initiated the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a new economic project to counter China in the region. The IPEF has been labelled as a new economic project aimed at eliminating tariffs and allowing market access. It includes four pillars, which are namely trade (free, fair and inclusive); clean energy, decarbonisation and infrastructure (finance, connectivity, digital technologies); supply chains (diverse, transparent and secure); and tax and anti-corruption. The project currently includes the QUAD members and 12 other countries. The fact that this project was launched a day prior to the QUAD summit (and not after), makes it clear that it is likely a US-led, and not a QUAD-led, initiative.

India’s ambiguity needs to be understood through of its own interests. This has stopped India from publicly and openly condemning Russia even though it did so in a more subtle manner. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar eventually reiterated India’s position that the global order is anchored on international law, the UN charter and respect for states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. This “tightrope walk” on Russian aggression in Ukraine has been described by many as strategic ambivalence. But this might not be so, as New Delhi’s decision to not publicly condemn Russia is driven by clear calculations regarding how alienating Russia might undermine Indian security interests. Of course, China and Pakistan remain the main point of reference in this regard.

Firstly, in Indian strategic thinking, preserving ties with Moscow is important if it is to prevent Russia’s closer alignment with China and Pakistan. This is because both of these countries are actively seeking closer ties with Russia – something that naturally worries New Delhi. As a result, India aims to minimise Russia’s proximity to both by avoiding any open criticism. Secondly, Russia’s importance to India needs to be considered based on past geopolitical calculations. Moscow’s support in the past for Indian claims over Jammu & Kashmir (when the West was seen as ambivalent), naturally makes the Kremlin a worthwhile ally for India. Thirdly, India has been highly dependent on Russia’s defence equipment, which only furthers its reluctance to alienate Moscow. According to data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India is the largest arms importer globally, as well as the largest importer of Russian armaments. SIPRI reports that in 2017-21 Moscow’s arms deliveries to India accounted for 28 per cent of its total arms exports. At the same time, the country’s dependence on Russian deliveries was also high, amounting to 48 per cent of its arms imports. From the Indian perspective, Russia offers a number of advantages – low costs, a willingness to share technology and a long-standing familiarity with each other’s systems. This naturally makes the country a critical and highly desirable source of weapons.

Realising this overdependence, India has begun to diversify its military supplies. For example, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused a significant decline in India’s arms procurement from Russia. The supply of armaments from Russia fell from 69 per cent in 2012-16 to 48 per cent in 2017-21. Any diversification that New Delhi seeks away from Russian dependence will take time. This is where Europe, particularly some of the Central European countries, can play a role to partly help fill this gap. to both the general purchases as well as the modernisation of the post-Soviet military equipment. Notably, in April India announced that it would renege on its plan to buy Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia. Officially, this was done to boost local production. However, the country’s high level of dependence and Russian shortages that could have appeared as a result of the war in Ukraine might have also influenced the decision. Finally, it is clear that despite its “neutrality” India might want to turn the crisis to its own advantage. In the face of Russian oil exports to Europe drying up and the falling prices of this resource of Russian origins, Indian companies – with a stronger bargaining position – can purchase additional volumes of oil. What is more, New Delhi is negotiating with Moscow for further deliveries. The most recent partial embargo on deliveries of Russian Ural’s oil imposed by the European Union has strengthened the Indian position even more.

New opportunities

An ambiguous, even ambivalent Indian policy toward the Russo-Ukrainian War has also intensified the local diplomatic efforts of the US, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and the EU. After all, they all sent representatives to New Delhi soon after the re-escalation of the conflict. Unlike their counterparts, some of Central and Eastern Europe’s foreign ministers have only visited India as part of the Raisina Dialogue – India’s largest foreign policy platform. The representatives of Poland, Lithuania and Slovenia have all been involved in this conference. Regardless of India’s undisputed importance, it has never been a top priority for the foreign policy agendas of Central and Eastern European states. This may not be surprising, as the medium-sized states are rather focused on their closest neighbourhood and are not that all far-reaching. For some of them, it was even difficult to get used to a Chinese presence in the region, hence, some of them have pursued hesitant policies toward Chinese regional investments or initiatives like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. After all, there are not many economic, cultural or strategic links that these countries could stimulate or develop in relation to India.

New Delhi has traditionally viewed Central and Eastern European countries through the prism of old Soviet relations which in result undermines the geopolitical opportunities that the region has to offer presently. During the Cold War, India saw CEE countries as significant political partners. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, relations between the two gradually declined. Despite this, in recent times we have seen a flurry of exchanges between the two regions. This is exemplified by Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s visit to Poland and Slovenia in 2019. These visits reflect a well-planned Indian strategy to revive ties with a neglected, yet important region in the geostrategic sense. It further signifies India’s shift from non-alignment to multi-alignment as it seeks to develop parallel relationships with like-minded actors on issues of security, economy, climate change and energy as to counter China in Asia.

Bilateral trade between India and the CEE region reached 10.6 billion US dollars in 2020 according to data provided by the Observatory of Economic Complexity. This includes 5.1 billion dollars of Indian imports and 5.4 billion of exports. Poland, the largest economy in the area, has become India’s leading economic partner in the region with a total trade value of around 2.6 billion US dollars (666 million of Indian imports and 1.86 billion of exports). This is followed by Ukraine with a total trade value at the level of 2.2 billion US dollars (2 billion of India’s imports and 176 million of exports). These two countries alone account for almost 45 per cent of the region’s total trade with India. Meanwhile, there is huge potential for deeper economic engagement even though these links have been underutilised for various reasons. Engaging with India might offer CEE countries a viable alternative if they want to boost their economies and are ready to contribute to an economic counterweight to China. With growing pressures to restrict Chinese investments in infrastructure, India can emerge as a safer and more reliable economic partner. This is especially true due to the fact that unlike CEE-China ties, such cooperation would not be “sabotaged” by the US. Recent political moves by the Czech Republic and Lithuania on Taiwan suggest that there is a clear desire in the region to direct their attentions to other Asian partners.

Additionally, Central and Eastern European countries need to consider their relations with India in the broader context of the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi’s position in the region provides a significant entry point for those states with a keen interest in the region. Furthermore, the EU has also shown its global ambitions to become an actor in the region that aligns with Indian interests such as multi-polarisation. India, therefore, wishes to expand its bilateral relations with regional member states in order to strengthen the India-EU strategic partnership. The region features prominently in India’s multi-aligned vision of a 21st century world based on peace, stability and the rules-based international order. These trends present New Delhi with opportunities to seek greater strategic engagement with Central and Eastern Europe. This will subsequently allow India to acquire more support in its bid for permanent UNSC membership, alongside a plethora of economic and security opportunities.

Dr. Jakub Bornio is Assistant Professor at the University of Wrocław. A graduate in European Studies, he holds a PhD in political science with a specialty in international relations. Bornio was previously a Fellow at Corvinus University in Budapest and has worked in the Regional Representation of the European Commission and at the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe. He actively researches the Eastern dimension of European security. He publishes regularly for the Jamestown Foundation and New Eastern Europe.

Priya Vijaykumar Poojary is Lecturer and a research scholar at MCES, Manipal. She holds a master’s degree in European Studies from MAHE and a second master’s in International Relations from Metropolitan University Prague (MUP). Her teaching and research interests include European politics, policymaking in the European Union, the EU’s foreign policy, India-EU relations, migration governance, and higher education regionalism. She has been a visiting fellow at Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS) and a beneficiary of Erasmus+ mobility.

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