Nostalgia is a powerful thing in the India-Russia relationship, but the conflict in Ukraine — and what comes after — may challenge that bond in unpredictable ways.
India’s biggest concern remains Beijing, especially in the Himalayas, where a decades-old border dispute with China remains a serious source of tension, including a 2020 flare-up, which reportedly left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
But Moscow has grown closer with Beijing, too.
In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin visited Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, during the Olympics. The two said there were “no limits” to their partnership, and Putin may have planned his war around the Beijing Games at the request of Chinese officials, according to Western intelligence sources.
Russia’s economic isolation because of Western sanctions may also push Putin closer to Xi, as Russia seeks a market, any market, for its goods. Moscow reportedly requested military and economic assistance for its war effort from China, though the Kremlin denied this.
India still sees Russia as a possible partner in the region, but the more leverage China has over Russia, the less likely that will play out in India’s favor.
“We know that that process is happening, we know that Russians are diverging,” Harsh Pant, professor of International Relations at the India Institute at King’s College London, said. “But what India wants to do is delay that divergence from becoming very, very apparent because that’s a process that has its own implications for India.”
Instead, India hopes its careful silence will remind Russia that its Cold War buddy still has its back, and that it expects the same in return. But that ultimately might not be enough to keep Moscow and Beijing apart.
A closer China-Russia would make the United States even more strategically important for India. But India may not be eager for this either, and may be nervous that Russia’s Ukraine war will refocus Washington and the West back onto Europe for the foreseeable future, letting the Quad languish, and leaving India even more on its own.
The United States didn’t seem particularly surprised by India’s stance, even though groupings like the Quad are framed as a friendship between democratic partners.
“It’s just going to make future interactions with them uncomfortable because they have said and we have said that we are trying to uphold a rules-based international order as like-minded democratic partners,” Grossman said. “And if they are unwilling to condemn one sovereign nation — Russia attacking and destroying another sovereign nation, Ukraine — then that’s not really upholding the rules-based order.”
Still, the US seems to be striking a careful balance of its own — nudging India behind the scenes, but not pushing them publicly.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on February 25 noted that the US and India share important interests and values, but that the US knows “India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we have with Russia. Of course, that is okay.”
“What we have asked of every country around the world is that they use that leverage to good effect to uphold those norms, those rules that have been at the center, again, of unprecedented levels over the past 70 years of security, stability, and prosperity,” Price added.
India can offer what a lot of countries can’t: a genuine claim to having good dealings with Washington and Moscow. “The US wants India to be able to leverage its close relationship with Russia in a way that would help serve [our] goals right now,” Kugelman said. “Which means that the US wants India to do what it can to convince Putin to end this war.”
Modi reportedly told Zelenskyy on their February call that he was willing “to contribute in any way toward peace efforts.” It’s not clear whether or how India might act, but it could give India its own chance to assert itself on the global stage as the Ukraine crisis shakes the entire world.