The Indian government has refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and is purchasing Russian oil, undercutting U.S. and Western efforts to create a united front of democracies to confront Moscow for its military aggression.
As the world’s largest democratic state and a growing ally in U.S. efforts to counter an aggressive China, India is sticking to its so-called nonaligned foreign policy regarding Ukraine.
Five times last month, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi abstained on United Nations General Assembly resolutions that condemned the Russian attack on its smaller neighbor. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is planning a trade-building trip to India this week, the Reuters news agency reported. India will be only the third country Mr. Lavrov will visit since the Ukraine war broke out.
In addition to India’s traditional reliance on Russia as a defense supplier, the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend“ appears to be in play as it relates to Ukraine, said David Stilwell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“Relations between China and India are at their nadir, which incentivizes India falling back on its traditional relationship with Russia,” Mr. Stilwell said. “Everyone knows the Russia-China relationship is a marriage of convenience.”
Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, it appears India’s first instinct was to support Moscow.
SEE ALSO: Ukraine intel chief: Putin seeks ‘Korean scenario’ to divide neighbor permanently
“But because the world sees Putin as the aggressor, Modi announced India will remain neutral,” Mr. Stilwell said. “Ironically, this is the same approach China is taking. Prime Minister Modi has some thinking to do.”
Additionally, New Delhi sees an opportunity in buying discounted Russian oil on international markets. Five shipments of Russian oil, estimated to include about 6 million barrels of crude, were sent to India when many other markets were closed to Moscow, CNBC reported Sunday.
“This is about half the entire volume discharged last year — a significant uptick,” Matt Smith, an oil analyst at Kpler, told the network.
China has refrained from buying low-cost Russian crude over fears it will trigger Western financial and economic sanctions.
The state-run Sinopec Group halted talks with Moscow on a potential $500 billion oil and gas investment in Russia, Reuters reported Friday. The deal was put on hold over concerns in Beijing that Chinese companies would face sanctions over the Ukraine conflict.
India’s fence-sitting has not been lost on Washington. President Biden recently described India, a key part of the anti-China group of democratic states known as the Quad, as “somewhat shaky” in response to dealing with Russia over Ukraine.
SEE ALSO: Russian, Ukrainian delegations to talk Tuesday as more U.S. troops head to Europe
The two other members of the Quad, Japan and Australia, have joined the United States in using economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia and strongly condemning the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this month pressed Mr. Modi to take stronger action against Russia. Days earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida publicly called for closer cooperation among democratic states. He warned that the war in Ukraine threatened to undermine the global order.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, asked about Indian purchases of Russian oil, said every country has different economic reasons for deciding policy on Russian energy resources.
“We have been in touch, of course, with Indian leaders at a range of levels, not through the president,” she said this month. “What we would project or convey to any leader around the world is that the rest of the world is watching where you’re going to stand as it relates to this conflict, whether it’s support for Russia in any form as they are illegally invading Ukraine.”
An outlier in the Quad
June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami, said India has been the most recalcitrant member of the four-nation Quad, and its U.N. stance was a setback for other Quad members’ hopes for deepening the not-quite-alliance. The bloody border clash between Indian and Chinese troops two years ago fed hopes that Mr. Modi’s government would be more active in countering China.
“It will be interesting to see what comes out of the 2+2 meeting among [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken, [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin” and their Indian counterparts reportedly set for early April, she said.
Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat and vice chairman of the House U.S.-India Caucus, criticized India for failing to openly condemn the Russian invasion, now in its second month.
“First, India should condemn in the U.N. Putin for the blatant human rights violations,” Mr. Khanna said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Second, [India’s leaders] need to realize they have to pick sides. We, the United States, were with them when China invaded India. Putin wasn’t there. And it’s time for them to buy weapons from the United States, not Russia.”
Mr. Khanna said the United States needs to facilitate the flow of U.S. weapons and help Indians end their reliance on Russian arms. “We need India as an ally ultimately to contain China,” he said.
