New Delhi/Islamabad – India and Pakistan have both emphasised the importance of de-escalation in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, while carefully avoiding ascribing responsibility for the violence, with the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours attempting to walk differing diplomatic high-wires, analysts say.
On Sunday, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi spoke via telephone with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, reiterating Pakistan’s call for a cessation of hostilities.
The language of Pakistan’s statements on the crisis has been similar to that of India’s at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and in telephone conversations between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Russian and Ukrainian leadership.
On Saturday, Modi spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, stressing the need to end the violence without ascribing responsibility for it.
“[Modi] reiterated his call for an immediate cessation of violence and a return to dialogue, and expressed India’s willingness to contribute in any way towards peace efforts,” read an Indian foreign ministry statement following the call.
Two days earlier, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Modi spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin using similar language.
“Prime Minister [Modi] reiterated his longstanding conviction that the differences between Russia and the NATO group can only be resolved through honest and sincere dialogue,” read an Indian statement.
“[Modi] appealed for an immediate cessation of violence, and called for concerted efforts from all sides to return to the path of diplomatic negotiations and dialogue.”
At the UNSC, India abstained from a vote on a resolution that would have “deplored” Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Moscow for talks with President Putin on a major gas pipeline deal and regional issues, including Afghanistan.
The Russian statement on that meeting was brief, making no mention of Ukraine, while PM Khan’s office took a guarded approach to broaching the subject of the invasion, saying Pakistan “regretted” the current situation.
“Prime Minister [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,” said the Pakistani statement.
“He underlined Pakistan’s belief that disputes should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy.”
So, why all the apparent equivocating?
India’s longstanding ties with Russia
India and Russia have had warm ties for decades, which analysts say are mainly due to Russian arms exports to the South Asian country as well as other areas of cooperation.
India has also developed much closer ties with the United States in recent years, evidenced by India’s in the US’s Asia-Pacific “Quad” defence alliance aimed at countering China.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an estimated 23 percent of all Russian arms exports between 2016 to 2020 went to India, accounting for 49 percent of all Indian arms imports in the same period.
In December 2021, India said it had begun to receive deliveries of the Russian S-400 ground-to-air missile defence system, following a visit that month by President Putin to New Delhi.
Analysts say India’s abstention at the UNSC vote could be a result of both the large arms imports and India’s more nuanced position on issues related to conflicts involving the US, Russia and China.
“I see it mainly with respect to India’s longstanding ties with Russia and the fact of our dependence on military supplies and partially we believe that Russia has some genuine concerns which could have been taken into consideration,” said Sanjay Kumar Pandey, who teaches Russian foreign policy at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Pandey added that India’s statements, focused on the need for diplomacy, make it “very difficult to derive a clear-cut meaning”.
“India has […] not supported Russia’s actions, Russia’s recognition of breakaway republics [in eastern Ukraine], or Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine,” he said.
“But at the same time, if we say diplomacy was not given a chance, it can be construed mainly against Russia, but also partially Ukraine and NATO.”
On Thursday, President Joe Biden said the US was still in unresolved “consultations” with India over the crisis.
PS Raghavan, a former Indian ambassador to Russia, said that when people say India has not taken a “clear stand” on the conflict, they are focused on one thing: “India is not condemning Russia. That’s all that they mean when they say that.”
Raghavan said it was “not a matter of pleasing both [the US and Russia]”.
“We have very strong relations with Russia, we have very strong relations with the US. Our relations with the US have become stronger in the last decade, but each stands on its own. We don’t have any binary in the international system any more after the Cold War.”
The conception of there being a diplomatic tightrope or balancing act, he said, “is actually a creation of […] the media and some of the academic community”.
On the question of Pakistani PM Khan’s presence in Moscow on the day of the invasion, both analysts suggested it was more a case of coincidence.
“[PM Khan] did not know Russia is going to attack [Ukraine] on that day,” said Raghavan. “That’s just coincidental because I don’t think anybody knew Russia was going to attack.”
Realignment of Pakistan’s interests
In Pakistan, PM Khan faced domestic criticism from some quarters for having visited Russia on the day of the invasion, sitting alongside Putin for a photo opportunity before a roughly three-hour meeting between the two leaders.
Pakistan’s ties with Russia have increased in recent years, after being unfriendly during the Cold War, when Pakistan was a key US regional ally in countering Russian forces in Afghanistan.
Khan’s visit to Russia was the first by a Pakistani prime minister in more than two decades, although former president Asif Ali Zardari met then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in 2011.
High on the agenda was meant to be the Pakistan Stream gas pipeline, a proposed 1,100km (684-mile) pipeline running from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to the central Punjab province. The project was conceived in 2015 but faced numerous delays until new agreements were drawn up in 2021.
The pipeline, to be built at an estimated cost of $2.5bn, will be capable of transporting 12.4bn cubic metres of natural gas annually.
Analysts say that while the gas pipeline would likely not be increasing Russian gas exports, it may divert some Middle East gas supplies to Pakistan, making Europe more reliant on Russian natural gas.
Pakistan and Russia have also increased contacts through the former’s now full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
In December, Pakistani PM Khan has also lauded President Putin’s comments on how insults to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad should be seen as a “violation of religious freedom”.
Analysts say the main takeaway from the talks should be the new importance Russia appears to have taken on.
“Pakistan has little to do with Russia’s decision to go ahead with a war being planned for months,” said Salman Zaidi, director of programmes at the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute think-tank.
“The objective of the meeting was strategic symbolism for both sides, and definitely stoked anxieties in capitals accustomed to Islamabad’s traditional alignment with the West in security cooperation.”
Zaidi said the fact that no major agreements were signed during the visit was secondary.
“The way the meeting was orchestrated by the Russians shows they view this relationship with new importance,” he said.
Zaidi said regional developments since mid-2021, including the US exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover, have “demand[ed] realignment from countries like Pakistan”.
“Pakistan will stay in the Western camp, but potentially counterbalance its security needs with a partnership with Russia in the long term,” he said.
As for Ukraine, given the limited economic and other ties between the two countries – total trade between them in 2020-2021 was $350m, according to Pakistani central bank data – Zaidi says the stakes for Pakistan are relatively low.
“[Pakistan] does not have a voting position at the UNSC, nor has it been called upon by Ukraine to demand an end to violence,” he said.
“Pakistan is not related to the Ukraine conflict in any meaningful way, nor is South Asia, as can be seen by statements from leaderships across the region.”