India’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been distinctive among the major democracies and among U.S. strategic partners. Despite its discomfort with Moscow’s war, New Delhi has adopted a studied public neutrality toward Russia.
India has abstained from successive votes in the UN Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council that condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine and thus far has refused to openly call out Russia as the instigator of the crises.
India’s tightrope walk on the Ukraine war has been described as “strategic ambivalence.” Far from it—it actually reflects New Delhi’s deliberate choice, even if a constrained one. This decision to steer clear of publicly condemning Russia is shaped not by abstract concerns about the integrity of the world order but by purposeful Indian calculations about how alienating Russia might undermine its security.
Counter Growing China-Pakistan-Russian Ties
In the first instance, India’s public neutrality toward the Russian invasion is driven fundamentally by its concerns vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. New Delhi sees both of these states as immediate and enduring threats, and it believes that preserving its friendship with Moscow will help to prevent deepening Russian ties with China and to limit Russian temptations to build new strategic ties with Pakistan. Both China and Pakistan desire closer ties with Russia than India feels comfortable with.
Consequently, New Delhi aims to minimize Moscow’s proximity to both of its rivals. Toward that end, it has concluded that studiously avoiding any open criticism of Russia offers it a chance to arrest the tightening Sino-Russian embrace while preventing a new dalliance between Moscow and Islamabad, both of which undermine India’s core interests.
The Legacy of Close ties since 1955
Other considerations combine to reinforce this primary geopolitical calculation. Russia is viewed as having been a sturdy friend of India’s going back to 1955, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly declared Moscow’s support for Indian claims over Jammu and Kashmir (when the West was either ambivalent or opposed in comparison). And the Soviet Union wielded vetoes in the UN Security Council on India’s behalf on six occasions (and Russia could be called upon to do so again in future crises).
And the Soviet Union wielded vetoes in the UN Security Council on India’s behalf on six occasions (and Russia could be called upon to do so again in future crises). Keeping Russia on side through its veto-wielding prerogatives thus remains an important consideration that reinforces India’s reticence to criticize Russia, even when its behaviors are judged to be deplorable and on occasion undermining India’s vital interests.
On this count, India’s posture today remains fundamentally consistent with its past forbearance in the face of previous Russian aggression, for example, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Afghanistan in 1979. Despite this last crisis having subverted India’s regional environment for forty years and counting, New Delhi has been excessively charitable when calling out Russian misdemeanors, a courtesy that historically has never been equally extended to the United States.
The underlying reason for this asymmetrical treatment is that India now has a durable view of Russia as a “dependable partner.” The evidence often trotted out in justification is that Moscow, for example, did not ally with or arm Pakistan against India; it supported New Delhi against U.S. pressure during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war; and it has never criticized developments in Indian domestic politics, unlike the United States, which has done so on many occasions.
Undermined US Assistance
The evidence undermining this unfair comparison with Washington—the substantial U.S. assistance (including food aid) to India early in its postindependence history, Washington’s military and political support to New Delhi during the darkest moments of the 1962 Sino-Indian war (when the Soviet Union was either ambivalent or supported China), and the more recent, precedent-breaking U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation agreement—unfortunately does not seem to count for much, in contrast. Consequently, between the nostalgia about Russia being “a very reliable [and] long term partner” and the suspicion that the United States could prove to be “a fickle and uncertain strategic partner,” the threshold that must be crossed to provoke any Indian public criticism of Moscow is extremely high.
Russia’s Continued Military Assistance to India
India’s continuing dependence on Russia for military equipment only deepens its reluctance to alienate Moscow in any way. This aspect has received widespread attention since the beginning of the Ukraine war, but it is ultimately secondary to the larger calculations that center on preserving strong ties with Russia as part of India’s efforts to both balance China while constraining Pakistan and realize a multipolar system where it cannot be hemmed in by any excessively powerful states.
