South Asian neutrality in Ukraine is understandable – but is it sustainable?

The region has long had a transactional relationship with Russia

Protesters gathered in in Kolkata, India, on March 7 demanding Russia should stop its war in Ukraine. AP
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On March 2, the UN General Assembly held a rare emergency session, and approved a resolution "deploring in the strongest terms" Russian aggression against Ukraine, with 141 countries in favour, five against (including Russia) and 35 abstaining. The abstentions have received much greater global attention than the opposing votes, not only because there were more of them, but because the motivations are far more opaque and varied.

South Asia as a region has by far the highest proportion of abstentions, with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all striving for a publicly neutral position in this conflict. Even the Taliban declared neutrality, although they have not yet been able to gain control of Afghanistan’s UN seat from the former government.

How do we make sense of this development? Does the loss of American credibility after Kabul's fall or the rise of China explain it? Or Is this the return of non-alignment? Although there is a strong anti-imperialist current against the US across South Asia, the UNGA vote reflects governments' perceptions of national interests rather than such public sentiments.

South Asia's conditions – densely populated, middle-income countries with growing economies and persistent complex conflicts – makes it the perfect market for Russian offerings in affordable weapons, oil and gas infrastructure and nuclear energy. Russia has shown a consistent eagerness over decades to engage with rival South Asian governments to meet those appetites and has managed to get along by playing neutral. In this existential crisis, it is more than willing to use its accumulated leverage to demand the same from its regional partners.

It is worth noting that the US and EU dwarf Russia's economic and security role in all four countries. The fact that the West is unlikely to be as punitive as Russia over Ukraine does not improve its standing. There is clear understanding among South Asian states that Russian co-operation is business-like, transactional and, therefore, predictable.

South Asia is the perfect market for Russian offerings, in the form of more affordable weapons, oil and gas infrastructure and nuclear energy

US policy, in contrast, is widely regarded as highly unreliable. Pakistan in the Bush era was designated a "Major Non-Nato Ally", but US President Joe Biden has yet to call Prime Minister Imran Khan, a year after Mr Biden was elected. The US wishes to bring Bangladesh on board its Indo-Pacific strategy, but has sanctioned one of the government's leading paramilitary formations, the Rapid Action Battalions, for human rights abuses. India has been pleased about US security assistance with regards to China, but was deeply alarmed and disappointed by American indifference to its concerns about the chaotic Afghan withdrawal.

Of the four, India's dependence on Russia is the best known of all the four South Asian governments. A majority of the combat platforms (armoured vehicles, aircraft and naval vessels) in current service with the Indian armed forces are of Russian and Soviet origin; annual trade in spare parts alone is estimated at $500 million a year. This excludes high-priority new contracts such as the S-400 anti-missile system and the co-production of over half a million AK-203 assault rifles.

India's sensitivity to Russian demands is heightened by timing. New Delhi is concerned that tensions with China along the Himalayas may erupt into again as they did at Galwan in 2020, once winter snows melt in the spring. Russia's willingness to play neutral in the India-China conflict and guarantee supplies despite Moscow's increasingly close strategic ties with Beijing depends on India's willingness to assume a similar position in a Russian-American conflict, India's membership of the US-led "Quad" notwithstanding.

Pakistan, a geopolitical foe of Moscow from 1971 to 2001, has actually been far pricklier than India in defending its neutrality. Mr Khan visited Moscow on the very eve of the invasion and has lambasted western diplomats in Islamabad as neo-colonialists for attempting to publicly shame his government into supporting Ukraine with an open letter. The mutual reliance on China has facilitated a realignment, as has the shared resentment of American power. For example, the backbone of Pakistan’s fighter aircraft fleet, the Chinese-designed JF-17, sports Russian jet engines.

But the strongest source of alignment is Afghanistan and energy. Both countries are widely believed to have backed the Taliban for years against the US and ISIS; both countries are interested in building pipelines to transport gas from ex-Soviet Central Asia to Pakistan. The Pakistani establishment is convinced that the "geoeconomics" of connecting Indian Ocean trade and energy routes to Central Asia is the key to Pakistan’s long-term economic and thus military viability. As a result, Russia is increasingly viewed as a vital long-term strategic partner.

Meanwhile Bangladesh has pursued its ambitious "Force 2030" military modernisation goals to deter Myanmar and assert control over its maritime Exclusive Economic Zone. It has eclectically made major purchases from China, the West, India and Russia. However, the Bangladeshi government’s major concern appears to be the completion of the Rosatom-designed and built nuclear energy power plant at Ruppur.

The plant is seen as crucial to Bangladesh's energy security and economic growth as the country industrialises and power consumption rapidly increases. Crucially this $12.65 billion project is largely financed by a Russian loan. On top of this, Bangladesh is relying on India to extract and repatriate Bangladeshi students along with its own nationals from Ukraine, providing additional incentive to co-ordinate their diplomatic position on the issue.

And finally, Sri Lanka has been experiencing a steadily worsening economic crisis since 2019 that has made export earnings more important than ever before. Tea is Sri Lanka's second-most important export after garments, and Russia is its third-biggest tea market. Russian tourists have been another vital source of hard currency, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, although Sri Lanka has significant debts to China and is receiving very significant financial assistance from India, these two rivals both chose neutrality in the UNGA Ukraine vote.

In every one of these cases Russia has provided highly valuable technology, skills, financing, and market access on terms that have felt more generous than the West, and with far fewer conditionalities. But except perhaps in Pakistan's case, it is unclear if this is backed by any deeper strategic convergence.

The increasing financial risk of doing business with Russia will change perceptions of its attractiveness as a partner. Indian banks, for example, are increasingly hesitant to process Russia-bound payments from the Ministry of Defence, even on existing contracts.

The catch to Moscow's highly transactional approach in the post-Cold War era is that the other parties to the transaction also think in similar terms. And so these carefully cultivated ties are at risk of weakening if, as is likely, the conflict remains unresolved and tough financial sanctions cut off trade with the subcontinent for years rather than months.

But the West will also pay a price. For South Asian states, the immediate problem is western sanctions, not Russia's war in distant Europe. If sanctions make decades of costly investments in Russian hardware and markets impossible to retain, compensation is likely to be expected from the West.

Published: March 10, 2022, 4:00 AM