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India’s balancing act in the war in Ukraine is becoming more difficult, but New Delhi’s unique position as a friend to both Russia and the West could see it emerge as a key mediator, experts told Al Jazeera.

When the war began on February 24, New Delhi rushed to support Ukraine’s humanitarian needs.

But India has refrained from condemning Moscow’s actions at the United Nations, a consistent position that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration says is in line with India’s foreign and defense policies.

In a November interview with Times Now, an Indian news outlet, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar argued that he is not trying to meet the demands of “other people.”

“Sometimes, I have lived with things that you [the West] made. Now she lives with it [India’s foreign policy],” he said.

But as the war escalates, global energy and food shortages are prompting India to reassess its restrictive stance towards Russia.

On the sidelines of the September Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin: “I know that the current era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you for phone about this.

India was one of the nations that abstained in a recent UN vote condemning Russia. [Al Jazeera]

The prime minister reiterated this sentiment weeks ago at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Bali.

“We have to find a way to get back on the path of ceasefire and diplomacy in Ukraine,” he said.

Vivek Mishra, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that India’s position is in a state of transition.

“Over the past 10 months, we have seen the spectrum of India’s mediation in the war rise. This became apparent when New Delhi indirectly told Moscow that it was time to end the war. Also, over the next year, India leading the G20 will mean that New Delhi’s role in mediating the end of the war will gain more prominence,” he said, noting that the role of mediator means leadership.

‘Improved form of non-alignment’

New Delhi will take over the G20 presidency from Indonesia from December 1 and will host the next G20 meeting in 2023.

John-Joseph Wilkins, an associate member of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said that with its new responsibilities, India is likely to focus on protecting its strategic autonomy.

“India has always had a tradition of balancing world powers, but this year we have seen the country’s foreign policy establishment possibly adopt an enhanced form of non-alignment. This has the potential to increase New Delhi’s global influence in the future,” he told Al Jazeera.

Will India’s changing position affect ongoing trade with Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged India’s recent concerns about the war, assuring Modi at their meeting in Uzbekistan that Moscow would do everything possible to stop the war “as soon as possible.”

He generally blamed Ukraine for prolonging the conflict.

Increasingly isolated by Western powers, Putin has wanted to forge closer ties with India by boosting trade relations.

“Our trade is growing, thanks to your additional supplies of Russian fertilizers to Indian markets, which have increased eightfold. I am hopeful that this will be of great help to India’s agricultural sector,” Putin told Modi.

Ahead of the Uzbekistan talks, Russia’s ambassador to India Denis Alipov hailed the growing economic cooperation, telling Moscow’s TASS news agency: “In the first half of 2022, we saw unprecedented growth in trade : in July it reached more than $11 billion and it was $13.6 billion for all of 2021. This is a solid figure, which allows us to discuss the probability of achieving the goal of bringing the level of mutual trade to $30 thousand million by 2025.”

Activists From The Hindu Sena, A Right-Wing Hindu Group, Hold Banners And Flags As They Take Part In A March In Support Of Russia, As The Invasion Of Ukraine Continues, At Connaught Place In New Delhi, India, March 6, 2022. Reuters /Anushree Fadnavis
Activists from the Hindu Sena, a Hindu right-wing group, hold banners and flags as they take part in a march in support of Russia on March 6, 2022. [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

India and Russia have shared a special relationship since the Cold War, and Moscow remains the Asian nation’s biggest supplier of arms and crude oil.

According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2011 and 2021, Russia accounted for 60 percent of India’s arms imports.

Meanwhile, Moscow supplied 22 percent of New Delhi’s total crude needs in October 2022.

According to the ORF’s Mishra, New Delhi’s changing stance is unlikely to affect trade relations.

“In the case of oil imports, for example, India’s oil and natural gas minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, recently clarified that there is no moral conflict in buying oil from Russia because, as a responsible nation, India also it has to meet domestic needs and on the global stage, oil has to be bought to ensure that global prices are low. So this trade is bound to continue,” he said.

But Wilkins said India has been trying to diversify into areas like hydrocarbons.

“The country has been slowly changing its general position on Russia for some time now,” he said.

“The conflict in Ukraine really highlighted for the country’s politicians the need to reduce their dependence on Moscow, especially in the hydrocarbons sector,” he said.

“India has a National Hydrogen Mission and it is quite clear that it eventually wants and could become an exporter of ‘green hydrogen’, which essentially means establishing a strong solar and hydropower infrastructure and diversifying supply chains. In that sense, reducing dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, on which the country is highly dependent, aligns with its overall national mission,” he added.

India’s prominence to make it a peacemaker?

At the same time, the European Union has also been pushing to strengthen ties with India as the bloc’s relations with Russia and China cool.

The EU held its first round of trade talks with India in July this year, and the discussions will resume on Monday.

New Delhi aims to establish comprehensive free trade agreements not only with the EU, but also with the UK and Canada next year. Similar trade agreements have already been signed with Australia and the United Arab Emirates this year.

Meanwhile, the United States has also furthered its defense partnership with India, after recognizing New Delhi as a central figure in maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific, a sentiment shared by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ), which has also expanded its security ties with India.

Some geopolitical analysts say the Ukraine war has played a role in India’s rise to prominence on the world stage.

Ukrainian Citizens Hold Their National Flag In Solidarity With Their Compatriots After Russia'S Invasion Of Ukraine, At Lodhi Garden In New Delhi, India, April 1, 2022. Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Ukrainian citizens hold their national flag in solidarity with their compatriots after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi, India, on April 1, 2022. [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

But Mishra argued that this theory undermines India’s achievements.

India’s potential as a stable market, he said, is what fueled the momentum.

“The Indian economy recently overtook the British economy, and India became the fifth largest economy in the world. This was written before the war,” she said.

He acknowledged, however, that the war put India in the spotlight, due to New Delhi’s unique position as an ally of the West and Russia.

“So I think in this aspect, the spectrum of the role that India is playing has increased,” he added.

While Russia’s war in Ukraine has no end in sight, the possibility of negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the conflict has increased.

With India leading the G20 since December, Mishra said the West could pressure New Delhi to play a bigger role.

“If this peace initiative is really pushed through and Ukraine agrees to sit at the negotiating table, the West could ask India to convince Russia to do the same because of India’s role in the G20 and its special relationship with Moscow,” he said. Mishra to Al Jazeera.

“In general, India will continue to be the bridge between the two sides,” he said, “but it will also be in a good position to end this war.”