India, Europe and the Russian complication

The re-election of Emmanuel Macron as the president of France on Sunday has sent a sigh of relief across Europe and North America. Delhi too is pleased with the return of Macron, who laid a strong foundation for India’s strategic partnership with France.

Victory for Marine Le Pen, Macron’s opponent, would have complicated the geopolitics of Europe. If the Russian aggression against Ukraine challenges the existing European regional order, Le Pen’s challenge to Macron underlined Moscow’s expansive influence in the internal politics of European nations. Le Pen, like so many other right-wing leaders in Europe, has close ties to Vladimir Putin. Many of them are deeply hostile to the European Union. Le Pen’s victory would have not only altered France’s international trajectory, but also shaken the EU to its political core.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which sought to shape European politics though left-wing parties, Russia today influences European politics through right-wing parties. That Le Pen got nearly 42 per cent of the popular vote reflects the growing challenge to mainstream politics. European establishments now have no choice but to double down on confronting Putin.

Russia’s threat to the regional and domestic order in Europe is among multiple factors shaping Delhi’s intensifying engagement with Brussels. Although India and the EU have talked of a strategic partnership for two decades, they have struggled to realise it. Three major external factors are facilitating the transformation of India’s ties with Europe.

The first is the Russian question. As the war in Ukraine dominates Delhi’s conversations with European leaders this week, India’s reluctance to condemn Putin’s aggression suggest nothing has really changed — that Delhi is inseparably tied to Moscow and is at best “neutral” in Russia’s conflicts with the West. During the last few weeks, Delhi has insisted that its silence is not an endorsement of Russian aggression. India’s position has continued to evolve. Delhi’s repeated emphasis on respecting the territorial integrity of states is a repudiation of Russia’s unacceptable aggression.

There is no question that the Ukraine invasion has put Delhi in acute acute discomfort amidst the escalating conflict with China. For India, a normal relationship between Russia and the West would have been ideal. But Russia’s confrontation with the West comes during India’s rapidly expanding economic and political ties to Europe and America. Delhi might be sentimental about India’s historic Russian connection but it is not going to sacrifice its growing ties to the West on that altar. Russia’s declining economic weight and growing international isolation begins to simplify India’s choices.

Meanwhile, geographic proximity and economic complementarity have tied Europe even more deeply to Russia. The EU’s annual trade with Russia at around $260 billion is massive in comparison to India’s $10 billion. Unlike India, Europe’s social connections with Russia are deep-rooted. A range of leaders in Europe, including Macron, have been advocating a historic reconciliation with Russia and Moscow’s integration into the regional security order.

Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine has compelled Europe to embark on a costly effort to disconnect from Russia. This is particularly true for Germany, which has cultivated strong commercial ties with Russia. With Putin locked in a long and unwinnable war in Ukraine, Russia is condemned to pay a heavy price for his folly and is bound to emerge as a terribly weakened power.

The war in Ukraine has certainly presented a major near-term problem that needs to be managed by Delhi and Brussels. Yet, they also find themselves in the same policy boat — of trying to reduce reliance on Russia. And over the longer term, a diminished Russia is bound to become less of a complicating factor in India’s engagement with Europe.

For nearly a century, India’s Russian connection had complicated Delhi’s ties to Europe. If the Russian revolution of 1917 inspired large sections of the Indian national movement, the partnership with Moscow dominated India’s international relations during the Cold War. That phase is drawing to a close.

Second is the China question that adds a new imperative to India’s partnership with Europe. Contrary to the mythology in Delhi that Russia has been pushed into China’s arms, Moscow has been deepening ties with Beijing for more than two decades triggering many anxieties in Delhi. In June 2021, Joe Biden had met in Geneva with an offer to Putin to explore a productive relationship with Russia. Putin, however, made a conscious choice to turn to China instead. In February, Putin traveled to Beijing to announce a partnership “without limits”. Whether Russia was pushed or jumped into Chinese arms makes no difference to India. India has no option but to manage the consequences of the Russian decision. In the last two decades, China has emerged as a great power and now presents a generational challenge for Indian policymakers. That challenge has been made harder by Putin’s alliance with Xi Jinping.

As Delhi strives to retain a reasonable relationship with Moscow, Europe emerges as an important partner in letting India cope with the China challenge. This is reinforced by Europe’s own rethinking on China.
For more than two decades, Europe pursued relentless economic engagement with China, without a reference to Beijing’s long-term political ambitions. Thanks to the growing problems of doing business with Xi’s China, Beijing’s geopolitical alliance with Moscow, and the rapid deterioration of Sino-US relations, Brussels is ready to invest serious political capital in building purposeful strategic ties with India. Delhi is ready to reciprocate.

Finally, there is the American question. Until recently it appeared that Europe’s calls for “strategic autonomy” from the US were in sync with India’s own worldview. But the Ukraine crisis has underlined the US’s centrality in securing Europe against Russia. In Asia, Chinese assertiveness has brought back the US as a critical factor in shaping peace and security. The US, however, is not looking for weak allies in Europe and Asia. Washington wants a strong Europe taking greater responsibility for its own security; it would like Delhi to play a larger role in Asia and become a credible provider of regional security. Above all, America wants India and Europe to build stronger ties with each other.

The Ukraine war has persuaded Delhi to recalibrate its great power relations and has compelled Europe to end its long geopolitical holiday. For the first time since independence, India’s interests are now aligning with those of Europe. Together, Delhi and Brussels can help reshape Eurasia as well as the Indo-Pacific.

The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, New Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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