A number of Indian strategists and former officials have protested the vigorous United States (US) confrontation of Russia through punishing sanctions and continuous military support for Ukraine as a blunder, one that will ultimately boomerang and set back both Indian and US security interests.
There are three assumptions in these assessments: That this confrontation is one of choice rather than necessity; that China will emerge as the clear victor; and, that the US entangled in Europe will be distracted from the Indo-Pacific. All these assumptions do not hold up under close scrutiny.
First, there should be no illusions that Vladimir Putin initiated this war; war was not “forced” on Russia. After Kyiv refused to capitulate to militarised coercion, Russia invaded Ukraine with intentions of territorial conquest, political subjugation, and possibly even mass executions of civilians as witnessed in Bucha. While condemnations of US punishment of Russia imply the US chose this confrontation out of revenge, the US was compelled to respond to such a brazen invasion of a sovereign country bordering its treaty allies.
We can debate whether decades of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion contributed to Russian insecurity or revanchism. I have been sceptical of NATO’s membership action plan invitations to Georgia and Ukraine since I attended the sidelines of the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest. Nevertheless, these explanations for Russia’s insecurity do not excuse its aggression today.
After Putin chose to invade a sovereign nation, Washington had no choice but to coordinate with allies, supply Ukraine with weapons to defeat Russian military advances, and bring the financial hammer down on Moscow. The stakes were no longer just Ukraine or Europe but setting a precedent for what other would-be aggressors (like China) would face should they invade a neighbour (like India).
A second myth is that China will be the big beneficiary of this war with cheap Russian commodities, the yuan’s growing influence as a reserve currency, and deepened defence cooperation with one of the leading military powers. While Russia and China are well on their way to tighter strategic alignment, India has hoped to drive a wedge between the two, but has yet to articulate a compelling strategy on how to do so. The war in Ukraine, however, may generate the very friction between Russia and China that India has long desired. China analysts assess Beijing got “played” by Russia to look like an accomplice. US intelligence officials believe Xi Jinping has been “unsettled” by Russia’s struggles. China is walking a fine line with abstentions at the United Nations, compliance with some financial and technology sanctions, and thinly veiled criticisms regarding sovereignty.
Russia’s request for assistance places China in a bind. If China backs Russia’s brutal campaign — especially with military assistance — it will face economic consequences and new technology denials from advanced, industrial Europe and Asia coalescing even more tightly against China. If it abandons Moscow, it will lose a prized ally and forfeit any future quasi-allies from Pakistan to Myanmar that learn that China can’t be counted on.
More importantly, Russia seems likely to emerge from this conflict a much-depleted partner bordering on a liability for China. Russia has fared abysmally and lost a staggering amount of manpower and material in a few short weeks with little to show for it. The Pentagon estimates Russia only retains 85-90% of its preassembled combat power and has suffered significant losses –10,000 regular troops killed, another 30,000 wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, 10% of its equipment lost, and over 1,450 missiles expended.
Russia’s ability to “reload” will be severely constrained by a depleted economy, financial sanctions, technology denial regimes, depressed demographics, and brain drain. Russian military power—including training, morale, and equipment—has been exposed to be hollow. In short, China can no longer count on a depleted Russia to create a “simultaneity dilemma” for the US that forces it to divide its attention, planning, and resources between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Whether bogged down in Ukraine or able to find a face-saving exit, Russia will be a spent force, far less intimidating to a rejuvenated, hard-balancing Europe ready to assume greater defence responsibility in NATO.
China will also be sobered by the consequences of invasion and disabused of the ease of major military offensives. The Ukrainians have provided a resistance blueprint for any targets of Chinese aggression (including India) on how to defeat an offensive through the stockpiling of small, cheap asymmetric capabilities like air defence and anti-tank missiles, drones, and mines. Taiwan is already taking notice and adopting lessons.
China must note how the US, Europe, and East Asia allies quickly unified politically, reversed course on previous policies (such as gas pipelines, defence spending, or weapons sales), coordinated crippling financial and technology sanctions (which also builds the foundation for a technology coalition to counter China), and helped tilt a conflict with security assistance, training, weapons, and intelligence.
Fears that efforts to back Ukraine against Russian aggression will entangle US strategy in Europe and distract it from its priority theatre of the Indo-Pacific are unfounded. Even in the throes of the crisis, the US remained focused on Asia with a steady stream of senior official visits to the region, a Quad leaders meeting, a renewed Indo-Pacific strategy, a National Defence Strategy that prioritises China, and significant progress on AUKUS to bolster Australia’s advanced defence capabilities.
That the Biden administration has carefully resisted calls for no-fly zones, fighter jet transfers, or special operations trainers that could entrap it in an escalating conflict provides an important signal to Asia. Even while demonstrating resolve with enormous amounts of materiel, intelligence, and diplomatic and financial pressure, the US has avoided getting drawn into a direct war with Russia to husband its resources for the bigger challenge in the Indo-Pacific.
Moreover, Ukrainian defences have applications for the Indo-Pacific. They set precedents for the kinds of retaliation and interdiction the US, its allies, and its partners can marshal against any aggressor who tries to change borders by military force. Most importantly, the confrontation with Russia is finally inducing Europe to assume a larger role in ensuring stability in Eurasia. Since the war, European heavyweights, most notably Germany, have begun to unwind their vulnerability to Russian energy coercion while building up their militaries. The news that more rich, high-technology states are on pace to join NATO, doubling defence spending, and advanced fighter aircraft purchases signal a Europe ready to assume a larger burden of its own security, freeing the US to concentrate power in the Indo-Pacific.
Condemnations of the West may be smokescreens for the stress of geopolitical turbulence felt since Russia’s invasion. The war may presage a return to Cold War blocs rather than the freewheeling multipolarity that would afford India more manoeuvre room. New Delhi will have to confront hard choices about the reliability of its partnership with Russia, the effectiveness of its largely Russian-origin force structure, and how to navigate new sanctions and export controls regimes without alienating Europe and America.
But these challenges should not obscure new realities and opportunities. Transatlantic partnerships are re-energising. Europe is hardening. Russia is staggering. China’s military optimism is likely moderating. And the US continues enhancing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific around reliable partners. Most of these work in India’s interest.
Sameer Lalwani is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies
The views expressed are personal