The Russia-Ukraine War and Non-Aligned South Asia: A Steady Walk Amidst Great Power Politics
The Russia-Ukraine conflict emerged in early 2022 as the world was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Global economies were trying to get back on their feet while inflation was rising; supply chains got disrupted and economies collapsed. Monetary policies got tightened and the price of basic commodities such as petroleum and even food grains increased. For Asia-Pacific and South Asia particularly, some issues at hand are primarily a matter of concern: global economic slowdown, weakening currencies, high inflation, and rising interest rates. Geopolitical tensions are also rising due to conflictual interests and contradicting views (for example, India-China border tensions, Sri Lanka’s failing economy, and devastating floods in Pakistan). South Asia is also facing serious challenges on a different front. As Russia and Ukraine are significant trading partners with several South Asian countries, any disruptions in trade between these countries can have a severe impact on their economies. Additionally, the sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries have affected the global oil market, leading to higher oil prices, which has a significant impact on the highly-exposed South Asian economy.
This war has also increased geopolitical tensions, particularly between Russia and Western countries. Some South Asian countries, such as India and Pakistan, have close ties with Russia and Western countries, and any escalation of tensions can have significant implications for these countries. Russia is a significant supplier of oil and gas to several South Asian countries, including India and Pakistan. Any disruption in the supply of oil and gas from Russia can have a severe impact on their energy security through higher prices and potential energy shortages. The Russia-Ukraine war has similarly caused instability in the global energy market, resulting in higher oil prices everywhere, severely impacting South Asian economies that rely heavily on oil imports. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), by January 2023, India was the world’s fifth-largest oil importer and could face an increase in its current account deficit due to higher oil prices. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could face similar economic challenges. While South Asian countries are not directly affected by the refugee crisis, they may face challenges in providing humanitarian aid to refugees, particularly if the crisis worsens.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis has altered the dynamics of the contemporary definition of security and regional stability and has ripple effects far beyond Europe. South Asia, as a region, has been impacted by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine because Russia is a major defense supplier for both India and Bangladesh and is an emerging economic partner for Pakistan. As a result, the crisis in Ukraine will alter South Asia’s security ecosystem and can alter the regional balance by establishing new political standards or deviations among nations.
The article will highlight the conundrum that South Asia is facing because of this crisis and why most South Asian nations are sticking to the nonaligned stance. They accomplish this by abstaining from United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voting with neutral responses. This article will also cover the implications of this neutrality on the Indian subcontinent— namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—and continue with a comparative study between India’s and Pakistan’s neutrality. It will conclude with a strategic analysis of South Asian neutrality.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in South Asia
The South Asia region is at a critical security juncture, while current political alignment toward any power involved in the war could prove fatal for the countries in the region. This kind of dilemma is not new to South Asia. Cold War politics and the creation of two ideological blocs, democratic capitalism versus communism, demanded such critical decision-making, in which countries effectively had to align with one of the blocs. However, to protect their hard-earned independence, South Asian countries typically maintained a safer distance from this bloc politics and prevented themselves from becoming pawns in the greater game by sticking to nonalignment. India played a key role in the formation and development of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Formally, non-alignment refers to a foreign policy stance of not aligning oneself with any power bloc or alliance. India, along with other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, formed the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 at Belgrade Conference. NAM sought to create a third pole in international politics, outside the traditional power blocs of the U.S.-led Western alliance and the USSR-led Eastern bloc.
Non-alignment was seen as a technique or a process to pursue national interests without becoming embroiled in the global power struggle between the U.S. and the USSR. It also allowed South Asian countries to maintain friendly relations with both great powers simultaneously, which was particularly important for India, given its historical ties with the USSR and its growing economic and strategic ties with the U.S.
During the Cold War, South Asian countries faced considerable challenges due to their geographic location and strategic importance. India and Pakistan, in particular, were caught up in the power struggle between the U.S. and the USSR. However, NAM allowed these countries to pursue an independent foreign policy that prioritized their own interests and avoided being dragged into the wider ideological conflict.
