The first major territorial war of the 21st century will ultimately produce geopolitical winners and losers. Nevertheless, the remaking of international order is not only being scripted on Ukrainian territory; neither is the war’s interpretation only being shaped in Kyiv, Washington, D.C., and Moscow.
When India abstained in the March 2 vote on the United Nations General Assembly’s call to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it invited an array of criticism and questions. At the center of the confusion of some observers was the conviction that an abstention always implies a position that is in between “in favor” and “against” a motion. And while the territorial war in Ukraine stimulates bipolar discourses that are narrated in terms of too little vs. too much support or minimum vs. maximum levels of deterrence, Indian foreign policy navigates the situation with a different rationale.
In India, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stipulated a loss of trust in both Russian and Western sources of technology as well as a new alertness over any major technological dependence on one partner country. New Delhi’s reinforced belief in self-reliance, or Atmanirbhar Bharat, might in the short run compromise its economic growth, but India’s domestic consensus for technological strategic autonomy is here to stay.
Russia’s Dented Image
All-weather-friends with the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, the post-Cold War Indo-Russian partnership has remained deep but also become more pragmatic. India’s central appreciation for Russia is based on its partner’s military technological prowess as well as its willingness to trade and share other critical technologies meant for India’s national needs.
As Russia has now been fighting a territorial war for almost three months, the country is coming under increasing pressure to produce heavy weapons for its own needs. With already dwindling arms imports from Russia, a shortage in essential components for new weapons, and Russia’s growing technological dependence on China, India realizes that its long-term strategic partner might not remain a reliable and valuable source for military technology in the future.
Furthermore, Russia’s unexpected and decisive military losses throughout the war have caused an enormous crack in its image as a producer of high-end weaponry. The great power brand that Vladimir Putin had nurtured for 20 years is now up against a harsh reality in which Russian heavy weaponry stops functioning and precision-guided munitions constantly misses their targets. That comes at a time when India is integrating Russia’s S-400 missile defense system as one cornerstone of its air defense. As the Russian system has hardly been tested in combat, India understands that the general disenchantment with weapons made in Russia has caused a massive devaluation of such technology – and its deterrent effect.
With Russia moving closer to China, its technological dependence on Beijing is set to increase. Even before Ericsson and Nokia exited the Russian market earlier this year, Huawei and ZTE held a significant number of telecommunications licenses in Russia. Similarly, as Taiwanese TSMC has joined Western sanctions mechanisms and stopped all semiconductor supplies to Russia, Chinese companies find the Russian market without competition. As the infrastructure for Russia’s ICT environment is tilting toward Chinese ownership, Russia is becoming a less safe place for Indian confidential information. In some instances, like the S-400, the Chinese government already has access to all technological indices, as China too has purchased the system from Russia.
Fear of Western Sanctions
While Indian decision-makers contemplate options for diversifying their military imports to become less dependent on Russia, the Western sanctions against Putin’s regime have blindsided New Delhi. For protectionist voices in India, the wide-ranging sanctions against Russia appear as a confirmation of long-held apprehensions that the United States and its allies will weaponize the global trade system if it suits their interests. After 30 years of taking a backseat in the Indian political environment, protectionist understandings of the international political economy are now again gaining momentum.
Since India’s trade liberalization in the early 1990s, the country only slowly started embracing economic globalization. Central to this emerging belief is trust in the neutrality of the global financial and economic order. When Iran was locked out of the SWIFT international payment messaging system as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s sanctions in 2018, New Delhi became increasingly worried that the technological infrastructure of the global financial system could also be weaponized against India. The continuous criticism that New Delhi’s government receives on the state of minority rights in India had nurtured a firm belief that the U.S. and its partners might potentially sanction India in the future as well.
The ease with which Russia was decoupled from a supposedly global technological infrastructure like SWIFT only accelerated a trend toward tech-infrastructure autonomy. India already exhibits several R&D solutions that aim to make itself and its partners immune to sanctions. With RuPay, for example, India has an alternative to MasterCard and Visa with a customer base exceeding 600 million Indians. The RuPay payments system has already been exported and established in Bhutan, Nepal, Singapore, and the UAE.
The sanctions on SWIFT are now accelerating demands in India to leverage its Unified Payment Interface (UPI) on the international stage. UPI is India’s online banking platform, which integrates accounts in over 300 Indian banks and allows users to transfer money directly without using the SWIFT system.
In addition, Western sanctions have revitalized the idea of rupee-ruble trade, which would circumvent euro and U.S. dollar transactions. With a new conviction that advancing sanctions resilience can be coupled with promoting domestic innovation, India is likely to seek greater geoeconomic sovereignty from Western countries.
Notwithstanding India’s new alertness for the United States’ “big stick” and Russia’s Potemkin technologies, Indian foreign policy has two options. It currently caters to both of them.
The first one is to invest all political capital into developing technology at home. In the last two decades, India has nurtured industry leaders in key technological sectors. With UPI and Aadhaar, India’s electronic citizenship identification system, the country has successfully established publicly funded technologies that provide confidence for further like-minded projects. Indian corporate leaders believe that homegrown e-governance, e-commerce, and AI solutions should not only enrich the domestic economic growth trajectory but also become export hits in the future.
The second option includes much closer technological cooperation with other middle powers. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, India has been actively pushing for trade deals with Australia, the UAE, and the United Kingdom. While the U.S. remains a significant strategic partner with whom it shares important geoeconomic and geopolitical interests, India sees greater affiliation with the U.S. only as a viable option if it can simultaneously deepen its partnerships with fellow middle powers.
The European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April, for example, announced a new EU-India Trade and Technology Commission (TTC). The TTC is set up to explore more areas for joint projects, while emphasizing the connection of two policy fields which this article also aims at interlinking.
However, most significantly, India is showing great interest in diversifying its bilateral tech partnerships with Australia, France, Israel, Japan, and Taiwan. India knows that, to counter China’s border aggressions and cyberattacks, it must have access to state-of-the-art solutions to defend itself. And while all of the above partners are known to punch above their weight, India’s emerging focus on middle power diplomacy also functions as a useful mechanism to prevent the emergence of global bipolarity.
India has consistently positioned itself as a neutral power throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, alarmed by the behavior of both Russia and the U.S., India’s reluctance to pick a side should not be confused with indecisiveness. While the conflict is still unfolding, New Delhi has been strengthened in the belief that it must become more self-reliant. After recently allowing for careful economic liberalization, India has reconsidered its external dependencies on emerging technologies.
India’s reaction to the war in Ukraine shows that its self-declared rationale of strategic autonomy is not a goal in itself. Instead, India’s geopolitical challenges in the neighborhood, its apprehensions about a bipolar international system, and its reflex for maximizing economic sovereignty coalesce into the greater foreign policy principle of strategic autonomy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has manifested India’s political consensus and contributed to an understanding of how strategic autonomy may be translated into a foreign policy agenda.
Countries that seek to strengthen their technology partnerships with India are well advised not to view cooperation with India in isolation, but to recognize the complex relationships and dependencies that condition India’s foreign policy environment. Considering the present effects of its technological dependence on Russia, India will choose future tech partners with an extra amount of prudence.