All the same, New Delhi’s current dependence on Moscow for the spares and support necessary to maintain its large inventory of Russian-origin military equipment is real.
Although India has begun to diversify its arms purchases away from Russia during the last two decades, Russia still remains a critical—and, in fact, a highly desirable—source of weapons for India. This is because Russian weapons are usually cheaper in comparison to their Western counterparts, at least as far as their initial costs go, and they are often just as good, or at least good enough, for India’s operational needs.
Moreover, Russia alone, again in contrast to the West, is often willing to provide India with the high-leverage strategic technologies that others will not, has pursued the codevelopment and coproduction of advanced weapons systems to include their manufacturing in India, and does not burden India with excessive end-user constraints, thus making India’s defense relationship with Moscow even more valuable for New Delhi. The bottom line, therefore, is that India would be unwilling to jettison the defense supply links with Russia, even if it could procure comparable weapons from alternative Western sources, because the tie with Moscow offers it important technological and political benefits.
Win-win in long-term?
Happymon Jacob, summarized it, “an aggressive Russia is a problem for the United States and the West, not for India. [The] North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion is Russia’s problem, not India’s. India’s problem is China, and it needs both the United States/the West and Russia to deal with the ‘China problem.’”
New Delhi persists, however, in placating Moscow can therefore only be read as reflecting an unstated confidence that Russia will not only survive its current confrontation with the West in reasonably good shape (irrespective of whether Putin himself ends up becoming a casualty) but that the Kremlin will also manage to avert a choking embrace by China over the long term that limits its choices where India is concerned. If both these outcomes were to materialize, the Indian gamble of tacitly supporting Russia could potentially pay off insofar as it would permit the current (or future) Russian leadership to repay India for its aloof public posture on Ukraine at a time when the larger international community, including India’s partners in the Global South, was transparently opposed to Russian aggression.
A further unspoken presumption underlying India’s current posture on Ukraine is that, when all is said and done, the West will ultimately be far more forgiving of India’s choices than Russia would be if the circumstances were reversed. At the very least, the Indian government now seems confident, especially after the recent bilateral 2+2 meeting, that it has been able to persuade the United States to accept its political constraints vis-à-vis Russia without harming the larger U.S.-Indian relationship.
Consequently, India prefers a multipolar international order that would allow it to maneuver between several and diverse poles, exploiting their differences depending on the issue areas, to secure gains for itself while avoiding permanent alignments with any.
India Takes the Sweet Spot
New Delhi appears to have made not merely a self-interested but actually a profitable bet because it has ended up, as one Indian commentator put it, “in a sweet spot, courted by the Quad [as well as by] China and Russia” simultaneously. India’s sacrifice of its values thus appears to have paid off in comparison to the losses that might have been threatened by forsaking its interests. Jaishankar alluded to this calculus when he declared, “we watch what’s happening in the world, like any country does, and we draw our conclusions and make our assessments. And believe me, we have a decent sense of what is in our interest and know how to protect it and advance it. So I think part of what has changed is [that] we have more options than we did before.”
In this context, the threats posed by weakening Russian power or by tightening Sino-Russian ties constitute far greater dangers from New Delhi’s perspective, but these are pernicious eventualities to which India has no real solutions right now beyond its consistent efforts at appearing neutral. Hence, all that India can do currently is to hope for the best, while wishing that the United States too will perceive the long-term benefit of not punishing Russia so hard that Moscow moves ever more deeply into Beijing’s embrace—something Indian policymakers believe would be unhelpful to both New Delhi and Washington simultaneously. Such yearnings, by the way, also illustrate the current limits of the oft-declared U.S.-Indian convergence on values. But the enduring primacy of interests in India’s approach to the world ensures that, despite receiving “no ovation for [its] stand” on the Ukraine war, its uncomfortable neutrality toward Russia is unlikely to change any time soon.
The article is an excerpt from the essay “What Is in Our Interest”: India and the Ukraine War written by ASHLEY J. TELLIS at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Institute, U.S.