Today, as the world faces new challenges and crises, including the RussiaUkraine war, principles of NAM continues to play a role in South Asia’s survival: non-alignment, peaceful coexistence, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are more relevant than ever in today’s complex geopolitical landscape. By promoting dialogue and cooperation among member states and advocating for a peaceful resolution to conflicts, NAM is helping to prevent the escalation of tensions and promote regional stability.
South Asian Perspectives on the Crisis and Factors Shaping Opinions
South Asian countries have generally taken a neutral stance on the Ukraine crisis, with many expressing support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict through diplomatic means. Non–Alignment has proven to be a durable strategy for the majority of the countries in the region, which have endured the worst of downstream impacts from the conflict.
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have maintained similar policies through the first year of the year, with a few notable exceptions. The largest of the South Asian nations, India, which has a long-standing relationship with Russia, has called for restraint and dialogue to resolve the crisis. Taking a cautious stance on the Ukraine crisis, Pakistan and its officials have expressed support for dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the conflict. Pakistan has also emphasized the importance of respecting international law and territorial integrity and has called for an end to the violence. While enduring post-pandemic economic crisis, Sri Lanka has emphasized the importance of resolving the crisis peacefully through dialogue and negotiation and expressed concern over the impact of the crisis on global stability and security. At various times, Bangladesh has also emphasized the need for a peaceful crisis resolution through dialogue and negotiation. Bangladesh maintains a neutral foreign policy, which emphasizes maintaining friendly relations with all countries, regardless of their geopolitical interests. This policy is grounded in Bangladesh’s experience of being caught between the two superpowers during the Cold War and the need to balance its relationships with neighboring countries in South Asia.
India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, it could be said, are “currently walking on a tightrope,” since all four have enjoyed good relations with both Russia and the U.S. since the Cold War. Choosing a side at this juncture could trigger a Cold War scenario where great powers will assert their supremacy and small powers or non-aligned powers will be compelled to take a side. This time, the conflict will leave a long-lasting impact and this non-alignment will prove to be costly for South Asia keeping in mind highly interdependent and integrated interests, especially for India and Pakistan. Sri Lanka, in the midst of an economic crisis, is trying to play it safe and has decided not to align with any power, which reflects its political will to stay neutral and seek help from each.
While Bangladesh has enjoyed strong ties with Russia since independence, it is possible that Bangladesh may be hesitant to take a position against Russia or even the United States. This might then harm its relations with key partners. While the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan abstained from a UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Nepal, surprisingly, backed the resolution to demand that Moscow withdraw its troops. It was an unusual response, as seen on Nepal’s side, since it enjoys good relations with both Russia and the West. Nepal’s support for Ukraine has stirred a debate behind such a response and the possibility of Nepal moving away from a non-aligned stance. Nepal’s unpredictable stance against Russia can be understood in two ways: reflecting a particular inclination toward the United States and changing the discourse of its foreign policy. Notably, Nepal’s Parliament recently endorsed a 500 million USD Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant from the U.S. ProChina parties in the country opposed the move and later staged anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country. At the same time, Nepal’s stance was clearly not aligned and can be viewed as choosing a different path from both its larger neighbors, India and China, which both abstained it the UNGA voting. In this way, Nepal, as a small landlocked country, tried to maintain its neutrality while criticizing the use of violence by Russia openly and favoring the complete withdrawal of troops from Ukraine.
A small country in the Himalayas, Bhutan has learned an invaluable lesson from the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Though not directly impacted, Bhutan has felt the repercussions of the war through the domino effect. The small country is highly dependent on India for its economic and trade affairs, and since India enjoys good relations with Russia and is dependent on it various commodities, the ripple effects can be seen in Bhutan, too. The shortage of fuel was one of the first indirect impacts, as long queues of motor vehicles at fuel stations were witnessed. The transport sector took the most significant hit of the war as the cost of petrol and diesel rose sharply. Sudden announcements about halting wheat exports in India created the possibility of a food shortage. Bhutan’s criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is also an attempt by the country to voice its concerns in a world scarred by continuous wars and conflicts. Bhutan broke ranks with India at the UNGA and expressed its concerns about the endangerment of the core principles of the UN charter and rules-based international order and threats to international peace and security. Bhutan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Doma Tshering said, “The threat or use of force and acts of aggression against another sovereign state can never be accepted. We cannot condone the unilateral redrawing of international borders.”
