The US, the UK and Russia sent delegations to India in late March to rally support for their positions on Ukraine. Yet India has remained steadfastly neutral, and repeatedly abstained from voting at the United Nations to condemn Russia’s invasion since it began on February 24.
US deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh, who visited New Delhi on March 30-31, warned of consequences for any country seeking to “circumvent or backfill” sanctions on Russia, and further said the United States would disapprove of any rapid acceleration of India’s energy and other commodity imports from Russia.
One week later on April 6, Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, announced that the consequences of a “more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow would be “significant and long-term” for India.
President Joe Biden’s administration was no doubt hopeful that India would be on board with condemning Russia and complying with sanctions.
India is the world’s largest democracy and has enjoyed increasingly positive relations with the United States and Europe since the turn of the century. Biden has also promoted the Indian heritage of high-ranking members of his administration and contributions of the Indian community in America.
In addition to annual military drills with the United States, India is part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which also includes Australia and Japan. The four-nation partnership, which emerged in the 2000s, has increasingly come to be seen as a loose political and security bloc aimed at curtailing China, and its members have increased military drills together in recent years.
But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to avoid condemning Russia reflected India’s commitment to maintaining its “strategic autonomy.” To balance India’s relations with major powers, the country’s foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has urged India to “engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play.”
Russia capitalizes on India’s wariness
Also in the mix is India’s troubled history with the West over the last few centuries. European powers (notably the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British) initially sought to trade with India after Vasco da Gama’s landfall in Calicut in 1498. This later developed into outright colonialism, as well as exploitation through such entities as the Dutch and British East India Trading companies.
India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, but relations between it and the US-led West remained complicated during the Cold War. Tensions peaked during the India-Pakistan War of 1971, when the United States dispatched its 7th Fleet in support of Pakistan, though it avoided engaging in hostilities.
US sanctions against both India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests in 1998, in addition to continued support for and cooperation with Pakistan during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, have also irked New Delhi in recent decades. Coupled with Europe’s history in the region, New Delhi is understandably wary of being lectured on foreign policy.
This is in contrast to the relatively positive historical relationship between India and Russia that developed during the Cold War. Despite India being one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, ties between Moscow and New Delhi flourished, and the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation formalized their partnership in August 1971.
When the India-Pakistan War of 1971 broke out just months later, it was the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s presence in the Bay of Bengal that pushed the United States’ 7th Fleet into standing down. The Soviet Union also provided India with weapons shipments, gave significant assistance to India’s space program, and further formalized bilateral cooperation through the Integrated Long-Term Program of Cooperation (ILTP) in 1987.
A constructive Indian-Russian relationship persevered after the Soviet collapse. Nurturing this partnership has since taken a renewed urgency in Moscow, with the Kremlin keen to promote ties with major powers as its relations with the West have plummeted.
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Reliable defense partner
As the world’s largest weapons importer, India is a crucial market for arms manufacturers. Russia remains India’s top supplier, and trade has surged in the 21st century as India’s economy has grown, and as India’s leadership has remained concerned over its traditional disputes with Pakistan and China.
Russia’s dominance over India’s weapons market has fallen in recent years. However, India’s need for maintenance, spare parts and upgrades, interoperability with foreign imports, and friendly relations with Russia means it will be militarily tied to Russia in the medium term at least. This was further reinforced by the 10-year defense pact signed by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Modi last December.
India has also been able to rely on Russian backing in global forums and institutions, and Moscow has historically used its veto power at the UN Security Council to promote and defend Indian interests, notably its dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. India also views Russia as having a moderating influence over China.
This has naturally resonated across India’s political establishment and voting base, with no major party supporting further action against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and an #IStandWithPutin campaign emerging across Indian social media.
Russia and India have also taken steps to expand energy ties in recent years. Russia’s oil giant Rosneft and other Russian companies secured a US$13 billion takeover of India’s Essar Oil in 2017, while in 2020, India agreed to the first annual import of Russian oil as part of wider efforts to diversify its supply lines.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, India has purchased 13 million barrels of oil from Russia compared with just under 16 million for all of 2021.
Russia also supplies India with much of its coal, while the first direct Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) arrived in India last year (followed by the signing of a 20-year contract). And in January this year, Rosatom, Russia’s state-run nuclear power company, began building its sixth nuclear reactor in India after beginning construction on the fifth the previous June.
Europe’s lingering dependence on Russian resources has also elevated perceptions of Western hypocrisy in regard to criticism of India’s growing energy relationship with Russia.
Talks remain ongoing over a potential free-trade agreement between India and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, and the two countries are exploring the possibility of a rupee-ruble payment system to lessen the effects of sanctions.
India’s efforts to evacuate the thousands of Indian students from Ukraine as the invasion began required Modi to use India’s ability to work with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Forcing India to pick a side in the conflict would significantly undermine India’s strategic autonomy in global affairs.
But India’s decision also points to the difficult task of attempting to isolate Russia, whose influence is more than enough to entice India into acceptable neutrality further.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.