(NEW YORK) — Countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East have all avoided taking sides on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — but India’s size and power make it the most influential nation to remain neutral, a year into the war.
The world’s second-largest country and sixth-largest economy will continue to maintain ties to both Russia and the West with a posture of “strategic ambivalence,” experts say, resisting a U.S. push to directly oppose Moscow while calling for “peace” and cooperation on what “common ground” there is.
Indian officials echoed that at this year’s Group of 20 foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi, which ended earlier this month.
“The G20 has the capacity to build consensus and deliver concrete results. We should not allow issues that we cannot resolve together to come in the way of those we can,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a video message at the gathering. “As you meet in the land of Gandhi and the Buddha, I pray that you will draw inspiration from India’s civilizational ethos — to focus not on what divides us, but on what unites us.”
Later, India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, alluded to the divisions over the war.
“There were issues and I think the issues, I would say, very frankly, concerned the Ukraine conflict on which there were divergences,” Jaishankar said.
Western leaders have been disappointed in India’s reluctance to condemn Russian aggression, but they know India’s reliance on Russian energy and weapons, paired with past problems with the U.S., present the country with a tempting option for neutrality, said Sahar Khan, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department.
At the same time, India is working to diversify its military supply, which is one of its major links to Russia, and has been sending humanitarian aid to Kyiv.
Rick Russow, a senior adviser and chair in U.S.-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, said that India is one of the only countries amid the war in Ukraine that is able to “pick up the phone and talk to leadership in both the United States and Russia on the same day.”
What India has said about staying neutral
India currently holds the rotating presidency of the G20 and so hosts an annual slate of events with some of the key nations from around the world, where they focus on economic issues and international relations, emphasizing cooperation.
Western officials have been looking to India to explicitly condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin through this global platform, but they have been met with disappointment.
India has long signaled its ambivalence — decrying the fighting but, for example, declining to participate in U.N. resolutions against Russia.
Jaishankar said in October that “we have been very clearly against the conflict in Ukraine. We believe that this conflict does not serve the interests of anybody. Neither the participants nor indeed of the international community.”
At the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting this month, Prime Minister Modi’s message also conveyed his government’s insistence on highlighting domestic issues — and India’s top priorities — pertaining to the Global South, a category of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America with similar socioeconomic characteristics.
The multi-day meeting included sessions on food security, development cooperation and terrorism, among other topics.
But the topic of Ukraine was unavoidable. Russia and China were the only states who refused to condemn the war, and India maintained its call for a peaceful solution without backing a specific country.
Even before it was selected to host the G20, India had positioned itself as an impartial party to the war.
In September, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that India was supportive of the territorial integrity of both Ukraine and Russia.
“India has repeatedly emphasized on the immediate cessation of hostilities and the need to resolve the ongoing conflict through dialogue and diplomacy. India’s position has also been clear and consistent in so far as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries concerned,” Bagchi said then.
Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine began, the U.S has put pressure on India to take a stance, with President Joe Biden acknowledging early in the conflict that India’s position on joining anti-Russia efforts was “shaky.” And in May, Biden appeared to reference the countries’ split on Ukraine during a meeting with Modi and others when he said, “This is more than just a European issue. It’s a global issue.”
Despite that lack of alignment, the U.S. and India have still maintained a solid partnership in matters of commerce, technology, security and education.
Why India has relied on Russia
While India seems impartial to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, especially in its reluctance to condemn Putin, it is acting on a history of reliance on Russia and past sidelining by the West, according to Harsh Pant, vice president of studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank.
In 1998, in response to a series of nuclear weapons tests India conducted near neighboring Pakistan, countries including the U.S. imposed sanctions, leaving India unable to trade in high-end technology or, in the view of Indian officials, defend themselves against Pakistan — with whom there is a history of sectarian conflict.
Instead, at the time, India found defensive support from post-Cold War Russia, based on a relationship that stretched back to the Soviet Union.
Pant said that much of India’s weaponry has for years been manufactured by the Russians, who have also supplied India with energy.
“If you look at India’s big platforms like aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, they are all of Soviet vintage, because the Soviet Union was willing to share technology with India,” he said.
Russia remains a major supplier of weapons to India and Russian equipment still makes up a large portion of the Indian Armed Forces’ force, experts said. And India’s dependence on Russian defense materials have been crucial for the country amid a protracted border dispute with China.
India’s declining dependence on Russia
But recently, India has attempted to diversify its supply of weapons and develop its own defense industry, resulting in declining Russian arms deliveries to India.
Pant said India previously acquired approximately 80% of its weapons from Russia. That number has dropped down to about 55%.
“It’s quite a serious decline in the share of Russian equipment, as it gets diversified to the West,” Pant said, noting India has started to buy defense weaponry from the U.S. and Australia, two other countries in the so-called “Quad” that also includes Japan.
That has led to some distance in India and Russia’s relationship. Such relationships “don’t really change overnight,” Pant said. Rather, multiple factors can add up to major changes.
“India and Russia have been drifting apart gradually and that is something that I think needs to be brought out: With or without the Ukraine war, India-Russia relations have been going in a negative direction,” Pant said.
The country is updating its defense industry, making it less manpower-heavy and more technology-heavy. Against the backdrop of China-India tensions, Russia’s position as China’s emerging partner has also made it harder for Russia to preserve its partnership with India.
“China is already threatening India from multiple sides. If Russia also joins the bandwagon, then I think there is a problem. There is going to be a big issue for India, given its defense relationship, given its security environment and given the mismatch between Indians’ and Chinese military capabilities,” Pant said.
Russow, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also said that though India is definitely more involved with Russia, the country believes its future lies closer to Western powers.
“Things are working out for India,” said Khan, at the Cato Institute. “They’re getting some criticism, but they’re fine.”
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