Why India's failure to take a hard stance on Russia could backfire

Since Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, India has abstained on every United Nations vote condemning Russia's actions. This has invoked the opprobrium of the overwhelming majority of its allies in NATO countries, including the U.S., with whom it has been forging a deeper strategic alliance in recent years.

India has abstained on every UN vote condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine

Two men pose for a photo as they shake hands.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet each other before their meeting in New Delhi on Dec. 6, 2021. India has abstained on every United Nations vote condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

As Washington was raising the alarm about convoys of Russian military forces heading toward the Ukrainian border in early December, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin were posing for cameras at a grand New Delhi palace. 

During the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit, both leaders reaffirmed their "special and privileged strategic partnership," signing a military and technical co-operation pact to boost trade to $30 billion US per year, including a $5.4 billion US missile defence system for India.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago — shelling several major cities, hampering efforts to evacuate and causing the deaths of at least 400 civilians so far —  India has abstained on every United Nations vote condemning Russia's actions. These include votes at the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council and at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

India's stance invoked the opprobrium of the overwhelming majority of its allies in NATO countries, including the U.S., with whom it has been forging a deeper strategic alliance in recent years, bolstered by their common concern over increased Chinese incursion into the Indo-Pacific region

"India is in a very tough spot," said Srinath Raghavan, professor of political science at Ashoka University in Gurgaon, India.

'A difficult stance for India to take'

India's need for Russian arms to defend itself is the main reason India refused to vote against Russia at the UN, Raghavan said.

"As a country with disputed borders yourself it (abstention) is definitely a difficult stance for India to take."

India did recognize that Russia committed an act of aggression and a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, with Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti saying on Feb. 25 that India was "deeply disturbed," and urging "immediate cessation of violence" in its explanation of why it abstained on the UN resolution.

But India's support of Russia is deep-rooted and comes as little surprise to foreign policy experts, having been referred to as a "reciprocity of silence" by scholar Ramesh Thakur back in 1991.

Dating back to the Cold War, arms sales have been the foundation of India-Russia relations. As its best customer over the decades, India has benefited from so-called "friendship prices," easy credit arrangements and technologies that are, for the most part, competitive and reliable.

Since 1991 alone, India has spent $70 billion US on Russian arms, including frigates, nuclear submarines, fighter aircraft, transport helicopters, cruise missiles, and air defences, and it plans to spend much more, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"The Indian military would come to a standstill if Russian support is not there. And that would mean that the Chinese threat becomes even more potent," said Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Two men walk side by side through a doorway, leading to a hall lined with flags.
Putin, right, and Modi enter the hall during their meeting in New Delhi. Arms sales have been the foundation of India-Russia relations. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/The Associated Press)

India's difficult relationship with China

India has had a difficult relationship with China for decades. Hostilities took a violent turn in 2020 when, for the first time in 45 years, clashes resulted in losses of life on the demarcation known as the Line of Actual Control. Some 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died in the 2020 clashes, and tensions remain. 

"There's a sense in New Delhi that at the end of the day, when India gets into a very difficult situation with China, it's sort of on its own," said Sanjay Ruparelia, Jarislowsky Democracy Chair at Ryerson University in Toronto.

While U.S. President Joe Biden has voiced displeasure over India's multiple abstentions at the U.N., Ruparelia says U.S. politicians are acutely aware of the strategic dilemma India faces because of its dependence on Russian arms. 

"They know that it faces an increasingly aggressive state in China under [President] Xi Jinping ... and so it has to protect itself," said Ruparelia.

'We do not want to see Russia tilting entirely toward China'

From a foreign policy perspective, India and Russia diverge when it comes to a rising China.

China's leader, Xi Jinping, hosted a banquet for Putin in Beijing last month, declaring that Moscow and Beijing would be at the centre of the new global order and that their bilateral friendship knew "no limits." China, too, abstained on every vote aimed at curbing Russian aggression in Ukraine.

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"We see yet another example of the targeting of civilians. This is a war crime," said retired General Tom Lawson, former chief of the defence staff, of the apparent Russian airstrike on a maternity ward in Mariupol. "We may see that NATO has to they go forward with Russia."

"Russia has had an increasingly close relationship with China and I think it is very much in India's interests to make sure that the Russians are not entirely in an embrace with the Chinese,' Raghavan said.

"We do not want to see Russia tilting entirely towards China."

But it is precisely on containing China that U.S. and Indian strategic interests have aligned in recent years. The U.S. needs India as a counterpoint to China in the Asia-Pacific region, said Raghavan.

Raghavan contends that even if India had voted to censure Russia, it would be purely symbolic since Russia has veto power.

India's failure to take a stand could backfire: expert

India's abstentions are particularly disturbing because it is the "largest democracy in the world," said Ayesha Ray, professor of political science at King's College in Pennsylvania. When Putin ordered his nuclear deterrent forces to be on high alert — an unprecedented post-Cold War posture — India should have condemned Russia, said Ray.

"This is about standing with democracies in the world against nuclear proliferation, against this sort of aggression that is directed at sovereign states," Ray said.

As a country facing border disputes with both Pakistan and China, Ray said India's failure to take a stand could backfire. 

"If India goes to the U.N. and says, 'Well, you know, my territorial integrity is being undermined,' … what moral claim can it make there … if it's not kind of speaking up against the territorial integrity of a sovereign state that has been completely demolished by Russia?"

A group of people, some wearing masks, gather outside a large white church. A man in the foreground holds up a rosary and a sign that reads: We are with Ukraine.
Protesters hold placards against Russia's invasion over Ukraine, at San Thome Cathedral Basilica in Chennai, India, on March 2, 2022. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia needs India as much as India needs Russia

India has failed to take advantage of opportunities to wean itself off Russian supplies, said Christine Fair, professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

There was the 2006 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, for instance, and in 2016, Washington made India a "major defense partner," giving India access to military supplies only available to it strongest allies. But India "tells itself it doesn't want to be dependent upon a single source, but in fact, it overwhelmingly is with respect to the Russians," Fair said.

Russia needs India to buy its military equipment as much as India needs Russian arms, said Fair, and it has squandered its considerable leverage by not taking a strong stand against the war in Ukraine.

"What's Russia going to do with its largest source of arms exports? Nothing. Putin wasn't going to cut them off … because his economy is already in collapse."

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"Why is India's image as a major power not taken seriously internationally? Well, this is it. You had all the cards and you refused to play them," Fair said.

Whether India's aversion to aggravating Russia will have an impact on its growing relationship with the U.S. is not yet clear. The U.S. could, if it wanted, impose sanctions on India for buying a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, one it said was more within India's budget than the U.S. Patriot system. 

"I think that the Americans understand what the Indian position is even if they do not like it … but the pressures on India will grow as the war continues."


Chris O'Neill-Yates

National Reporter

Chris O'Neill-Yates is an investigative journalist and senior reporter for CBC News.