India on Russia-Ukraine: History, Pragmatism and the Dilemmas Therein

India’s decision to consistently remain ‘neutral’ when voting on resolutions on the Ukraine crisis in multilateral fora might not come as a surprise to those who follow Indian foreign policy closely and know its history. India’s decision to abstain from voting in each and every multilateral fora has, nonetheless, raised eyebrows among security analysts who see India’s ‘neutrality’ as a pro-Russia stance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomes President Vladimir Putin to the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit, December 2021. Credit: Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs

In an emergency session convened by the UN Security Council on 2 March 2022, members of the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution on Aggression against Ukraine (A/ES-11/L.1) demanding the Russian Federation “immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine” and withdraw all troops, and that Russia “immediately and unconditionally reverse the decision related to the status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine”.

Of the total of 193 UN member states, 141 backed the draft UN resolution, 4 countries — Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria — joined Russia in opposing it, 12 countries chose not to vote, and 35 abstained. Among the countries that abstained were Russia’s key ally China, as well as Cuba, Bangladesh, Bolivia, El Salvador, Iraq, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and India.

In an emergency meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 3 March 2022, India abstained from voting on a draft IAEA resolution calling for Russia to “immediately cease all actions against, and at, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and any other nuclear facility in Ukraine, in order for the competent Ukrainian authorities to preserve or promptly regain full control”. Among the 35 countries represented in the Board of Governors, 26 backed the draft resolution, Russia and China opposed it, Mexico and Burundi were absent, while Pakistan, South Africa, Senegal, Vietnam and India abstained.

In an urgent debate in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) on 4 March 2022, India was again among the countries that abstained from voting on a draft resolution on the situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from Russian aggression. In the UNHRC meeting, 32 countries supported the draft resolution, Russia and Eritrea opposed it, and 13 countries abstained, including China, Kazakhstan, Sudan, Pakistan, and India.

 What explains India’s repeated decision to abstain from voting? This question has been doing the rounds across various media platforms since 25 February 2022, when India submitted an abstention vote on a draft resolution in the UN Security Council that “deplored, in the strongest terms” Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a “violation of Article 2, paragraph 4 of the Charter of the United Nations—an obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State”.

After the voting was over and Russia had predictably delivered its veto, India’s UN Ambassador T. S. Tirumurti said that his delegation was disturbed by developments in the Ukraine, calling for “efforts to ensure an immediate cessation of hostilities”. Ambassador Tirumurti further expressed concern about the welfare and security of Ukraine’s Indian community, urging all member states to honour the principles of the United Nations Charter, international law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states: “Dialogue is the only way to settle disputes, he emphasized, expressing regret that diplomacy was abandoned and calling for a return to that path.  It was for those reasons that India chose to abstain from today’s vote”.

What are the key determinants of India’s ‘balanced’ position? The short answer is that India remains bound by a web of geopolitical and geostrategic factors—both historical and of a more recent nature—that severely limits its room for manoeuvre in the ongoing crisis.

India and Russia have a close bilateral relationship that goes back to the Cold War period. According to some India scholarsagreements on the transfer of weapons and strategic technology “form the bedrock of the India–Russia relationship”, persisting into the post-Cold War period due to “path dependence”. It is this legacy of affinity that continues to shape India’s approach to Russia even in the current geopolitical context.

Cold War affinities: a give-and-take relationship

While India actively professed nonalignment as its core foreign policy approach, it ultimately ended up tilting towards the USSR due to a host of factors—most prominently the dominant socialist thinking in the Jawaharlal Nehru government, the United States’ growing closeness with Pakistan, and the Soviet disdain for Chinese expansionism in South Asia. Soviet support for India came at a very crucial period. Moscow’s financial aid was central to the Nehru government’s post-independence industrialisation plans.

Further, despite its general advocacy for nuclear weapons-free zones, the USSR backed India on its 1974 “peaceful nuclear test”. It also supported India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975, which both the West and China denounced. In return, India stayed silent on Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan through the 1980s, returned by the latter’s backing of New Delhi’s 1987 military intervention in Sri Lanka.On its part, India backed the USSR at the United Nations when need be, such as on a General Assembly resolution calling for the Red Army’s withdrawal from Hungary in 1956 and its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

This pro-Soviet leaning became even heavier under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, peaking in the landmark ‘India-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation’ of 1971. This treaty, aimed at offsetting the growing partnership between the USA, Pakistan and China, became a decisive aspect of the geopolitics around the Bangladesh Liberation War and arguably gave Indira Gandhi the confidence to militarily intervene in East Pakistan without the fear of counteractions by Islamabad, Washington or Beijing.

Thus, Soviet support for India at critical junctures of history and India’s reciprocal backing of, though not complete deference to, Moscow’s actions and positions has a firm footing in New Delhi’s institutional memory and foreign policy thinking.

The mutual support, characterised by Professor Ramesh Thakur as a “​​reciprocity of silence”, naturally extended into the post-Soviet period. Russia backed India on its second nuclear tests in 1998, and during the Kargil War — an armed conflict between India and Pakistan that took place in 1999 in the district of Kargil in Kashmir. India returned the favour by taking a neutral position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, insisting on “legitimate Russian and other interests”. Subsequently, Putin refused to back China on the 2017 Doklam standoff, supported India’s abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, and played a mediatory role in the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting in 2020, in the wake of the Sino-Indian border clash at Galwan, where twenty Indian soldiers were killed.