Challenges for India and Pakistan
The majority of the South Asian countries have strong economic ties with both Russia and the U.S. With Russia, these countries have strong trade and energy relations. This could make it difficult for them to remain neutral in the conflict, as they may feel compelled to support Russia to protect their economic interests. South Asian countries have strategic partnerships with the U.S. (including the emergence of the Indo-Pacific framework and the continuation of the U.S. war on terror in the region), which would necessitate taking a strong stance against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This could put pressure on South Asian countries to align themselves with the U.S. and take a stance against Russia, in the interest of their security. At the same time, domestic politics can also play a role in shaping foreign policy decisions. In South Asian countries, domestic political considerations could also influence their stance on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, complicating an already complicated decision-making process.
India specifically has emphasized its non-aligned foreign policy and has refrained from taking sides in the conflict. India has also called for an end to the violence and has urged both sides to resolve the conflict peacefully through dialogue and has stressed the need for diplomacy and has called for an immediate ceasefire. Lastly, India has also offered to mediate between Ukraine and Russia to help resolve the conflict peacefully.
India is the largest and most influential country in South Asia, with strong economic and political ties to both Russia and Ukraine. However, India’s continuous abstention from UN voting has drawn skeptical views from around the world, particularly the West. It is worth noting, however, that India has expressed support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy. At the same time, India has also maintained its economic and strategic ties with Russia, which has been a long-standing partner in areas such as defense, energy, and space exploration.
Pakistan’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war has been one of neutrality, with the government urging both sides to resolve the conflict peacefully through dialogue and diplomacy. Some Western countries might view this stance positively, as a diplomatic effort to reduce tensions and promote peace in the region. On the other hand, those same Western countries might view Pakistan’s neutrality as a missed opportunity to take a strong stance against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It is once again important to note, however, that Pakistan has a complex relationship with both Russia on energy dependence and the U.S. in its war on terror. Recent economic and political turmoil, coupled with the internal instability the country is facing currently, suggests neutrality might expose Pakistan to the least risk and minimally jeopardize healthy relations with both the blocs by not taking sides.
While Pakistan and India both have followed a policy of non-alignment in their foreign relations, the ways in which this policy has been implemented, as well as the background factors that have driven them to pursue this policy, are quite different within South Asia’s nuclear powers.
India’s policy of non-alignment has been shaped by its historical experiences, geopolitical position, and its leadership. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a key proponent of the non-aligned movement. He believed that India should not align itself with either the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but rather should pursue an independent foreign policy that would allow it to maintain friendly or moreover neutral relations with both sides. India’s non-aligned policy was also driven by its desire to promote economic development and reduce poverty.
Pakistan’s policy of non-alignment has been shaped by different factors. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, initially sought to create a secular state, but this vision was undermined by religious and regional tensions. Pakistan’s foreign policy has been heavily influenced by its military, which has sought to maintain close ties with the United States and other Western powers. It has also been driven by its rivalry with India, which has led it to seek support from both the United States and China at various points in history. Other factors which have influenced Pakistan’s non-aligned journey include its close and strategic relationship with China, which it sees as a key ally and counterbalance to India.
South Asian Neutrality
Beyond India and Pakistan, non-alignment has provided countries with the choice to be resilient in the changing dynamics of world order. While NAM may not necessarily represent true neutrality, as it implies a choice to remain outside of the traditional alliances and power structures of the global community, it can be seen as a choice of resilience. By staying out of direct conflicts and not aligning with any one power bloc, member countries of NAM have been able to navigate through the complex situations, demand for the economic equality in the international forums and protect their sovereignty by refusing to involve in the conflict. In the 20th century, NAM helped Asian and African countries renounce the contemporary imperialism, fascism, colonialism, and discrimination; secure themselves freedom from unwanted military alliance; and secure favorable deals within international fora in favor of newly independent Asian and African economies to ensure their continuous development.
