Why India isn’t criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

On March 2, the United Nations General Assembly voted, 141 to 5, on a resolution condemning Russia for invading Ukraine. India, the world’s largest democracy, abstained from the vote.

It wasn’t India’s first abstention.

India is also reportedly in talks to buy Russian oil at a discount, and is seeking to find ways to maintain trade relations despite the West’s sanctions against Moscow. For India, these choices are a way to avoid choosing. Take the vote: It wasn’t an outright condemnation of Russia’s actions, but it also wasn’t a declaration of support.

Those choices speak to the delicate geopolitical balancing act India is trying to strike amid this Ukraine war. Maintaining its longstanding friendship with Russia, even as it grows closer to the United States and its partners, always involved a complicated calculus. But it fits with India’s desire, especially as a post-colonial state, to look out for its own strategic interests.

India forged a relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That has carried over into the present day because of mutual interest and nostalgia, but the biggest reason might be defense. India’s arsenal is largely Soviet- or Russian-made; various analysts put the amount anywhere between 60 and 85 percent. And India needs its military to counter what it sees as the biggest threat in its neighborhood: China’s rise.

China’s rise is also the reason India and the United States have deepened their partnership in recent years; India is a member of the “Quad” (along with the US, Australia, and Japan), an informal alliance that came about years ago but which both the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to strengthen. The Quad doesn’t explicitly say it exists as a counterweight to Beijing; it’s a grouping of democracies focused on regional cooperation and other issues. But everyone — including China — gets it.

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The antagonism between Washington and Moscow, made worse by Ukraine, puts India in an uncomfortable bind. Except India is used to this. In the Cold War, India practiced nonalignment, where it sought to avoid becoming entangled in the superpower conflicts and maintain its sovereignty. Although that policy has evolved in the decades since, the idea of autonomy still undergirds how India sees its foreign policy.

India “can really silo off relationships,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, focusing on national security and the Indo-Pacific region. “The relationship they have with Russia should have no bearing whatsoever on their relationships with China, the US, or anybody else.”

It is why India has walked a careful tightrope since Russia launched its war. Prime Minister Modi spoke to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shortly after the invasion, reportedly saying in these calls that he wished for an end to hostilities and a return to dialogue. Modi has had to work with both governments over efforts to evacuate thousands of Indian citizens stranded in Ukraine. (At least one Indian student was killed in the siege on Kharkiv.)

While India hasn’t denounced Russia, it has made some pointed comments. India’s Ambassador to the United Nations said in a statement after an abstention on a February 27 UN Security Council vote that the global order is anchored in “respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states.” (That element — Russia’s unprovoked incursion into a sovereign Ukraine — is the one that India might be most sensitive to because of its own border dispute with China.)

But the Ukraine war may test India’s foreign policy approach, especially as Putin’s conflict threatens to bring Moscow even closer to Beijing. Yet so far, India has not budged.

“This particular situation has not reached the stage where India will take one particular side against the other,” Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

“While we are with the United States on certain aspects of this conflict, we also understand some of the concerns that Russia has in this conflict, and therefore, we do not want to go against either of them,” Unnikrishnan added. “That is where it is. It’s not an easy situation, not an easy place. But that’s the dance, currently.”