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What the Ukraine war means for India and Pakistan

What the Ukraine war means for India and Pakistan
7 min read
08 March, 2022
Analysis: India and Pakistan face a diplomatic bind as they try to balance ties with the West and Russia.

In a historic move, 141 countries voted for a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution last week demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.

Having launched a military invasion of its neighbour, Russia wants to keep Kyiv under its influence and deny it the chance to join the European Union (EU) or North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO).

While five countries, including Russia, voted against the UN resolution, 35, including China, Pakistan, and India, abstained.

It was unusual for the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours to adopt the same stance and call for dialogue to defuse the crisis, considering they have erratic bilateral ties plagued by border clashes and other longstanding frictions.

In fact, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had arrived in Moscow by chance on the very same day that Russian forces started bombing Ukraine on 24 February.

Undoubtedly, this was a coincidence, as the trip was planned in advance with the host country, which had not given its guests any clues about its military plans.

For the Pakistani delegation, a pending 1,100 km gas pipeline deal worth $2.5 billion was top of the agenda.

Seemingly surprised and regretful about the situation, Khan stressed that “conflict was not in anyone’s interest, and that the developing countries were always hit the hardest economically in case of conflict.”

Currently, Islamabad is trying to be neutral, but balancing Russia and the West may not be easy in the days ahead as the situation escalates.

On Sunday, Khan hit back at a joint letter issued by 22 Islamabad-based diplomats last week calling on Pakistan to vote for the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

"What do you consider us? Your slaves? That we should do whatever you say?" he said at a political rally.

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For some years now Pakistan-Russia ties have been improving, even though both countries were on the opposite side of the fence during Moscow’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But Islamabad will have to be cautious, as any political backlash from the Ukraine crisis could result in a stricter economic regimen.

Having recently received a financial package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and being on the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) grey list, a global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, there is not much space left to manoeuvre.

Moreover, the US has remained Pakistan’s top export destination while Russia accounts for less than 1%.

Optimistic that the premier’s tour had not affected relations with the West, Razzak Dawood, economic adviser to Pakistan’s PM, said, “Whenever such a situation develops and creates trade-related problems, you need to understand how we can benefit. But I don’t think this situation will affect our exports (to Europe and the US).”

However, Pakistan’s military-technical collaboration with Ukraine could be hindered, while an increase in oil prices due to the crisis could drastically affect the economy.

In order to bridge a demand and supply gap, Pakistan had imported wheat from Ukraine, but necessary new shipments had already reached the country as Moscow’s invasion began, averting a crisis for now.

Prices for wheat and flour have however jumped massively since then, with anticipated drops in imports in the coming months.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin (not seen) meet at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia on 24 February 2022. [Getty]

Implications for India

Although both Pakistan and India are in a difficult position given Karachi’s deepening Russia ties and New Delhi’s longstanding relationship with Moscow, it is likely that India will face “maximum pressure” from the West, especially if the focus shifts from countering China as Russia’s war continues.

“The Ukraine crisis is less of a problem for Pakistan but a huge one for India,” Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Uppsala University in Sweden, told The New Arab.

“Pakistan has moved away from the US camp, and its strong relationship with China will help it at this time. India has been caught between two camps. India was aspiring to be an ally of the US, and now the US demands complete loyalty,” he added.

“India is still dependent upon 60% of its arms supply from Russia, and Russia is the only reliable 'veto' support on the Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council,” Swain pointed out.

“India also worries that if the Ukraine war continues for long, besides its economic impact, that will also lead to a stronger alliance between Russia and China.”

New Delhi’s ties with Moscow are much closer than Islamabad’s even though all three countries are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  

India and Russia have excellent ties and Moscow is a defence partner and has been a major supplier of weapons to New Delhi for decades.

Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin was in India last year. During this visit, 28 investment pacts and deals on shipbuilding, steel, coal and energy were signed while the 2018 contract for the supply of S-400 missile systems was implemented.

Even though India joined Washington’s Asia-Pacific ‘Quad’ defence alliance to contain China, Russia is its trusted long-term ally.

Closer to Moscow during the Cold War, although it tried to stay non-aligned, New Delhi shares a special camaraderie with Moscow, which helped India during its war with Pakistan in 1971.

Bilateral trade between India and Russia stood at around $9.4 billion this year and the war could slow down the movement of goods, payments, and drive up oil prices.

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The longer the attack lasts, the larger impact it will have on trade, as Indian exporters are currently holding back consignments that take the Black Sea route.

Around 23% of Russia’s arms exports were destined for India from 2016 to 2021, which represent 49% of India’s arms imports. Any break in its regular military hardware supply could also create a setback in its standoff with China in the Ladakh border region.

Danil Bochkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told The New Arab that if Russia succeeds with its military plans and Kyiv comes under a new Russian-backed authority, it would not be recognised as legitimate.

“So, Ukraine or the territory which will comprise new pro-Russian Ukraine will have to learn how to live under sanctions when no foreign business is present nor any companies which can be punished with secondary sanctions for doing business there,” he said. “It would take up to several years to stabilise the whole situation.”

On skipping sanctions, Bochkov noted, “Economically, Russia-India trade is focused a lot on arms deals which as last year’s reports indicate have fully switched to national currencies clearance. Hence, it should not be affected. But Indian imports of Russian oil products could come under secondary sanctions.”

Even Denis Alipov, a Russian Envoy-designate to India, had the same opinion in a recent press conference, where he said, “We don’t see any obstacles as far as S-400 supply to India is concerned; we have routes to continue with this deal unobstructed. Sanctions, old or new, do not interfere in any way.”

However, the Biden administration has also announced new sanctions targeting Russia’s defence industry, preventing it from making sales or providing maintenance for weapons.

According to Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, there is also a chance that the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) law could be pursued against India.

This crisis could also complicate India’s role at the United Nations Security Council, causing its growing relations with European countries to stagnate.

Wishing to have a permanent seat on the UNSC, New Delhi would be on the edge if it remains torn between two major allies.

"There are not many choices that India has, it has as much investment in a relationship with Russia as it has in maintaining a relationship with the United States,” Nandan Unnikrishnan from the Observer Research Foundation told AFP last week.

“India's challenges in the maritime is where it needs the United States and India's challenges on the continental shelf is where it requires Russia."

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi