New Delhi’s balancing act reflects its interests in keeping a longstanding relationship with Russia.
On March 2, the United Nations General Assembly voted, 141 to 5, on a resolution condemning Russia for invading Ukraine. India, the world’s largest democracy, abstained from the vote.
It wasn’t India’s first abstention. India is also reportedly in talks to buy Russian oil at a discount, and is seeking to find ways to maintain trade relations despite the West’s sanctions against Moscow. For India, these choices are a way to avoid choosing. Take the vote: It wasn’t an outright condemnation of Russia’s actions, but it also wasn’t a declaration of support.
Those choices speak to the delicate geopolitical balancing act India is trying to strike amid this Ukraine war. Maintaining its longstanding friendship with Russia, even as it grows closer to the United States and its partners, always involved a complicated calculus. But it fits with India’s desire, especially as a post-colonial state, to look out for its own strategic interests.
India forged a relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That has carried over into the present day because of mutual interest and nostalgia, but the biggest reason might be defense. India’s arsenal is largely Soviet- or Russian-made; various analysts put the amount anywhere between 60 percent and 85 percent. And India needs its military to counter what it sees as the biggest threat in its neighborhood: China’s rise.
China’s rise is also the reason India and the United States have deepened their partnership in recent years; India is a member of the “Quad” (along with the US, Australia, and Japan), an informal alliance that came about years ago but which both the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to strengthen. The Quad doesn’t explicitly say it exists as a counterweight to Beijing; it’s a grouping of democracies focused on regional cooperation and other issues. But everyone — including China — gets it.
The antagonism between Washington and Moscow, made worse by Ukraine, puts India in an uncomfortable bind. Except India is used to this. In the Cold War, India practiced nonalignment, where it sought to avoid becoming entangled in the superpower conflicts and maintain its sovereignty. Although that policy has evolved in the decades since, the idea of autonomy still undergirds how India sees its foreign policy.
India “can really silo off relationships,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, focusing on national security and the Indo-Pacific region. “The relationship they have with Russia should have no bearing whatsoever on their relationships with China, the US, or anybody else.”
It is why India has walked a careful tightrope since Russia launched its war. Prime Minister Modi spoke to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shortly after the invasion, reportedly saying in these calls that he wished for an end to hostilities and a return to dialogue. Modi has had to work with both governments over efforts to evacuate thousands of Indian citizens stranded in Ukraine. (At least one Indian student was killed in the siege on Kharkiv.)
While India hasn’t denounced Russia, it has made some pointed comments. India’s Ambassador to the United Nations said in a statement after an abstention on a February 27 UN Security Council vote that the global order is anchored in “respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states.” (That element — Russia’s unprovoked incursion into a sovereign Ukraine — is the one that India might be most sensitive to because of its own border dispute with China.)
But the Ukraine war may test India’s foreign policy approach, especially as Putin’s conflict threatens to bring Moscow even closer to Beijing. Yet so far, India has not budged.
“This particular situation has not reached the stage where India will take one particular side against the other,” Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
“While we are with the United States on certain aspects of this conflict, we also understand some of the concerns that Russia has in this conflict, and therefore, we do not want to go against either of them,” Unnikrishnan added. “That is where it is. It’s not an easy situation, not an easy place. But that’s the dance, currently.”
How India and Russia became — and stayed — friends
India’s friendship with the then-Soviet Union became official in 1971, after the two countries signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. That year, the Soviets backed India in a war that ultimately led to the independence of Bangladesh. Around this time, the US was also pursuing its opening to China (with Pakistan, India’s foe, as the go-between), and both the USSR and India saw a common interest in balancing against China, said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University Bloomington.
This friendship treaty with Russia was about as close to an alliance as India was comfortable enough to get at the time, experts said. During the Cold War, India practiced a foreign policy of non-alignment, an approach embraced by many newly independent states following decolonization after World War II.
The Soviet Union and the US were battling for spheres of influence in these countries, so non-aligned countries sought to stay out of the superpower conflict and assert their right to independently run their foreign and domestic policy, with varying degrees of success. India saw itself as a leader in this movement, but that also didn’t preclude it from swaying toward Moscow when it made sense for India’s own interests.
The Soviet Union and India saw a benefit in relying on each other to counter China and a possible US-China partnership. But India got another perk: Soviet weaponry at what Ganguly called “bargain basement” prices. From the 1970s onward, India built up its military with Soviet, and later Russian, arms and equipment. Even today, the majority of India’s weaponry is of Soviet or Russian origin. Since 2010, Russia makes up two-thirds of India’s arms imports. New Delhi remains Moscow’s biggest arms importer, according to data compiled from the Congressional Research Service.
India has tried to diversify, going to the United Kingdom and France and Israel, and especially, the United States. As the relationship between the US and India grew in the past few decades, so, too, did defense cooperation — to the tune of billions in arms sales. But it’s still nowhere near the amount Russia provides. It’s also not as simple as just swapping out Russian stuff with new, US-made stuff. “Over the last 10 years, Indians have been steadily trying to reduce their dependence on Russia,” Ganguly said. “But it’s damn difficult.”
India needs spare parts to maintain the equipment it already has; arms imports from the US or elsewhere may be inoperable with Russian equipment. India also doesn’t have unlimited funds for defense, and US arms may not come as cheap as Russia’s. “It’s not [as though] you can just turn it off and stop the purchases now,” said Deepa Ollapally, a political scientist specializing in Indian foreign policy at George Washington University. “You’ve got to take care of your entire arsenal, which it won’t be that easy to do.”