Against this background of longstanding mutual reliance, two aspects become particularly crucial in understanding India’s neutrality over the Russia-Ukraine crisis: defence cooperation; and the increasingly close alliance between China and Russia.

Defence cooperation: the old and the new

The potency of the Indo-Russian defence cooperation, which is probably the most widely discussed reason behind India’s ‘neutrality’ on Ukraine, cannot be underestimated.

India remains heavily dependent on Russian military hardware. Notably, in 2010, both countries upgraded their relationship to a “special and privileged strategic partnership”. Since then, according to SIPRI data cited in a recent US Congressional Research Service report, “Russia has been the source of nearly two-thirds (62%) of all Indian arms imports and India has been the largest Russian arms importer and has accounted for nearly one-third (32%) of all Russian arms exports.”

This includes a wide range of key weapon systems across all three services that are critical to India’s offensive, defensive, deterrence and power projection capabilities: main battle tanks, naval aircraft carrier, fighter jets, guided missile destroyers, frigates, nuclear-powered and conventional submarines, and air force tankers. Further, the Indian defence production industry relies heavily on Russian technology, while core operational and training modules are attuned to Russian frameworks.

Some have pointed out that Russian arms sales to India have declined over the last decade. However, SIPRI data shows that Indian arms imports have generally decreased between 2011-15 and 2016-20. Although Russian imports have dipped too, as Rohan Mukherjee highlights, this may not mean that India has a sweeping space to suddenly cut itself loose from Moscow. This is not only due to India’s systemic (and not product-specific) dependence on Russian weapons, it is also evident from recent developments. It appears that the Indo-Russian partnership is not going away any time soon.

In 2018, India signed a nearly US$5.5 billion deal with Russia to buy five S-400 air defence systems — a significant addition to India’s deterrence capabilities against a more assertive China. In December 2021, India and Russia signed a ten-year defence cooperation pact during Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi, when India also announced that the delivery of the missiles had begun. Under the new deal, India is to manufacture more than 500,000 AK-203 assault rifles in an Indian facility.

The relationship with Russia is also crucial for India’s own arms export plans. The recent US$ 375 million deal for the sale of three batteries of the BrahMos missile (an Indo-Russian joint venture) to the Philippines and the “gifting” of a Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar in 2020 are two cases-in-point.

All these developments show the lingering depth of the Indo-Russian strategic cooperation, despite New Delhi’s nascent attempts at diversification and indigenisation. Some analysts have argued that India can shift the needle on the Russia-Ukraine crisis because it too commands leverage over Moscow, as the largest buyer of Russian arms. Theoretically, that is true. However, India needs many more optimal seller options and a capability to diversify its core military systems, particularly with respect to the Chinese military’s own modernisation plans, to activate that leverage. It is difficult to see that happening in the short-term. Buying thirty Predator drones from the USA amounts to little in terms of diversification. Further, Russia has already assured India that recent western sanctions won’t affect its defence supplies.

Emerging geopolitics

The other reason why India cannot afford to alienate Russia in the current geopolitical environment is Moscow’s growing intimacy with Beijing. According to Dr. Happymon Jacob:

India’s problem is China and it needs both the US/the West and Russia to deal with ‘the China problem’.

New Delhi needs to keep Moscow in its good books, not because the latter will take its side in the event of an actual war with China, but because it can keep Chinese aggression to a manageable minimum. This would give India time to build its own military capacities to be better prepared to deal with Chinese aggression. India’s desperate outreach to the Kremlin during the recent Galwan clashes only shows how conscious New Delhi remains of Russia’s ability to keep a check on China. However, this can hardly be taken for granted, as China, owing to its rapidly rising economic and strategic clout, also commands strong leverage over Moscow. One could argue that Moscow, in the longer term, is likely to defer to Beijing on issues with India, rather than the other way round.

India may have to gradually stow away Cold War dependencies, lest they become liabilities in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment. This includes being more cognisant of India’s developing relationship with its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the ‘QUAD’), and simultaneously, finding other common ground for security cooperation. This should be aided by the fact that the USA also needs India for its own geopolitical aspirations in the Indo-Pacific and hence, will give some latitude to India in exchange for collaboration in the event that New Delhi would like to dial down its dependence on Moscow.

As political scientist Avinash Paliwal points out, India needs to gradually decrease its reliance on Russian weapons if it really wants to achieve the “strategic autonomy” that it has been talking about since the end of the Cold War. In his latest book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jainshankar argues that, in a changing world order, “just falling back on the past” is unlikely to help India prepare for the future.

In addition to the push for pragmatism in international relations, India’s internal politics is also vitally significant for Indian decision-making in multilateral fora. Importantly,  18000 Indian students who were studying in Ukraine, and 2000 Indians working in the country have been caught in the crossfire. A massive undertaking known as Operation Ganga was launched by India’s Ministry of External Affairs to evacuate Indian citizens from the Ukraine and provide relief to Indians who have crossed over to neighbouring countries including Romania, Hungary, Poland, Moldova and Slovakia. With the death of an Indian medical student during shelling in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on 1 March 2022, the Indian government became a target of criticism from large sections of civil society.

New Delhi needs to think fast, and beyond its standard diplomatic playbook. In this regard, one hopes the Indian government will be able to read the tea leaves and keep itself alert to the need for political consolidation at home. How a country conducts itself on the global arena cannot, after all, be detached from how it conducts its domestic affairs, and what is happening on its international borders.

The authors

  • Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
  • Åshild Kolås is a Research Professor at PRIO
  • Arijit Sen is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIO and the Department of Informatics, University of Oslo
Share this: