Mar. 1, Naveen S. Gyanagoudar left his bunker in Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, to get food, when he was killed in Russian shelling. He was 22 years old and one of thousands of Indian students who were trapped in Ukraine while they waited for evacuation.
Their plight was brought to light by his passing, and India is reminded of the urgent nature of an unending war. It has also underscored the importance of India’s neutrality in the conflict. On Wednesday, the Russian ambassador to India announced that Moscow would investigate Gyanagouda’s death and work on a “humanitarian corridor” for evacuating Indian students.
The concession has much to do with Delhi’s studious defiance of the Western expectation that it throw its weight behind punitive actions against Russia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi phoned Vladimir Putin to reiterate the desire for peace and dialogue and for a cessation in violence. He also called Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and repeated his wish for peace.
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India was among only three countries, and the only democracy, in the U.N. Security Council to abstain from a Feb. 26 vote on the U.S.-sponsored resolution deploring Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The United Arab Emirates and China were the other abstents. It demanded restraint by all sides and avoided any mention of Ukrainian sovereignty or territorial integrity. Mar. 2. India again abstained in voting against Russia during the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. It abstained again from voting against Russia in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly two days later. This vote was necessary to conduct an investigation into violations of rights in Ukraine during the conflict.
Predictably, Russia has welcomed India’s “independent and balanced” stance. But it hasn’t gone down too well with the Western votaries of a supposed global axis of democracies against illiberalism. In a co-written opinion piece for an Indian news outlet, Stephen Biegun, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, complained: “Those guiding Indian foreign policy surely must understand that this is a fight to defend democracy from authoritarianism.” There was still time, he said, “for the true voice of a democratic India to be heard. The world is listening.”
India’s close ties with Russia
India has good reasons to remain silent on Ukraine. Russia is India’s biggest arms supplier. Even though the degree of reliance is not what it was in previous decades, 70% of India’s armed forces systems are still of Russian origin. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia accounted for nearly half of India’s arms imports between 2016 and 2020.
Modi and Vladimir Putin made a series of arms and trade deals in December. This included a 10-year program for military and technical cooperation that will allow India to produce half a million Kalashnikov assault weapons. India is already building supersonic cruise missiles BrahMos together with Russia, and Russia has purchased the critical S-400 anti-aircraft defense system as strategic deterrence to Pakistan and China.
Outside of defense, a Russian state-owned enterprise is building India’s biggest nuclear power plant. India is a power-hungry country and third biggest oil importer, after China and the US. Russian oil and natural gas are also helping to fuel its economy. In recent energy deals, which are expected to triple annual trade between the two by 2025 from the current $11 billion, India has secured uninterrupted supplies of Russian coal; signed a contract with Rosneft for up to 2 million tons of oil this year; will invest in Russian oilfields and LNG projects; and mine coking coal in Russia’s Far East.
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The close economic partnership mirrors the two countries’ historical camaraderie in geopolitics. As a strong hedge against American aggression in South Asia, the Soviet Union was a socialist model and a role model for India before liberalization. Moscow has always supported India in international forums, particularly in the territorial dispute with Pakistani archrival over Kashmir.
During the Richard Nixon era, Pakistan’s facilitation of U.S. rapprochement with China only entrenched India more firmly in the Soviet camp. So did Nixon’s personal animus against Indians—colorfully described by the president, and aide Henry Kissinger, as “a slippery, treacherous people,” “bastards,” and “the most aggressive goddamn people around,” in declassified White House tapes.
Moscow has not hesitated in providing New Delhi crucial military support whenever needed. By sending their navy to India Ocean to destroy a warship sent by Nixon to incite India, the Russians risked war with the United States. New Delhi continued to be supported by Moscow even though the U.S. sidelined with Pakistan during the Soviet occupation.
A track record like that makes Russia a time-tested ally not just for India’s ruling establishment but also in the eyes of the Indian public. The latter fact alone would make it politically untenable for any Indian leader—even someone as powerful as Modi—to alienate Russia.
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Putin’s appeal to the Hindu far right, Modi’s core support base, makes it all the more difficult. Despite the distress of Indian students stranded in Ukraine, Indian social media is thus by and large supportive of Delhi’s neutrality. There is no political party that demands Modi be part of the West’s support for Russia.
This would not be the first instance of India refusing to support global protests against Moscow. Under the previous Congress party-led government, Delhi absented itself from Western condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, on the grounds that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine. Further back, in 1980, India opposed a U.N. resolution condemning the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
U.S. overlooking Delhi’s neutrality on Ukraine
Geopolitical pressure not to ruffle Russia has since increased manifold because of China’s rise. India and China share an area of disputed territory over which they waged war in 1962. A carefully calibrated détente has since normalized relations, but has come under fresh strain and border flare-ups, at times lethal, have become frequent of late.
As India’s power asymmetry with China has increased over the years, and China has become more assertive in projecting its ascent, India’s insecurity has increased. It has reversed its previous policy of non-alignment and now embraces America as a distant ally in order to protect itself against its nearest foe. China sees India, for its part, as part of U.S. strategy to circle it.
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In Russia’s cordial relations with China, India also sees a moderating influence on, and a bridge with, China to manage their many differences. Russia has a strategic relationship that prevents Moscow drifting completely towards Beijing. That would be disastrous for India. To the horror of Indian policymakers this may exactly be what Russia’s wholesale sanctions are doing to push Russia into a corner. India does not want to be forced to withdraw from Russia, or create more trouble for Russia through strengthening the Sino-Russian alliance.
So, it’s a no-brainer for Modi to sit this one out. Inaction is much cheaper than joining the chorus against Putin. The U.S. will tend to overlook India’s hedging for the same reason it ignores India’s dangerous descent into illiberalism: it’s too important an ally. Modi in the U.S. is an Indian leader that has the potential and the will to push the partnership’s strategic and economic goals further than any other.
That’s why, even as India draws criticism from U.S. lawmakers for not taking a clear stance against Russia, the Biden administration itself refrains from pulling it up. Reports say that the State Department recalls a highly worded communication sent to U.S. diplomats, asking them to question their counterparts from India or the UAE regarding their position on Ukraine.
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Just as India can’t afford to lose Russia, the U.S. can’t afford to lose India. They need each other, to face off against the ultimate challenger to America’s global dominance, which is China. Russia is neither ambitious nor capable of facing such a challenge. India’s condemnation of Russia will make little material difference to isolating Moscow. Its value for containing China, however, is another matter. India along with Australia, Japan and the U.S. are part of the four-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad. This dialogue is meant to be a counterweight regionally to China.
Russia may have taken center stage in American threat perception for the moment—in his State of the Union Speech, President Joe Biden mentioned Russia 18 times and China just twice—but this crisis is part of a much bigger contest that has China at its heart. India is indispensable to the U.S., when China’s focus turns back.