Three. That’s the number of times the 193-member UN General Assembly and 15-nation UN Security Council came together in the last month to vote against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And every single time, India – a U.S. ally, the world’s largest democracy, and its sixth-largest economy – abstained from voting.
Yet, India has steadfastly had Russia’s back at the UN. Russia is, after all, its trusted arms supplier. India is the largest importer of arms from Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the U.S.
While India has called for “an immediate end to all hostilities in Ukraine,” it has not taken the economic sanction route unlike its many other Western allies. In fact, India is considering buying oil from Russia at discounted rates, and India is working on currency alternatives to facilitate trade with Russia as the ruble tanks.
India is the only country in the powerful Quad security alliance, which includes the U.S., Australia and Japan, that did not reprimand Russia openly. It is also one of 35 UN member countries, including South Asian neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, that abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine.
India has steadfastly had Russia’s back in the UN, and has not taken the economic sanction route unlike its many other Western allies.
“There are high expectations from the West with India about how it should be willing to support the U.S. at a time like this,” said Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based think tank The Wilson Center. “India is an emerging power with very close relations with the U.S.”
Since coming to power, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has prioritised building strong bilateral trade with America. Trade between the two countries was at a whopping $113 billion last year, almost double what it was 10 years ago. The U.S. is now India’s largest trading partner.
But as Modi built markets for India’s diamonds, pharmaceuticals, machinery, and organic chemicals in the U.S., he also continued to build India’s lucrative and fruitful arms relationship with Russia that has steadily grown in the last two decades. Of the $53.85 billion India spent on arms imports in 2000–2020, $35.82 billion went to Russia. Its arms imports from the U.S. in the same period amounted to only $4.4 billion.
Eighty-five percent of India’s major weapons systems come from Russian-origin platforms, everything from long-range air defence systems to planned acquisitions of nuclear-ballistic submarines.
And so, for India, voting on the Ukraine conflict would be picking a side between its largest arms source and its largest trading partner.
While stating his country’s unwavering insistence on not having a stance on the conflict, TS Tirumurti, the Indian permanent representative at the UN, tried to play it safe in a message delivered on February 26. “Abstention doesn’t mean we’re totally neutral or that we’re not concerned,” he said. “All India is saying is that the legitimate security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine must be addressed.”
Following India’s latest UN vote (or non-vote), a diplomatic cable sent by the U.S. State Department went as far as to say India is now “in Russia’s camp” – a message that the State Department instantly recalled, saying it was released by mistake.
The U.S. is India’s largest trading partner. Trade between the two countries was a whopping $113 billion last year.
India has been trying to avoid picking a side between the West and Russia since as early as 2014. Back then, when Russia annexed Crimea, India also abstained from voting against Russia. Modi, who had just assumed power then, said, “India is on the side of peace.” Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are often categorised as strongmen leaders whose autocratic regimes are characterised by macho populism, a tendency towards fascism, and a penchant for military exploits.
Besides sourcing military hardware, India and Russia also collaborate on their space programs’ flights and satellite navigation. Energy is another contact point, with India importing $1 billion worth of oil and petroleum products from Russia in the past year. Commercial trade between the two countries amounted to $8.1 billion in 2020–2021.
85 percent of India’s major weapons systems come from Russian-origin platforms.
Trade ties with Russia give India a crucial lifeline, given its tense relations with its immediate neighbours.
“India faces the threat of a two-front war, with muscular China and its hostile border with Pakistan. It can’t give up on that trade [with Russia] for national security reasons,” Kugelman told VICE World News. Kugelman calls India’s decision to abstain from voting a window into the geopolitical dynamics in the global South – and the Western countries’ response to it. Last week, for instance, Lithuania cancelled its shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Bangladesh because of the latter’s abstention from the UN vote.
For countries in the global South, taking positions on geopolitical issues involving more powerful countries can be tricky, such as whether to criticise Russia over Ukraine, said Kugelman. Abstention from voting is a “bigger gamble” for India than for some other UN members, he added. There are concerns of sanctions on Russia impacting India too, especially in recently signed missile deals. India might soon face pressure from the U.S. to decrease its defence trade with Russia, “but it would be wholly unrealistic for India to turn off the tap so quickly,” Kugelman said.
Besides, India’s burgeoning ties with the U.S. pale in comparison to its historical ties with Russia, which it has protected in past conflicts also through diplomatic dead air. When the world was divided by the Cold War, India stood squarely with Russia in the Soviet bloc. India kept mum during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and of Afghanistan in 1979.
The problem of cornering India into taking a stance also reflects the “Cold War mentality” in the West, said Indian diplomat Anil Triguniyat, who was previously posted in Moscow. “[Western countries] believe only in the alliance system, while India doesn’t believe in one,” he said. “India has to think about its citizens and national interest.”
“India faces the threat of a two-front war, with muscular China and its hostile border with Pakistan. It can’t give up on that trade [with Russia] for national security reasons.”
While the Western world generally sympathises with Ukraine, feelings in India are different. A study found that out of 29,000 Indians surveyed, 62 percent support India’s abstention from condemning the invasion.
Earlier this month, disinformation and digital authoritarianism expert Marc Owen Jones came across trending hashtags “I stand with Putin” and “I believe in Putin,” with “unusually” high-engagement and active tweets linked to accounts from India, followed by countries like Pakistan and China.
“Those tweets were suspicious and I suspected them to be sock puppets, since a lot of the high-engagement tweets were either from accounts that were new, or old ones without many tweets,” said Jones, who lives and works in Doha. The tweets, he said, are a part of “successful propaganda” that taps into “legitimate concerns” and indicate “proxy kind of support” for Russia.
“A lot of arguments [in those tweets] are about Western hypocrisy, and turning the conflict into not ‘Russia invading Ukraine,’ but of ‘Russia against the West,’” he said.
Kugelman said those trending tweets also reflect nostalgia, especially among the older generation and left-leaning groups in India, whose supporters are partial to Russia. “This is also a sign of Russia’s soft power, which is not visible otherwise but thrives through goodwill developed from educational exchange programmes or tourism,” he said.
Many analysts say Russia is losing the information war, especially with recent bans on its propaganda networks such as RT and Sputnik, and various social media networks suspending operations within Russia. “But if there’s one country where Russia’s information war might get some takers, India would certainly be up there,'' said Kugelman.
But diplomatic silence won’t do India much good as the conflict wears on, as it will inevitably get caught in the war’s economic and security riptide.
On Sunday, Modi hinted at the possibility of “self-reliance” in the defence sector in light of sanctions on Russia, and growing hostilities on India’s border with China.
India can’t afford to sit on the fence for too long, Kugelman said, especially if the war spills beyond Ukraine. “In a ‘black swan’ scenario – which is highly unlikely – if Putin takes this war beyond Ukraine and into the NATO territory, it would be impossible for India to stay silent. Would India want to be on that side of history? I don’t think so.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the Quad security bloc to the UN. Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is an independent diplomatic and military alliance between India, Australia, U.S. and Japan. We regret the error.
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