China is seeking to capitalize on Indian neutrality toward the conflict. Beijing is trying hard diplomatically to splinter the emerging anti-China alliances in Asia.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled unexpectedly to New Delhi, in part to build anti-U.S. sentiment at a meeting of the BRICs group of nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – set for September in China.
New Delhi declined to join the drive. The government said it was too soon to speak of normalizing ties between the world’s two most populous countries. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told Mr. Wang that normal ties between the nations must be predicated on Chinese troops pulling back from positions along the disputed border.
“The frictions and tensions that arise from China’s deployments since April 2020 cannot be reconciled with a normal relationship between the two neighbors,” he said.
Mr. Jaishankar said both ministers agreed on the need for an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine.
India remains linked to its Cold War-era relations with Russia despite claims of being nonaligned internationally.
“Although we don’t like Russian — that is Putin’s — actions these days, Washington has to get out of the business of telling other sovereign nations how to think,” said Mr. Stilwell, the former assistant secretary of state. “Our approach to India has long been too judgmental. Obviously, values matter, but we also have to maintain a relationship. It is possible to do both, especially with democratic counterparts.”
Tensions with China
Ronald S. Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, told a House hearing this month that tensions remain high between India and China over the 2020 clash on the disputed border area in northern India. A group of 20 Indian troops were killed, and at least four People’s Liberation Army troops died in the confrontation.
The Indian government is in the midst of a major military modernization of its air, ground, naval and strategic nuclear forces, Mr. Moultrie said.
“India’s long-standing defense relationship with Russia remains strong, holding their first 2+2 format talks in December — a joint foreign and defense ministerial that India previously only held with the United States, Japan and Australia,” he said.
“India has maintained a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and continues to call for peace,” he noted.
A key weapons system that India purchased is the Russian S-400 air defense system with the first units delivered in December. Indian arms purchases from Russia, including advanced air defenses, could result in U.S. sanctions.
“India doesn’t want to antagonize Russia, which in its USSR incarnation supported India against China back when [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger-instigated panda-hugging exacerbated relations with both the USSR/Russia and India,” said Ms. Dreyer, the University of Miami professor.
“I’m sure the Indians haven’t forgotten that. So who’s the greater enemy here? I would argue that it’s China. If so, it would be unwise for the U.S. to threaten sanctions due to the S-400s.”
A spokesman for the Indian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment on the government’s position on the Ukraine conflict.
Mr. Modi, in a March 10 address, rejected efforts by domestic opponents to take a stronger stand on the war. He noted that India is trying to preserve ties with both combatants.
“India has a connection with the countries involved in the war — economically, securitywise, educationwise and politically as well. India’s several needs are connected to these countries …,” he said in a speech to party supporters. “India is on peace’s side and hopes that all problems are resolved with deliberations.”
K.K. Sing, a former Indian intelligence official, struck back at critics of the Indian stance on the Ukraine conflict by telling the EU Reporter that the West still views India through a “colonial prism.”
Mr. Sing said the majority of Indians do not support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. However, the former intelligence official, echoing Russian propaganda, stated that Russia was provoked in part by NATO’s attempts seeking to expand covertly near its borders.
“We also know the parties which aided Ukraine with false assurances on NATO and EU membership and then backed out,” he said.
The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet China Daily reported last week that India’s response to the Ukraine conflict marks a shift in Indian diplomacy.
“India seems to have distanced itself from the Western camp and adopted what can be described as a pro-Russia stance over the Ukraine crisis,” the outlet stated on March 23.
“Thanks to India’s unique relationship with Russia, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has not triggered an anti-Russia wave in India,” China Daily said. “On the contrary, this may well turn out to be a rare opportunity for India to change its diplomatic strategy.”
A former State Department policymaker said India’s reluctance to condemn Russia reflects a government strategy that places China as the most significant threat.
“India doesn’t think Russia is the world’s No. 1 threat,” said the former official, speaking on background. “It believes China is.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of times India abstained on United Nations resolutions condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine.