Why India won’t condemn Russia’s Ukraine invasion

History and political expediency combine in Narendra Modi’s muted response

Students demonstrate against the invasion of Ukraine in Bangalore, India
Students demonstrate against the invasion of Ukraine in Bangalore, India
(Image credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images)

Hit with punishing sanctions and with few allies willing to defend him on the international stage, Vladimir Putin has cut an increasingly isolated figure in the days since he gave the order for an invasion of Ukraine.

But one major power that has “three times declined to condemn” Russia’s aggression has been India, The Times reported. So far it has “not spoken out” against the Kremlin’s unprovoked attack on its eastern European neighbour.

Narendra Modi’s government has for years “attempted to strike a balance between its Kremlin ties and maintaining India’s status as the world’s largest democracy”, the paper said. But it is also pursuing “warmer relations with the US”, a policy that may mean the government is forced off the fence over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

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In the days since Putin gave the order for a three-pronged assault on Ukraine, Indian social media users have taken to the internet to back Russia’s attack.

“The hashtags #IstandwithPutin and #IstandwithRussia” have trended on Twitter, The Times said, with one user writing: “The man is fighting for his country and for the destruction of the monopoly of USA and western countries.”

Those individual expressions of support for Putin have also played out in the Indian government’s response, which included abstaining from a UN Security Council resolution, sponsored by the US, that condemned Russia’s actions in the strongest terms.

The abstention serves as “a balancing act of maintaining friends and partners of both sides”, The Indian Express said, as well as a “legacy of the Nehruvian foreign policy of non-alignment”. Jawaharlal Nehru was an Indian anti-colonialist campaigner who, while serving as prime minister from 1947 to 1964, steered a course between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

India is wary of picking sides in a conflict between the US and its Nato allies and Russia for the same reason Nehru remained neutral in the 1950s and 1960s. Having fought for independence, Indian governments traditionally maintain an independent foreign policy.

The influence of Nehru’s anti-colonial politics on India’s position in the Russia-Ukraine conflict was also evident in a widely shared clip of reporter Rahul Shivshankar mixing up his guests during an episode of his show India Upfront.

Mistakenly thinking India was being attacked for its neutrality by Daniel McAdams, executive director of the US-headquartered Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, Shivshankar shouted: “Don’t lecture us here in India, I’m not going to hear your lecture.

“You people and your colonial agenda have wrecked the south and wrecked the east. Don’t sit here and lecture us, don’t lecture us Mr McAdams.” Shivshankar was actually berating a Ukrainian journalist, Bohdan Nahaylo.

India “has had close ties with Moscow for decades”, The Times said. Its army “depends on Russia for roughly half of its defence supplies, which it sees as vital to countering border threats from China and Pakistan”.

Moscow has also “backed India during numerous foreign crises”, the paper continued, “particularly by preventing UN intervention in its dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir”. With Russia now engaged in what Putin has framed as a border security conflict of its own, Modi “appears to be returning the favour”, the paper added.

Off the fence

While maintaining a position of strategic neutrality has so far served to maintain India’s relationships with allies in the East and West, its “fence-sitting no longer serves its diplomatic or security interests”, said Foreign Policy columnist Sumit Ganguly.

The UN abstention “seems jarring”, he said, but is “not a surprising move for India”. The country “not only has a historic friendship with Russia but also depends on Russian weapons”. Modi is also concerned “the anti-Russian vote could cement Moscow’s strategic partnership with Beijing”, a nation with which India has a strained relationship.

But refusing to take a side “is likely to tarnish” India’s “global image as a democracy”, he warned. When other members of the international community are lining up to condemn Russia, India “can’t expect the world to ignore its response to the current crisis”.

The US on Wednesday “called on India to distance itself from Russia”, Reuters reported, arguing that “new sanctions on Russian banks will make it harder for countries to buy major defence equipment from Moscow”.

Donald Lu, assistant US secretary of state for South Asian affairs, told a senate subcommittee that “India is a really important security partner of ours now, and that we value that partnership.

“Moving forward, I hope that part of what happens with the extreme criticism that Russia has faced is that India will find it is now time to further distance itself from Russia.”

Despite the “strong strain of anti-Americanism in India”, The Times said, officials are becoming concerned that “if Russia’s economy is ravaged by sanctions, its weakness might force it to become dependent on its ally China.

“Is that the Russia that India wants as a strategic partner? China is India’s biggest threat and any country that depends on China is a less-than-ideal strategic partner,” the editorial board at The Times of India argued earlier this week. “India needs America to counter China.”

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