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Why India Remains Neutral over Ukraine

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin at the 21st India–Russia Annual summit in New Delhi on December 6, 2021. (This image is a copyrighted work of the Government of India, licensed under the Government Open Data License – India (GODL) It was published by Press Information Bureau on behalf of Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India under the ID 105749.)

As Russia’s war rages in Ukraine, India has so far refrained from publicly criticizing Russia. India is unlikely to change course. This mirrors its national interests. India’s worst-case scenario would be an isolated Russia.

India abstained on several UN resolutions to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine. This has elicited 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 an unprecedented strategic convergence between India and the US over the past decade due to growing ambitions, capabilities, and threats from China. However, India’s neutral position over 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 US vision of world order might be best characterized as “asymmetric bipolarity,” with the US and its partners seeking to outstrip a revisionist China. India pursues a different vision: a concert of powers in which New Delhi itself is a key player. In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated in a speech to the US Congress that current “international institutions framed with the mindset of the 20th century” do not adequately reflect the realities of today. Until global governance structures recognize India as a key actor, New Delhi is unwilling to bear significant costs to uphold that order.

India sees itself as a nonaligned nation, a term coined by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This concept has been continuously developed and reinterpreted. Yale-NUS assistant professor Rohan Mukherjee described its current 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 core institutions of international cooperation.” As he argues, this is precisely why India has chosen to not condemn Russia. India is walking a tightrope between its long-standing strategic partnership with Russia, from which it sources most of its defense equipment, and its ever-closer relationship with the US.

New Delhi’s position regarding the war in Ukraine is more nuanced than its abstentions at the UN might suggest. India has delivered explanations of 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 demand of Ukraine. India also abstained from supporting a UN resolution that favored Russia. Further, it can be assumed that India made its displeasure about the war clear to Russia in private.

India has also continued to engage with Western partners to underscore what it sees as a neutral position. On March 3, Modi participated in a “Quad” meeting with the head of states of the US, Australia, and Japan. Moscow, along with Beijing, explicitly rejects this format and has even referred to it as an Asian NATO. The Indian foreign and defense ministers also traveled to Washington on April 11 for the 2+2 Dialogue with their US counterparts. Indeed, senior government officials from the US, Japan, and Australia have shown understanding of India’s “distinct” relationship with Russia.

India’s Interests in Russia

India and Russia share a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” dating back to the Cold War. According to India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, the relationship is underpinned by positive public sentiment towards Russia and a mutual “geopolitical understanding.” Some Indian experts, on the other hand, argue that Russia’s importance as a partner for India is overstated and that strategic divergences have been increasing. In their view, 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 dependence on Russian arms. Indeed, about 60-70 per cent of the current military inventory is of Russian or Soviet origin. Moscow has also been the only actor willing to co-develop, produce, and share sensitive technologies with India such as the BrahMos supersonic 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 at 44 per cent, down from 88 per cent in 2002. During the same period, imports from the US, the UK, France, Germany, and Israel increased from 7 per cent to 48 per cent. Further, as by far the largest buyer of Russian arms exports, New Delhi might also have some leverage over Moscow.

New Delhi’s worst-case scenario regarding its vision of a multipolar world, however, is an isolated (and weakened) Russia. Moscow, as a strong and independent pole, would give New Delhi strategic leeway vis-à-vis China and the US. Not alienating Russia can therefore be seen as India’s attempt at damage control. Although the Russia-China axis will remain complicated and marked by opportunism, India fears that its main defense supplier, Moscow, and its main adversary, Beijing, may be moving ever closer together. If India-Russia relations were to seriously deteriorate, New Delhi’s position in its neighborhood – it has had minor and major military conflicts with Pakistan and China in recent decades – would become significantly more troublesome. Therefore, New Delhi’s best hope is to keep relations with Moscow at a reasonably functioning level.

Challenges Ahead

The war in Ukraine will complicate India’s foreign and security policy maneuvering in many ways. Currently, three conclusions can be drawn.

India is unlikely to change its public stance vis-à-vis Russia and to condemn Moscow’s actions. So far, India’s position on the invasion seems not to have damaged ties with its most important Western partners. Senior government officials from the US, Japan, and Europe, as well as China and Russia, have paid visits to India to understand and influence the country’s position while reflecting New Delhi’s strategic importance. The legitimacy and feasibility of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, for instance, depends very much on India’s support.

The war in Ukraine has reminded New Delhi of the uncomfortable truth of its over-reliance on Russian arms. Supplying India with spare parts and maintenance will not be a priority for Russia going forward, as it will have to focus on meeting its domestic needs. The Modi government has been promoting the mantra of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliance) in India’s defense industry for years, but so far only acted half-heartedly. The war in Ukraine could serve as an inflection point. However, the path to more self-reliance and less dependence on Russian arms will be long, likely lasting decades, and arduous. In the meantime, further diversifying defense imports will be costly and will create obstacles for the integration of different platforms from diverse countries.

India will continue to work toward its own vision of a multipolar world, which will likely lead to further friction points with the US. The war in Ukraine has shown that the strategic interests of India and the US coincide only to a certain extent. This is also unlikely to change if India would depend more on the US and other Western countries for its defense equipment. In conjunction 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 in the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies.

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