20th Mar 2023


What Modi and Putin’s ‘unbreakable friendship’ means for the EU

  • Ursula von der Leyen and Narendra Modi at the launch of the EU-India trade and technology council in April (Photo: European Commission)
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As the Indian economy has just overtaken the UK's as the fifth-largest in the world and is set to re-emerge as the fastest-growing big economy in 2022 (7.4 percent forecast), there is rising European business interest in this last huge untapped market. At the same time, with EU-China ties increasingly strained, India has gained importance as the EU's geopolitical partner in the Indo-Pacific and Asia.

As such, Europe has muted its criticism of India and accepted both the country's neutrality on the Russian war in Ukraine and prime minister Narendra Modi's undemocratic conduct and discrimination of minorities.

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In its latest Democracy Report 2022 on "Autocratisation's Changing Nature", the V-Dem Institute at Sweden's University of Gothenberg classified India as an electoral autocracy and says it is one of the top 10 "autocratisers" in the world.

In a push for strengthened partnership, the EU and India established the Trade and Technology Council in April and relaunched negotiations of a free trade agreement (FTA) in June.

Still one should not underestimate the differences revealed by recent developments.

The positive reaction to Modi's "today is not an era of war" remark to Vladimir Putin in Samarkand in September tells more about the goodwill India still enjoys in the West and our wishful thinking than about any real change on the ground.

The Indian official position has evolved only slightly since February and is not very far away from China's.

In short, India has been calling for dialogue and the cessation of hostilities without naming the aggressor or victim. It deliberately walks tightrope in an attempt not to antagonise Russia, its old friend, or the West, its new partner.

Delhi and Moscow's 'unbreakable friendship'

Therefore, instead of political isolation of Russia, India continues diplomatic engagements at all levels and formats, including participation in the recent joint military drills Vostok 2022. What was less noted in Samarkand is that Modi reassured Putin about their "unbreakable friendship"— resembling the China-Russia "no-limits" partnership.

Far from joining the sanctions regime, India has increased manifold crude oil imports, emerging as the second-largest customer of Russian oil, only behind China, and eyes more purchases of gas and coal.

While it would be inappropriate for the EU, which continues to import Russian energy resources, to criticise India, the Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs, Dmytry Kuleba, observed in August that "every barrel of Russian crude that India gets, has a good portion of Ukrainian blood in it" and called for "more practical support" from India.

While the EU makes its relations with China conditional on its position on the war in Ukraine and is a strong critic of Beijing's breach of human rights, it's no-questions asked acceptance of India's policy on Russia and refusal to openly criticise the country's democratic backsliding, especially as regards minority rights, invites an accusation of a double standard and weakens the EU's hand in relation to other nations.

India has many credible and well-known reasons to maintain good relations with Russia — security, economic, historical and geopolitical.

Most importantly, India's stance on the war in Ukraine is based on a sober and realistic calculation of its national interests alone. It has rightly calculated it was better to risk Western "disappointment" than any disruptions in deliveries of Russian military equipment, energy resources, or fertilisers.

As such, India's position on the Russian war in Ukraine will change only when it sees more benefit to it, and no amount of external pressure will make a difference. In this sense, the EU's pragmatic engagement with India was a rational step to maintain relations.

And if the Russia-China axis grows stronger, India has no alternative but to turn to Western democracies in the end. Russia's defeat in Ukraine may make this happen earlier.

While Modi's India might have secured some benefits from its close relationship with Russia in the short run, it has lost something more important in the long term — credibility as a leading power. If a country cannot condemn the most blatant violation of the UN charter, it weakens its position as an aspiring member of the UN Security Council.

For the EU, India's policy on Ukraine casts doubt on whether it is a like-minded partner willing to defend the "rules-based order", as the EU strategy of 2018 indicated.

A new EU approach towards India must shred past illusions and be more realistic.

The EU needs to better understand and define where its interests converge with that of India's. The economy, climate change, connectivity, the Indo-Pacific, and the fight against terrorism offer many opportunities for closer cooperation.

From the FTA negotiations and tackling global challenges to discussions on democracy and human rights, the EU must take a more assertive but transactional approach. At the same time it must not undermine its principles for economic or geopolitical gains.

Sour experiences in European engagements with Russia and China over the last two decades make it clear that naivety is not the best adviser in this age of geopolitics.

Author bio

Patryk Kugiel is a senior analyst on south Asia at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, based in Warsaw.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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