Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin during the 21st annual India-Russia Summit in New Delhi on December 6, 2021. (This image is a copyrighted work of the Government of Indialicensed under the Government Open Data License – India (GODL) It was released by the Press Information Bureau on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India under the ID 105749.)
As the Russian war rages in Ukraine, India has so far refrained from publicly criticizing Russia. India is unlikely to change course. This reflects its national interests. The worst scenario for India would be an isolated Russia.
India has abstained on several UN resolutions condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine. This drew public criticism in the West. Some observers seem to have believed that India had joined the “western camp” in recent years. This comes against the backdrop of unprecedented strategic convergence between India and the United States over the past decade due to China’s growing ambitions, capabilities and threats. However, India’s neutral position on Ukraine reflects its vision of a multipolar world, its foreign policy of strategic autonomy and its close but complicated relationship with Moscow.
India’s Balancing Act
The American vision of the world order could best be characterized as “asymmetrical bipolarity” with the United States and its partners seeking to get ahead of a revisionist China. India is pursuing a different vision: a concert of powers in which New Delhi itself is a key player. In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in a speech to the U.S. Congress that “current international institutions designed with the mindset of the 20th century” do not adequately reflect today’s realities. Until global governance structures recognize India as a key player, New Delhi is unwilling to bear significant costs to enforce this order.
India considers itself a non-aligned nation, a term coined by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This concept has been continuously developed and reinterpreted. Rohan Mukherjee, assistant professor at Yale-NUS describe its present form – strategic autonomy – as “a means to a world where power is more widely distributed and where no single country or group of countries can maintain a grip on the central institutions of international cooperation”. As he argues, this is precisely why India chose not to condemn Russia. India is walking a tightrope between its longstanding strategic partnership with Russia, from which it sources most of its defense equipment, and its increasingly close relationship with the United States.
New Delhi’s stance on the war in Ukraine is more nuanced than its UN abstentions suggest. India has provided explanations for its votes in the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council that implicitly indicate its disapproval of Russia’s actions. Modi spoke on the phone not only with Vladimir Putin, but also with Volodymyr Zelensky, calling for direct talks between the two presidents – a key Ukrainian demand. India has also refrained from supporting a UN resolution favorable to Russia. Moreover, one can assume that India made his displeasure with the war is clear to Russia privately.
India has also continued to engage with its Western partners to underline what it sees as a neutral stance. March 3, Modi participated in a “Quad” meeting with the Heads of State of the United States, Australia and Japan. Moscow, along with Beijing, explicitly rejects this format and has even called it an Asian NATO. Indian foreign and defense ministers also visited Washington on April 11 for the 2+2 dialogue with their American counterparts. Indeed, senior government officials from the United States, Japan and Australia have shown understanding for India. “distinct” relationship with Russia.
India’s interests in Russia
India and Russia share a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnershipdating back to the Cold War. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar says relationship is underpinned by positive public sentiment towards Russia and mutual understanding “geopolitical understanding”. Some Indian experts, on the other hand, argue that Russia’s importance as India’s partner is overstated and that strategic differences have increased. According to them, Russia has not been a reliable defense supplier in recent years, with long delays in the delivery of spare parts and rising prices.
A favored explanation for India’s refusal to criticize Moscow is its heavy reliance on Russian weapons. In fact, approximately 60-70 percent of the current military inventory is of Russian or Soviet origin. Moscow has also been the only player willing to co-develop, produce and share sensitive technologies with India such as the supersonic BrahMos missile and nuclear submarines. On the other hand, New Delhi has managed to reduce its arms imports from Russia over the past two decades. In 2020, Russia’s share was 44%, compared to 88% in 2002. During the same period, imports from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Israel increased from 7% to 48%. Moreover, as by far the largest buyer of Russian arms exports, New Delhi could also have some leverage over Moscow.
New Delhi’s worst-case scenario for its vision of a multipolar world, however, is an isolated (and weakened) Russia. Moscow, as a strong and independent hub, would give New Delhi strategic leeway vis à vis China and the United States. Not alienating Russia can therefore be seen as India’s attempt to limit the damage. While the Russia-China axis will remain complicated and fraught with opportunism, India fears that its main defense supplier, Moscow, and its main adversary, Beijing, are getting closer and closer. If Indo-Russian relations were to seriously deteriorate, New Delhi’s position in its neighborhood – it has seen minor and major military conflicts with Pakistan and China in recent decades – would become markedly more troublesome. Therefore, New Delhi’s best hope is to keep relations with Moscow at a reasonably functioning level.
The war in Ukraine will complicate India’s foreign and security policy maneuvers in many ways. Currently, three conclusions can be drawn.
India is unlikely to change its public stance on Russia and condemn Moscow’s actions. So far, India’s stance on the invasion does not appear to have damaged ties with its most important Western partners. Senior government officials from the United States, Japan and Europe, as well as China and Russia, have made visits to India to understand and influence the country’s position while reflecting on the strategic importance of New Delhi. The legitimacy and feasibility of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, for example, very much depends on India’s support.
The war in Ukraine has reminded New Delhi of the uncomfortable truth of its overreliance on Russian weapons. India supply of spare parts and maintenance will not be a priority for Russia in the future, because he will have to concentrate on satisfying his inner needs. The Modi government has promoted the mantra ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliance) in the Indian defense industry for years, but so far it has only acted reluctantly. The war in Ukraine could serve as an inflection point. However, the road to more autonomy and less dependence on Russian weapons will be long, probably decades, and arduous. In the meantime, further diversifying defense imports will be costly and create barriers to integrating different platforms from different countries.
India will continue to work on its own vision of a multipolar world, which will likely lead to new sticking points with the United States. The war in Ukraine has shown that the strategic interests of India and the United States coincide only to a certain extent. This is also unlikely to change if India became more dependent on the United States and other Western countries for its defense equipment. In collaboration with growing illiberal tendencies in India, realistic expectations should guide US and European cooperation with the world’s largest democracy.
About the Author
Boas Lieberherr is a researcher with the Security Studies Center’s Global Security Team.
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