March 28, 2014

A Crimean Crisis for Delhi

The following article originally appeared in the Economic Times on March 28, 2014. 

Russia's virtually bloodless annexation of Crimea has shaken Europe. At the Brussels Forum, organised last weekend by the German Marshall Fund, leaders and diplomats — including from Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Europe — raised the worrying prospect of a new Cold War.

Many highlighted the need to enhance their military preparedness after two decades of relative neglect. For its part, India has adopted a more careful position on the Crimean crisis than the headlines have often projected.

While NSA Shivshankar Menon noted that there were "legitimate Russian and other interests involved" in Crimea, PM Manmohan Singh — according to a released statement — emphasised "issues of unity and territorial integrity" and the hope of "long term peace and stability in Europe" in a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Crimean crisis has clearly presented India with a dilemma. On the one hand, Indian commentators are mindful of New Delhi's longstanding ties with Moscow, which manifest themselves primarily in defence sales and cooperation in international organisations. While the defence ties have come under strain, positive sentiments based on Russia's willingness to support India in less promising times still find resonance.

There is also an implicit understanding about realms of influence among great powers, which India finds relevant in its own neighbourhood, given its concerns about Chinese involvement in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The Indian leadership is also wary of China being the prime beneficiary of the deteriorating relationship between Russia, on the one hand, and Europe and the US, on the other.

New Delhi, it is felt, must keep pace by ensuring as little daylight as possible between its position on Crimea and that of Beijing. But there are other aspects of this situation that complicate India's stance, and the balance to strike. The first is that this is not simply a case of India maintaining equidistance between Russia and the West. Russia's annexation of Crimea has engendered fears among its neighbours — including Kazakhstan and Belarus, hardly pro-Western states — that feel that they can no longer treat Moscow's assurances with any degree of seriousness, particularly when, like Ukraine, they are home to large Russian speaking minorities.

Crimea's annexation by Russia, in other words, sets a dangerous precedent by undermining the principle of pluralism, a value that is central to the idea of India, and one that it upheld at significant cost during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s.

There is also the small matter of sovereignty. While NATO enlargement has been employed by some commentators to justify Russia's annexation of Crimea, new NATO members — whether the Baltic states or most former Warsaw Pact members — joined the US-led alliance of their own accord. This is often forgotten, even by many American commentators, such as The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, who place the blame for Russia's aggression squarely on NATO's doorstep. 

The principle of sovereignty also extends to territorial claims based on arbitrary points of history, such as Moscow's 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine. Not only are some of India's territorial claims undermined by such justifications for revisionism, but so is any respect for treaties meant to guarantee the territorial status quo.

After all, by signing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia agreed to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and "existing borders" (which included Crimea) and to refrain from threatening or using force against Ukraine.

Like any decision which requires compromise between the logic of realpolitik and a defence of principles, Russia's annexation of Crimea presents India with an uncomfortable dilemma. Fortunately, India will not play a determinative role in the outcome of the Crimean crisis. But in its words and deeds, it will have to maintain a delicate balance between interests and values as relations between Russia and the West deteriorate.