The effects of the Ukraine conflict on South Asia – uncovering the clashing world views of populist autocracies vs. (neo)liberal democracies
As the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reverberate around the world in the form of higher energy prices and increasing shortages of grain; governments are taking stock of some major economic and political shifts, that are emerging as this crisis unfolds. This is also the case in Delhi and Islamabad, as discussed below.
On February 24th 2022, after weeks of speculation in western capitals, Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin’s bid to recreate Imperial Russia (as opposed to rebuilding a modern version of the Soviet Union) started with the annexation of Crimea a few years earlier. Since this had not resulted in any substantial western reaction, the argument of reuniting historically Russian lands1 was taken further. Putin’s politics are based on a geographic definition of Russian identity that is being used to justify aggressive expansionism into Ukraine. Putin has also been presenting himself as a ‘strong man’, the only one capable of holding Russia together in light of a western liberal threat (Riabov & Riabov 2014). Anti-liberal/western thinking is also reflected in statements by the imperialist philosopher, Alexander Dugin, who in 2022 claimed that Russia's war against Ukraine represented a battle against "absolute Evil, embodied in Western civilization, its liberal-totalitarian hegemony, and in Ukrainian Nazism" (MKRU, 2022). Here liberalism and Westernism are conflated with fascism but also with intellectual hegemony that Russia needs to stand against.
As such, Putin is part of a wider group of populist leaders who offer a break from the past, position themselves clearly against the liberal western democratic order and who promise to make their nation great again (Mouffe 2018; Laclau 2005). China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Modi and arguably Pakistan’s (now deposed) Imran Khan operate on similar premises. The rise of populist leaders across the world largest and most populous countries (Krastev and Holmes 2019), including as a result of a democratic vote (as in India or Brazil for example), raises important questions about the contemporary world order and how the shifts might affect global alliance structures. China’s Xi Jinping has not condemned the invasion, confirming that autocratic leaders will at the very least not critique and perhaps even support each other. This means that there can no longer be a unified global stand against a larger country bullying a smaller or weaker one. Putin’s move in Ukraine also shows that populist leaders will not shy away from the use of force to meet their nationalist goals. The battle lines between the (neo)liberal democracies and the autocratic regimes such as Russia and China are set to go beyond international trade wars and could well result in more armed conflict in the future.
These new political realities have affected countries round the globe. A war in Europe has meant higher food and energy prices across the world with domestic political consequences in many countries and regions. In South Asia in particular, this European conflict has had a disproportionate effect on domestic politics, the countries’ economies and strategic choices. This article will briefly review how the war in Ukraine has affected both India and Pakistan, before arguing that for both these countries, this conflict is actually much less about Putin’s Russia, than about China’s influence in their geopolitics and a consequent reality check on contemporary alliances and world order shifts is required.
India’s strategic neutrality
India will soon be the world’s most populated country and its political development will shape the world of the 21st century. Like China and Russia, India sees itself as a civilisation rather than a nation state and its international relations reflect a desire for recognition as a great Asian power. Domestically Hindu Nationalism has been an important part of contemporary Indian politics since the late 1990s, with decisive election victories for PM Modi in 2014 and 2019. With the rise of populist and nationalist politics, there have been concerns about the state of India’s democracy. Freedom House downgraded India from free to partly free2 and the VDem 2021 report changed India’s status from democracy to electoral autocracy.3
India has refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has abstained from a number of UN votes related to the conflict. In March 2022 Prime Minister Modi jointly with PM Kishida, only expressed ‘serious concern’ about the ’conflict and humanitarian crisis’. India is maintaining ‘strategic neutrality’ and has offered to mediate rather than take sides. This attitude, despite around 20,000 Indian students living in Ukraine has raised international eyebrows and resulted in a series of visits by Western leaders to new Delhi. The international attention and the recognition of India’s importance have been welcome, but India abhors interference in its policy making processes and has made it clear that it’s position cannot be put under pressure.
