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India hits a diplomatic dilemma over war in Ukraine

Caught between Russia and the US, Modi tries to have it both ways.

By Emily Tamkin

When the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution that “deplores in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression in Ukraine on 25 February, three countries abstained. China abstained, unsurprisingly given the close diplomatic relationship between Beijing and Moscow. So did the United Arab Emirates and India.

One Indian foreign policy analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that there were rumblings that, if India dropped its objections and sided with the US, which put forth the resolution, the UAE would, too. India was the “swing state”, the analyst said. But on 2 March, when the UN General Assembly voted on the resolution, the UAE voted in favour of it. India, once again, abstained.  

India’s ties with Russia go back to 1971, when the Soviet Union backed India in its war with Pakistan. India did not speak out publicly against the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, or of Czechoslovakia in 1968, or even the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. In more recent years, however, China’s threatening rise has pushed India closer to the US. Still, the Indian leadership has not wanted to align itself with the US completely, out of a fear of alienating Russia and losing it to China or pushing it closer to Pakistan. In either case Russia could further empower a more immediate Indian adversary.

Yet some in Washington may have been surprised that India abstained from the UN resolution.  The Biden administration, after all, has made no secret of its desire to strengthen ties with India to counter China, and territorial integrity is not an abstract issue for India, which has its own border dispute with China. Moscow, for its part, expressed gratitude, with the Russian Embassy in India tweeting after the Security Council vote: “Highly appreciate India’s independent and balanced position.”

The Indian foreign analyst told me, “I would have been very surprised if India had done anything but abstain.” Somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent of Indian military equipment — and many of the spare parts needed to keep the military operational — comes from Russia. “There’s a sense of, ‘Well, we have to put our interests first.’”

The other reason for the abstention, apart from historical sympathy and reliance on Russian military equipment, “is that India does not want to be solely dependent on the US and the West”, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.  

Some noted that this ambiguity was reflected in the population more broadly, too. Many in India — a country of more than a billion people — are sympathetic to Ukraine and deeply concerned for the thousands of Indian students there who are now at risk (and whom Russian authorities claim Ukrainians are using as human shields). Yet there are some, specifically on the right, who are sympathetic to Vladimir Putin.

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Those riding the “hypernationalist wave” in India encouraged by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, consider the Russian President a hero, said Ravinder Kaur, author of Brand New Nation. “There is a fascination with this strongman.” 

Aparna Pande, author of Making India Great, suggested that some on the right see a parallel between Putin’s reclamation of the Russian empire and their own Hindu nationalist project. “They see aggression and power,” Pande said, which they find appealing. “As long as it doesn’t directly affect them.”

Yet Rajagopalan believes India’s decision was rooted in history rather than present politics. “India has been sympathetic to Russia because of the long partnership between the two. Even today, there is widespread sympathy across the political spectrum and not just the ruling BJP, even though there is no support for the invasion itself,” she said. “It is going to be difficult but India will try to take a middle position without supporting the invasion but also without taking an open anti-Russian [stance].”

It’s unclear how long India will be able to maintain that position. For now, Washington is understanding. Pande said that the threat of China and the necessity of India for the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy mean that, though there may be “more friction, more disenchantment”, the US and India will continue to work together.

This is true even though nobody knows yet, exactly, what sanctions on Russia will mean for India. A sanctions waiver for India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system may be more difficult to obtain. And there have been reports that India would explore a rupee-rouble trade system to ease the economic pain of sanctions in India (though there have also been reports that State Bank of India is set to halt transactions involving any Russian entities under sanctions).

It’s also true that this war will change America’s calculations in the Indo-Pacific. On 3 March, before a video call, India said that the Quad countries — the US, India, Japan and Australia — would discuss the Indo-Pacific, while the US side announced they would discuss the war in Ukraine and its implications. But there are too many other items on the agenda for the US and India, the anonymous foreign analyst agreed, for India’s stance on the war in Ukraine to cause an irreparable rift.

Washington will not be Delhi’s only concern. “How does Russia see this?” Pande asked. Moscow, as the war drags on, may see India as prevaricating. “With Putin,” she warned, “you never know.”

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