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Walking A Tight(er) Rope: India, The West, and Russia’s Attack On Ukraine

02 Mar 2022
By Lindsay Hughes
President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, right, and Prime Minister of the Republic of India Narendra Modi make a media statement following the BRICS leaders meeting in 2015. Source: Flickr, MEAphotogallery,

Amidst the Ukraine crisis, India has refused to sanction or condemn Russia. Understanding the rich history between the two states is essential to understanding why and predicting New Delhi’s next move.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered verbal condemnations and harsh economic and fiscal sanctions on its leaders and the state. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announcing freezes on the assets of Russian banks in the UK and an immediate ban on the sale of semiconductors and aircraft components to Russia, stated that it was time to “squeeze Russia from the global economy.” Despite initially failing to remove Russia from the international SWIFT inter-bank payments system, Russian banks are now blocked from it, thereby preventing Moscow from using its US$630 billion foreign currency reserves and hindering its ability to defend the plunging rouble. Johnson also announced sanctions on Russian leaders, including a freeze on their assets and a ban on their travel to the UK. US President Joe Biden levied sanctions of his own on Russia.

Amidst the condemnations and sanctions, one country stands out in its reaction to the Russian invasion for all the wrong reasons. India’s underwhelming reaction to the Russian invasion was epitomised by the statement of its Permanent Representative at the UN, T.S. Tirumurti, who said in part, “… we note with regret, that the calls of the international community to give time to the recent initiatives undertaken by parties to diffuse tensions were not heeded.” He added, “I would like to underline that the legitimate security interests of all parties should be fully taken into account.”

That reaction was hardly surprising. On 31 January, India abstained from voting on the Ukrainian issue at the UN Security Council, calling instead for a solution that would consider “the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond.” In November 2020, India voted against a Ukraine-sponsored resolution in the General Assembly that condemned human rights violations in Crimea. Apparently India does not wish to offend Russia.

That too, is unsurprising, given India’s relationship with Russia and, before that, with the Soviet Union. New Delhi has always sought to balance its relationship with the Soviet Union and Russia and it’s relationship with the US, claiming to be nonaligned in accordance with its policy of “strategic autonomy.”

The Indo-Russian relationship began, more or less, in 1962 when China, provoked by the misguided “Forward Policy” of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, invaded India and overran its defences in the north-east. Nehru turned in desperation to the United States, requesting supersonic fighter and bomber aircraft, radar equipment, and American personnel to operate them.

John F. Kennedy initially agreed to the request, but the Departments of State and Defense prevailed upon him not to upset Pakistan. The aid package consequently offered came with the condition that India cede part of Kashmir to Pakistan. Nehru immediately backed away from his request.

Simultaneously, recognising the Soviet Union’s ability to threaten the US during the Cuban missile crisis — and perhaps also in a fit of pique — Nehru turned to Moscow. Indo-Soviet relations had improved since 1952, when Moscow began to support India at the UN on resolutions pertaining to Kashmir. Nehru and Nikita Khrushchev’s visits to each other’s countries in 1955, Khrushchev’s promise not to support the Indian Communist Party, and considerable Soviet aid to India further improved the relationship.

Consequently, Khrushchev denounced China’s “madness” in attacking India in 1962. Khrushchev urged the two countries to reach an agreement but assured India that the USSR would not support China against it. Nehru could not ignore such strong and unconditional statements of support from a superpower and established a relationship that, despite the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, endures to this day. Although China withdrew unilaterally in 1962, New Delhi did not forget that its request for aid during a crisis had been turned down by Washington.

Over time, Nehru widened Indo-Russian relations, an effort his successors continued. In August 1971, amid ongoing tensions with both Pakistan and China, New Delhi signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation, drawing the two countries closer in the political, economic, defence, science and technology, culture, and nuclear energy spheres. The Indian prime minister and Russian president meet at an annual summit under the joint Strategic Partnership. During the 2014 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin signed more agreements on defence, hydrocarbons, nuclear energy, science and technology, and trade and investment.

It is defence, however, that is vital to both. The two countries established the Brahmos Consortium that manufactures the eponymous missiles in India. Russia loaned Akula-class nuclear submarines to the Indian Navy to help it induct a nuclear force and helped India design and build the Arihant, India’s first SSBN. In 2019, they established a joint venture to manufacture Kalashnikov assault rifles in India.

Defence cooperation is key to the Indo-Russia relationship. That said, India recognised that with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its own collapsing foreign exchange reserves, it needed to kickstart its economy and, simultaneously, find a new security partner. New Delhi approached the West, primarily the US. By 2019, Indo-US bilateral trade reached $146 billion. An estimated one million nonresident Indians, who are employed in the US IT sector, send around $18 billion in remittances to India annually.

Defence cooperation between the two countries has similarly expanded. In 2016, the US designated India as a Major Defence Partner and in 2018 elevated it to Strategic Trade Authorisation tier 1 status. India entered into four “foundational” agreements with the US: the General Security of Military Information Agreement in 2002, the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement in 2018, and the Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Co-operation in 2020. The US’s total defence trade with India grew from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020. Defence platforms sold or offered to India include Seahawk, Chinook, and Apache helicopters, the Sea Guardian unmanned aerial system, the Lockheed Martin F-21, and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-15EX Eagle fighter aircraft.

There have been some stumbling blocks, however. The latest was India’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defence system. Washington threatened to sanction India under its “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions” Act if it went ahead with the purchase. It remains to be seen now, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how New Delhi will proceed with that purchase. Washington would undoubtedly have few compunctions in sanctioning India if it did and will be prepared to accept the risk of damaging the bilateral relationship. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield hinted at that outcome, stating that the countries that abstained from voting against Moscow – China, India, and the United Arab Emirates – at that forum were aligning with the “aggressive and unprovoked actions of Russia.”

Those missile systems could well be a metaphor for the larger decision that India will be forced to make – to choose between Russia and the West. India must decide whether it sticks with “strategic autonomy” or aligns with one of two camps. If it aligns with Russia, it risks jeopardising its relationship with the US, its other Quad partners – Australia and Japan, the UK and its newly-signed free trade agreement, and the EU, its largest market. If India chooses the West, it must shed its “strategic autonomy,” become more closely aligned with the goals of the US and its allies, be perceived as a US ally itself, and depend on that camp for its protection against China.

India’s balancing act just became a little trickier.

Dr Lindsay Hughes was previously the Senior Research Analyst at Future Directions International.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.