The Democracy Turning Its Back on Ukraine

For reasons to do with history and strategy, India will not abandon Russia.

India's spinning wheel set against Ukraine's sunflower
The Atlantic

About the author: Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, the United Nations has held at least four major votes, all either criticizing Moscow, condemning the military action, or calling for an independent international investigation. Each won the support of a hefty majority of the countries taking part in the votes (though some were vetoed by Russia). In all of them, however, the world’s biggest democracy abstained.

For many readers, this will make little sense. India—a growing ally of the United States that has itself suffered border incursions from a more powerful and expansionist autocratic neighbor—has declined to support Ukraine, and has refused to publicly turn against Moscow as many of its allies (Western and non-Western alike) have.

Yet to Indians, and seasoned India watchers, this stance will come as no surprise. New Delhi has certainly squirmed uncomfortably at being put on the spot with the votes and demands that it take sides, but its position has been unwavering: India will not abandon Russia. The reasons are based on history and strategy, and, perhaps most important for policy makers in Washington, D.C., illustrate the limits of the White House’s democracy-versus-autocracy framing of international politics.

The UN votes demonstrate the tricky balancing act New Delhi faces. In the first, a Security Council vote condemning the Russian invasion, India abstained but said afterward that the “contemporary global order has been built on the U.N. Charter, international law, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states” and that “all member states need to honor these principles,” comments that were clearly disapproving of Russia. Subsequent votes followed a similar pattern: In one, the Security Council voted to refer the issue of the invasion to the General Assembly, followed by a General Assembly vote, and another one, at the UN Human Rights Council, called for an independent international commission of inquiry on the invasion. In all of them, India abstained, and in the first two cases, it issued follow-up statements that, if you read between the lines, were critical of Moscow.

India’s votes have put it at odds with all of its new security partners, particularly the United States, which together with India, Japan, and Australia forms the anti-China “Quad” grouping. All of India’s Quad partners have condemned Russia and imposed severe economic sanctions on Moscow, as well as on Russian entities.

India, however, was always unlikely to vote against Russia—and remains unlikely to do so in the near future.

The deep Indian strategic empathy toward Russia is rooted in India’s post-colonial heritage, a strong and understandable anti-Western sentiment that is largely the consequence of British colonial rule. During the Cold War, this transmuted into anti-Americanism, and India, though officially a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, was closer with Moscow than with Washington. For decades, Russia enjoyed considerable support across the Indian political spectrum, and indeed, Indian public discourse on the Ukrainian crisis today reveals a rare consensus in a country where the polity is sharply divided on most issues. Op-eds in major newspapers compare the Russian invasion to the U.S. war in Iraq, and there have been few protests within India of any significance in support of Ukraine. (By contrast, Russian authorities have arrested thousands who have demonstrated against the invasion within Russia.)

Indians recall Soviet assistance for their foreign and security policies in the 1960s and ’70s; Moscow cast multiple vetoes on the Security Council, in particular, to support India during the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. The Soviet Union was seen as sympathetic to India’s needs, with no strings attached, be it in the form of weapons transfers or political and diplomatic aid. The perception of the U.S. was exactly the opposite; Washington’s assistance, when it did come, had strings attached and the U.S. was seen as unreliable and willing to abandon its purported allies.

The reality was, of course, a lot more complicated. Soviet support to India was neither consistent nor unconditional. For instance, in 1962, during the Sino-Indian border war, Moscow abandoned India because it needed China’s support during the Cuban missile crisis. Similarly, in the late ’60s, it adopted a neutral position as it sought to play the honest broker between India and Pakistan. Even the storied tale of Soviet support in 1971 ignores the fact that Moscow initially tried to convince India not to go to war. Similarly, Moscow cooperated with the U.S. in pushing nuclear nonproliferation, which targeted India, but, unlike the U.S., was not very vocal about it. Little attention is paid within India to this checkered history.

India’s stance is about more than historical bonds, though, and hinges on a more material condition: India is deeply dependent on Russian weapons. Despite New Delhi’s efforts in the past decade to diversify its defense supplies, analysts estimate that up to 85 percent of the country’s military equipment is of Russian or Soviet origin. Even now, India is buying three more Kilo-class submarines from Russia—it already has nine such vessels in its navy—as well as 400 Russian T-90 main battle tanks, adding to the Indian army’s existing fleet of more than 1,000 T-90s. In fact, the Indian tank inventory, with the exception of about 100 Indian-built Arjun tanks, is entirely Russian. This reliance on Russia for military equipment is partly because India for decades sought cheaper arms than those supplied by Western nations, but the result now is that it is difficult for New Delhi to simply cut itself off from Russia completely and immediately. India, faced on one border with a Pakistan with which it has fought several wars and on the other with a China with which it is locked in an ongoing territorial dispute that has spilled over into conflict, will continue to need Russia to supply spares and replacements for the foreseeable future.

Still, India’s Russia relations have plenty of problems. For one, Russia’s behavior—most clearly in Ukraine—is such that it has become more of a national-security liability for India than a partner. But more important, the improved relationship between Moscow and Beijing over the past decade is a concern for New Delhi. Since 2014, Russia’s sale of advanced weapon platforms to China, such as its Su-35 fighter jets, has had a direct impact on the military balance between India and China. The growing strategic entente between Russia and China was highlighted by the recent Vladimir Putin–Xi Jinping summit, illustrating a mismatch in threat perceptions between New Delhi and Moscow that will become even more difficult to overcome in the future.

This is leading, slowly, to changes in India’s strategic outlook. New Delhi has begun to build a closer partnership with the U.S. and also to engage in a number of “minilaterals” such as the Quad, along with trilateral arrangements such as the Japan-Australia-India group and the India-France-Australia bloc. The idea is to bring together countries that are concerned about China’s growing power and its propensity to throw its weight about.

Nevertheless, India does not want to entirely give up on Russia. In addition to its historical ties and its arms dependence, a core tenet of Indian foreign policy has long been the desire to maintain good, stable relations with all major powers, including Russia, and not be beholden to just one. New Delhi also would not like to be perceived as changing its Russia policy under pressure from the West, especially the United States. Domestically—despite the prevalence of American popular culture and the large number of Indians who have migrated to the West for education or employment—such a change has little popular support, and the opposition could be sure to jump on a government that is perceived as making one.

So, the Biden administration’s democracy-versus-autocracy framing has few takers in India. New Delhi’s Russia policy will change, gradually, but not because of American or Western pressure. Instead, it will change as a result of the growing strategic dissonance between the two, as Russia finds itself more and more beholden to China and uncomfortable questions are raised about India’s enormous dependence on Russian arms and how vulnerable it is to Russian behavior.