The press and commentators have offered several explanations for India’s attitude; most analysis has focused on India’s historical relationship with Russia and its dependence on Russian armament including the lease of a Russian nuclear submarine. Both are relevant – but to a lesser degree than might be expected. Rather, other issues are at play. India is in fact looking for more agile, issue-based alignments rather than value-based alliances that reflect its multipolar, revisionist world view. (Lall 2022)
For decades India’s foreign policy choices were led by Nehru’s vision of non-alignment. This meant that India would not take sides during the Cold War and lead other neutral nations. The values of post-colonial modernity, democracy and inclusiveness informed this position. With the rise of China, India has had to gradually re-evaluate its traditional neutral stance, starting with the 2008 US Nuclear Deal. The Modi government looks at foreign policy from two distinct geographical perspectives – maritime and territorial. While the QUAD is key to India’s maritime projections as it hopes to retain supremacy in the Indian Ocean, territorial calculations mean that India cannot antagonise Russia in light of continuous Chinese expansion across the Himalayan border (Lall 2022). China claims Arunachal Pradesh – a large state in India’s Northeast, and India wants the return of Aksai Chin in Kashmir. Despite high value trade and close economic ties, the India-China border has not been settled and continues to lead to frictions. In 2017 India saw a 73-day stand-off at Doklam in Bhutan when China tried to build a road in territory Bhutan claims as its own. The June 2020 clashes between Indian and Chinese forces in Galwan, Ladakh led to a number of dead on both sides and have resulted in Russia facilitating meetings between Indian and Chinese negotiators. This conflict is far from over, as a visit to Leh and Ladakh in July 2022 showed. The region continues to be on high alert, with increasing number of troops being stationed on the Indo-China border, especially around Pangon lake. The Indian air force is involved in regular sorties as Chinese fighter jets violate Indian airspace. This shadow war is barely discussed, even in the Indian press; yet it is an important worry both for Delhi policy makers and the Indian armed forces. A Russo-Chinese alliance is India’s biggest foreign policy nightmare. As India slowly reduces its dependence on Russian arms and spare parts, it is doing so to increase its agility in policy making, rather than to align itself with the anti-Russian camp. Former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon explains this as ‘different partners for different issues’.
Pakistan – In China’s orbit
In contrast to India’s strategic neutrality, Pakistan not only refused to condemn the invasion, but Imran Khan was in Moscow on the day the war began, posing for a photo with Putin. His justification was that he would arrange for cheap Russian oil to bolster Pakistan’s failing economy. Pakistan therefore regretted the Ukraine invasion but saw no need to ally itself with the western position. A hugely popular leader, Khan made history in 2018 as Thereek e Insaaf – the party for justice won the Pakistani elections. The two parties that historically held power: the left leaning PPP – Zulfiqar Ali Bhuttos’ legacy and the Muslim League – traditionally held by Pakistan’s other political family the Sharifs, had been squarely beaten. Khan promised a new Pakistan - one that was free from the western neoliberal economic grip. He had vowed never to return to the IMF with a begging bowl. In many ways Khan’s politics resemble that of Modi, Putin and Xi Jinping, albeit on a smaller scale. The use of religious nationalism to whip up the crowds in protest against the neoliberal democratic system in general and the US in particular has become a hallmark of Pakistan under Khan’s governance.
Pakistan has had complicated relations with Russia over the years. During the cold war, Pakistan was firmly in the US camp, especially as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan was the base from which the US was able to support the Afghan Mujahideen fighting against the Soviet invasion. But over the past couple of decades Islamabad has had reasonable relations with Moscow, including granting Russia access to Gwadar port in 2016. Ahmed Rashid (2016) has argued that this move was to counter the increasing isolation Islamabad was feeling both in the region with deteriorating relations with Afghanistan and Iran, and internationally, as the Pakistan-US friendship worsened. The improved Russo-Pakistan relations also included some defence deals (e.g. Mi-35 Hind E attack helicopters in 2015). Russia was seen as a key investor in the construction of the North-South gas pipeline between Karachi and Kasur (Punjab) also known as the Pakistan Stream Gas pipeline. This project was delayed but renegotiated by Imran Khan as access to gas and electricity has become an increasingly fraught domestic political priority. Russia and Ukraine have both been important grain exporters to Pakistan and the war has meant that Pakistan’s economy has been badly affected with food and fuel prices soaring.
Pakistan’s economy was already in a bad state before the war in Ukraine, but the resulting inflation pushed its foreign reserves to below two months’ worth of imports. In order to release the IMF’s latest financial support, the government had to hike fuel prices by a third. Khan, was subsequently ousted by a no confidence vote in April 2022. Replacement Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has been implementing an austerity programme and in July 2022 the IMF agreed to bail out Pakistan again; yet increasing inflation, as well as the shortage of fuel and grain has made Sharif and his caretaker government even more unpopular and there are regular protests in the streets.
However, similarly to India, relations with Russia are not what is driving Pakistani politics. Rather it is Pakistan’s historically important relationship with China that has determined how the country approaches its international position on the war in Ukraine. China is described as Pakistan’s all-weather friend. The relationship developed over the 1970s and 80s, including nuclear cooperation. Economic ties strengthened after the 2013 China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was signed. CPEP is part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. China has since then become one of Pakistan’s largest lenders with over $11 billion invested in the form of commercial loans and foreign reserves initiatives (holding 27% of Pakistan’s debt). In February 2022 Khan and Xi Jinping signed a series of agreements, pledging bilateral cooperation across a range of areas beyond the economy that solidified the Sino-Pakistani axis (Small, 2015). The relationship is so important, that Khan has not criticised Beijing for its treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. It is therefore not surprising that Pakistan aligns itself with China when it comes to major international relations positions, including the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Condemning Russia would make little political sense, in that it would alienate Russia, and create issues with Pakistan’s largest sponsor.