The factor which remained constant in NAM since its origin is its realist nature, which focuses on national interests of the countries: sovereignty and protection of social and economic development from external threats. While both India and Pakistan have their interests entwined with Russia and Ukraine and their respective allies, NAM has provided a degree of strategic flexibility, allowing states to pursue their national interests without being restricted by the constraints of any particular power bloc. India and Pakistan, as well as the other nations of South Asia, have been able to use this flexibility to engage with a variety of countries and pursue their own interests, while still maintaining a degree of neutrality in the current conflict. NAM is and will remain relevant for the South Asia of the foreseeable future. NAM could also play a role in promoting regional stability and preventing conflicts. Similarly, NAM’s commitment to peaceful coexistence and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity could be valuable in promoting dialogue and reducing tensions between South Asian countries. Finally, NAM’s principles of non-interference and non-alignment could help prevent the region from becoming a battleground for great power competition in the 21st century.
NAM and liberal principles of multilateralism share some common values and goals, though each emerged from different historical contexts. As a forum that encourages dialogue and diplomacy, NAM can provide a platform for South Asian countries to engage with both Russia and Ukraine, as well as other major powers, to promote a peaceful resolution to the crisis. This allows South Asian nations to play a constructive role in international politics without being drawn into conflicts. By not aligning themselves with any particular power bloc, South Asian countries can maintain and strengthen economic ties with various nations, including those involved in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. This diversification enhances their resilience to economic shocks and sanctions, allowing them to maintain stability amidst global political turmoil. NAM promotes multilateralism and encourages cooperation among member states on issues of mutual concern. In the context of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, South Asian countries can utilize a NAM platform to work together and advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, reinforcing the importance of international law and the principles of peaceful co-existence.
Great power competition can lead to a polarization of global politics, wherein countries are forced to take sides and align themselves with one of the great powers. In the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, this can result in pressure being applied to countries in South Asia to take sides and support either Russia and its allies or Ukraine and its allies—namely, Western countries. Outside of these relations, states may be incentivized or coerced to provide military or logistical support to one of the sides in the conflict, potentially impacting the outcome of the war.
Great power competition has also resulted in the imposition of economic sanctions, which have a severe downstream impact on countries in South Asia. If a great power imposes economic sanctions on a country, it can affect its ability to import or export goods, access to capital, and overall economic growth, which can redound on that country’s trading partners and energy suppliers. In the context of war, economic sanctions can therefore further exacerbate humanitarian crisis and affect the ability of countries in the Global South to provide aid or support their own people. Sanctions may also result in increased arms sales and military aid to countries in the Global South, which can fuel conflicts and prolong wars. In the context of war, increased arms sales and military aid can lead to an escalation of violence and prolong the conflict. However, South Asian neutrality can’t be misunderstood as the region’s silence over the ongoing conflict or self-imposed isolation. Much of South Asia is still not in the condition to take sides with any single power and risk alienating the other. The spillover effects of this war will impact countries in varying ways, and taking sides will only exacerbate those negative impacts by precluding cooperation with both sides.
On the one hand, great powers could inflict significant costs on weaker South Asian countries, largely with impunity and without fear of reprisal. On the other hand, the region’s proximate geography to Russia and highly interdependent economies is a reality South Asian states cannot quickly escape. Washington and other Western capitals must not overlook or dismiss this reality.
South Asia’s success in international relations amidst great power conflict will be determined by how diplomatically they evade partaking in reductive binaries. As great powers continue to structure alignments, neutrality, and countenance in international relations, sometimes, in specific contextual requirements such as the war in Ukraine, it may be more productive to understand South Asian abstentions for what they are: abstentions in self interest, necessary to balance competing national interests.
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