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Germany woos India as an ally against Russia

February 24, 2023

India has not condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine and does not support sanctions. During his upcoming visit to India, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will seek to win the country over to the Western position.

Prime Minister Modi and Chancellor Scholz approaching each other to shake hands in Berlin in May 2022
How far will Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chancellor Olaf Scholz meet this time? Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

In 2022, when the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany, and other Western governments were shocked to see that a number of important states chose to abstain. These included China and India, which together are home to some 2.8 billion people, more than one-third of the world's population.

On the first anniversary of the start of the war on February 24, 2023, India again abstained when the General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for Russia's immediate withdrawal. The Indian government under Narendra Modi has made it clear that it does not support sanctions against Russia and will continue to refuse to do so.

While the Western alliance expected such a stance from autocratic China, the behavior of democratic India was a major disappointment. The Indian government's course did not only mean that the country was no ally in attempts to put pressure on Russia's Vladimir Putin. It also meant that India, which Germany sees as a "strategic partner", was on the "wrong" side of this elementary question of international law.

Voting result displayed on board in UN General Assembly
Voting result in UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Russia's invasion in Ukraine: India also abstainedImage: John Minchillo/AP/picture alliance

India is heavily dependent on Russia

"While the disappointment of Western interlocutors is perhaps understandable, their surprise is not," says Amrita Narlikar, president of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg, in an interview with DW. "Besides its good diplomatic relations with Russia, India's dependence on Russia for military supplies is considerable — it cannot afford to jeopardize this, especially considering the difficult neighborhood it is in. In the short-run at least, India's behavior makes strategic sense."

But what may make strategic sense in the short term could become a problem for India in the longer term, she believes: "An increasingly weakened Russia is likely to be driven into the arms of China, and thus indirectly, by supporting Russia, India may be strengthening China's hand — and China is not only a competitor and rival but a neighbor with which India has serious border disputes and conflict."

So far, however, there is nothing to indicate that India is about to change its position. In an interview with the news portal ANI this week, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar described India's relations with Russia as "extraordinarily stable, and that's in the midst of all the global political turmoil."

India's Brahmos Weapon Systems move during the rehearsal for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, Jan. 23, 2017
Military parade in New Delhi featuring BrahMos guided weapons jointly developed by India and RussiaImage: Stringer/ Photoshot/picture alliance

India also seems to have no plans to use its presidency of the G20, the group of the world's major industrialized and emerging economies, to encourage a debate on new sanctions against Russia. Several Indian government officials made that clear in interviews with the Reuters news agency. India has actually significantly expanded its oil imports from Russia since the war began.

Now, Chancellor Olaf Scholz's visit is an attempt to bring India a bit closer to the West. But the German government does not expect a complete turnaround and has made no plans for a joint declaration on the war in Ukraine to be signed during Scholz's visit. The point is "that we have to keep promoting our position, our view of this conflict," said government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit this week. The goal, he said, was to use arguments to refute narratives from the Russian side.

German FM Baerbock starts first visit to India

Political scientist Amrita Narlikar sees a lot of room for negotiation, but is skeptical that Scholz will use it, because: "To bring India a little bit closer to the European position, he would need to have a far better understanding of India's negotiating culture, the constraints that it faces in its region, as well as the hopes and aspirations of its people."

She simply does not see Scholz and his government as being interested in dealing with this in detail. "Scholz also does not seem to reflect on the mixed signals he is sending to the Global South, including India, via his willingness to keep doing deals with China," she added.

Just how difficult it is for the German chancellor to win over some of the "neutral" countries in the Russia-Ukraine conflict was already evident in Brazil a few weeks ago. Right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro had been voted out of office, and the German chancellor had hoped to be able to sway his successor, the socialist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to side with the West. But Lula continues to reject sanctions against Russia. Scholz also met with a rebuff from the Brazilian president in response to his request for ammunition supplies for the German Gepard flak tanks delivered to Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands and smiling with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation leaders' summit in Samarkand on September 16, 2022
India and Russia have common interests Image: Alexandr Demyanchuk/SPUTNIK/AFP

'Turning point' in bilateral relations?

So what would have to happen for Olaf Scholz's visit to India to be a success?

Amrita Narlikar sees two main preconditions: Germany and the West as a whole would have to make more of an effort to address the concerns of the Global South and its people as equals. Here, she feels Germany also has a lot of catching up to do: "Germany could do this very well if it were to improve its knowledge of India's political culture and traditions, and really work with it at an eye-to-eye level as a fellow democracy."

In addition, she said, India must be offered alternatives to its military and economic dependence on authoritarian powers. Unlike France, Germany has been reluctant to cooperate on defense issues, she pointed out. " The sooner we see a real Zeitenwende from Scholz in this direction," Amrita Narlikar said, alluding to Scholz's speech announcing a turning point in world politics three days after the Russian attack on Ukraine, "the better it will be for India, Germany, and the world of democracies at large."

This article was originally written in German.

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