Even as India weans itself off Russian arms, it is a slow and long-term process. And slow and long-term processes can feel very risky when India worries about protecting itself in its own neighborhood, from China and Pakistan. “It’s not just a case of being reliant on Russia,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. “But it’s a case of being reliant on Russian arms at a moment when India faces multiple immediate security threats.”
The United States gets this dilemma, to a degree. India recently purchased the S-400, a Russian missile defense system, which makes it subject to a particular type of US sanction. (The US imposed these sanctions on NATO-ally Turkey for making the same purchase.) But President Joe Biden can waive those, and Democrats and Republicans in Congress have asked him to do that, largely because they say it would undermine India’s ability to counter China.
As Unnikrishnan pointed out, the United States isn’t offering unlimited defense support to India. Basically, if India wants something like nuclear submarines, where else is it going to get them? “If tomorrow, the United States declares that ‘okay, we will include India in the AUKUS, [the deal it made to supply fellow Quad member Australia]’ you watch — I’m sure the Russia relationship will start diluting. But that’s not happening, is it?”
Experts also cautioned against completely pigeonholing India’s connection to Russia as solely transactional. India’s history of being brutally colonized by the British still makes it somewhat wary of being told what to do by the West.
India wants to balance its partnerships, in the world and its neighborhood, and it sees value in an empowered Russia, especially as a way to prevent Chinese hegemony in the region. “India is concerned about Russia completely collapsing, and becoming a very, very weak state in the global system, because India’s preference is for a multipolar global system where you have more than one overweening power,” Ollapally said.
Kugelman also noted that Indian officials regularly describe the relationship as one of the most trusted and consistent New Delhi has. Russia has backed up India on the global stage, from the start of their friendship, in 1971, to the present day. Russia continued to supply arms to India during its 2020 border dispute with China and Russia assisted India during the peak of its Covid-19 catastrophe last summer. Putin and Modi have met more than a dozen times, most recently in December 2021, when Putin traveled to New Delhi. Putin himself described India as “a great power, a friendly nation, and a time-tested friend.”
“India is not ready to turn on Russia, just because of those very powerful affinities that endure,” Kugelman said.
“A lot of it is nostalgia-driven,” he added. “But still it’s very powerful.”
Ukraine is testing India’s foreign policy. But how much?
Nostalgia is a powerful thing in the India-Russia relationship, but the conflict in Ukraine — and what comes after — may challenge that bond in unpredictable ways.
India’s biggest concern remains Beijing, especially in the Himalayas, where a decades-old border dispute with China remains a serious source of tension, including a 2020 flare-up, which reportedly left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
But Moscow has grown closer with Beijing, too. In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin visited Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, during the Olympics. The two said there were “no limits” to their partnership, and Putin may have planned his war around the Beijing Games at the request of Chinese officials, according to Western intelligence sources.
Russia’s economic isolation because of Western sanctions may also push Putin closer to Xi, as Russia seeks a market, any market, for its goods. Moscow reportedly requested military and economic assistance for its war effort from China, though the Kremlin denied this.
India still sees Russia as a possible partner in the region, but the more leverage China has over Russia, the less likely that will play out in India’s favor.
“We know that that process is happening, we know that Russians are diverging,” Harsh Pant, professor of International Relations at the India Institute and King’s College London, said. “But what India wants to do is delay that divergence from becoming very, very apparent because that’s a process that has its own implications for India.”
Instead, India hopes its careful silence will remind Russia that its Cold War buddy still has its back, and that it expects the same in return. But that ultimately might not be enough to keep Moscow and Beijing apart.
A closer China-Russia would make the United States even more strategically important for India. But India may not be eager for this either, and may be nervous that Russia’s Ukraine war will refocus Washington and the West back onto Europe for the foreseeable future, letting the Quad languish, and leaving India even more on its own.
The United States didn’t seem particularly surprised by India’s stance, even though groupings like the Quad are framed as a friendship between democratic partners.
“It’s just going to make future interactions with them uncomfortable because they have said and we have said that we are trying to uphold a rules-based international order as like-minded democratic partners,” Grossman said. “And if they are unwilling to condemn one sovereign nation — Russia attacking and destroying another sovereign nation, Ukraine — then that’s not really upholding the rules-based order.”
Still, the US seems to be striking a careful balance of its own — nudging India behind the scenes, but not pushing them publicly.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on February 25 noted that the US and India share important interests and values, but that the US knows “India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we have with Russia. Of course, that is okay.”
“What we have asked of every country around the world is that they use that leverage to good effect to uphold those norms, those rules that have been at the center, again, of unprecedented levels over the past 70 years of security, stability, and prosperity,” Price added.
India can offer what a lot of countries can’t: a genuine claim to having good dealings with Washington and Moscow. “The US wants India to be able to leverage its close relationship with Russia in a way that would help serve [our] goals right now,” Kugelman said. “Which means that the US wants India to do what it can to convince Putin to end this war.”
Modi reportedly told Zelenskyy on their February call that he was willing “to contribute in any way toward peace efforts.” It’s not clear whether or how India might act, but it could give India its own chance to assert itself on the global stage as the Ukraine crisis shakes the entire world.