Different values, different world views
It seems clear that the multi polar world view, espoused particularly by India, but also by Pakistan stands in direct contrast to that of the (neo)liberal democracies. India’s preference is a multi-polar world order without a hegemonic nation, where India is recognised as a nuclear power with its own sphere of influence. Pakistan’s view is similar with a focus on an Islamic sphere of influence, due to its close relations with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The multi- polar world view is in direct contrast to the world order espoused by the (neo)liberal democracies including Japan, Australia, the EU and the UK, who endorse US leadership. India does not accept the label of a ‘natural ally’ that presupposes a policy position and prefers issue-based alignments, seeking flexibility and strategic autonomy. Pakistan has found over decades, that being allied to the US did not serve its own causes, and therefore follows an issue-based alliance approach as well. Overall the changed global context is seeing a move from alliances to issue-based partnerships, that do not necessarily rely on shared values; the South Asian stand is no longer unusual.
Even for those who believe that values should underpin alliances, it is increasingly clear that despite regular elections, neither India nor Pakistan – share the liberal democratic values of their (former) western partners. India likes to present itself as the world’s largest democracy, a label that is increasingly fanciful. The rise of Hindu nationalist populist politics has seen a backsliding of minority rights especially since 2019. India’s domestic politics of Hindu majoritarianism is reflected in the change of status of Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act and the citizenship verification process in Assam, all of which discriminate against Muslims (Lall and Anand 2022). Rather than democracy, strongman politics are favoured. Recent fieldwork in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh showed that classrooms in schools teach demerits of democracy, emphasizing how single party states are more stable and can advance more quickly. Vladimir Putin’s popularity across the Indian public is widespread; a reflection of how much Indian domestic opinion has changed. In addition, a strong anti-western stand has always united India’s left and right across the political spectrum.
Pakistan has never been a paragon of democracy with four military dictatorships during its 75-year history. Even with a democratically elected parliament, it is the Pakistani army that secures the power of the government. When leaders, such as Khan disagree with the military, they find out the hard way who really holds power in the country. Domestically minority rights are less and less respected, with Islamic groups calling for more religious influence in politics, social and public life. Research has shown that a majority of the Pakistani youth do not believe that democracy is the right system for their country, and trust in democratic institutions is low (Lall and Saeed, 2020). It is therefore clear that the required shared values and world views to stand up with liberal democratic allies to Putin’s Russia are not particularly strong in South Asia.
Discussion and conclusion
Reviewing how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected the two largest South Asian countries, points to two major conclusions. First, a new world order is in the making, with a standoff between the (neo)liberal democratic system, and countries led by populist leaders, who use their country’s economic pain to justify increasingly nationalist and belligerent policies both domestically and internationally. Second, this juxtaposition of values and world views is leading to a reorganisation of international countries’ support to either side. It came as a surprise to the leadership of the US, the EU, the UK and Japan that many countries across Africa and Asia refused to condemn the invasion, and either supported Russia’s move, or remained neutral. In effect around two thirds of the world in terms of population did not condemn what was an unprovoked aggression by a large power on a smaller country.
This ‘reorganisation’ of international support is less about Russia, and - as can be seen in the case of both India and Pakistan, much more about China. China, autocratic and populist itself, might not have approved of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it has watched the global reaction to the fallout carefully, maintaining its relations with Moscow, even joining Russia’s international Army Games in August 2022.4 China’s neutral stand has in effect facilitated the conflict.
China’s stand has also highlighted major international fault lines, that have existed for some time but that had to date largely been ignored. After decades of careful economic development polices and support to governments across Africa and Asia through its Belt and Road initiatives, China has been able to ‘cash in’ as countries follow its lead and approach. It is clear that countries who are dependent on China economically, such as Pakistan will not want to anger Beijing, by positioning themselves in the liberal camp. A number of such countries justify their position citing Western hypocrisy when it comes to international conflict. This includes many African countries, but also some across Asia. Countries who see China as a potential threat to their national security - particularly those affected by the politics of the South China Sea - are also treading carefully, not wanting to give China an excuse for a potential reaction or retaliation. India’s situation is particular, as its economy is deeply intertwined with China, and yet there is already an active conflict in progress on the Himalayan border.
One can argue that the Ukraine conflict is producing a standoff based around different world views, similar to the post World War II cold war between the US’s capitalist democracy vs. Soviet communism - in this case the (neo)liberal democratic systems opposed to autocratic populist regimes. One could also argue that the Ukraine war has brought to the fore the confirmation of China’s rise to power, both economically and politically, and how its sphere of influence underpins this new standoff.
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1 See Putin's speech "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", 2020.
2 India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.
As a part of correspondence, Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist, and Masayuki Tadokoro, the Chair of Asteion Editorial Committee discussed the continuing crisis of liberal democracies in the world.
Professor Mellissa Williams, the contributor of “Democracy's Global Future” (Asteion 77), and Professor Masayuki Tadokoro, the Chair of Asteion Editorial Committee talked about the democratic movements around the world.