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23 September 2022

The war in Ukraine has tipped the balance of power in Russia’s relationship with India

India has increased its influence by criticising Moscow while continuing to do business with it.

By Emily Tamkin

As Russia’s disastrous war with Ukraine grinds on, President Vladimir Putin finds himself increasingly isolated in the world.

Perhaps no relationship demonstrates the position Putin has put himself in as well as that with India. While the Indian government has not yet turned its back on Russia, the war has exacerbated tensions and given India a stronger hand.

“The relationship will continue, somewhat frostier perhaps,” Christopher Clary, assistant professor of political science at the University of Albany, said. At least, that is, “until Putin regains his equilibrium or until Putin is gone”. India’s equilibrium with Russia, however, has changed.

Most notably, Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, made headlines for telling Putin at a conference in Uzbekistan on 16 September: “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.” This was India’s harshest public criticism yet of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since it began in February. The significance of the comment is debatable, however.

For one thing, “everyone involved understands that [it] was directed at a wider audience”, said Nandan Unnikrishnan, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. That isn’t to suggest that Modi said one thing to Putin in public and another in private. Rather, the comment’s intended audience wasn’t the person sitting in front of him but the wider (and perhaps especially Western) world.

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“Mild words of public censure – essentially saying the war is ill-advised – will hardly cause a rupture in the relationship, but might attenuate international pressures on Modi,” Clary said. At least in the short term, this aim was achieved; on 20 September Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, applauded Modi’s comments. “I think what Prime Minister Modi said – a statement of principle on behalf of what he believes is right and just – was very much welcomed by the United States,” Sullivan said at a press conference.

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Putin, for his part, responded to Modi by saying, “We will do everything to stop this as soon as possible”; days later, however, he announced illegal referendums to claim parts of Ukraine as Russian territory and threatened use of nuclear weapons. More criticism from India followed. On 22 September, at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, S Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, said: “The global order that we all subscribe to is based on international law, UN charter, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states.” These principles, he said, must be upheld “without exception”.

[See also: Is Putin going to start a nuclear war?]

This isn’t the first time that India has expressed concern over Russian foreign policy. Indira Gandhi, prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984, “was quite troubled by the Soviet Union’s foray into Afghanistan”, noted Clary. Generally, though, Indian criticism was offered privately.

“What is different today is Modi has decided to make those private concerns public,” Clary said. “This likely reflects his calculation that India has little to lose by some abstract words of modest rebuke. Putin’s Russia does not have sufficient friends among the great powers that they can walk away from India.”

But nor can India walk away from Russia. It’s estimated that 70 per cent of Indian military equipment is purchased from Russia, and though India has diversified in recent years, that’s too much to sever ties with the country. (Notably, this week, State Department officials said that they were in talks with India about weaning it off its military dependence on Russia.)

India also said this month that it was trying to fend off inflation by buying Russian energy – India’s crude oil shipments from Russia have increased from about 2 per cent of all crude oil shipments to about 12 per cent since February, according to the country’s finance minister. That India is one of the few major countries doing business with Russia gives it bargaining power that it does not, at present, see the need to relinquish. And Russia is still, to many in India, seen as a more reliable partner from a security perspective than the United States. India’s objections to the US providing a sustenance package to its rival Pakistan, to maintain its F-16 fighter aircraft fleet, is just one example.

India’s reluctance to abandon Russia also comes from the fact that it does not want to encourage closer ties between Russia and China. India and China are geostrategic foes and are at odds over an area along the western Himalayan border. As such, New Delhi would not be happy to lose a longtime strategic partner to Beijing.

Before this war, many in Indian policy and pundit circles blamed the US for Russia’s closeness to China, tracing it back to US sanctions on Russia in 2014, imposed following the annexation of Crimea. Since February, however, Russia has effectively made itself more dependent on China economically, as its armed forces struggle on the battlefield and its economy suffers under the pressure of more sanctions. This increased dependency could be seen as frustrating India’s foreign policy goals – and forcing New Delhi to make different calculations about how valuable Moscow will be as a partner in the future.

Putin’s Russia is not only in a weaker position with respect to its neighbours, such as Ukraine, and its foes, such as the United States. It’s also in a weaker position with respect to its friends. 

[See also: As Russians flee Vladimir Putin’s draft, the EU should welcome them in]

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