India’s Tightrope Walk on Russian Invasion of Ukraine May Have Long-Term Consequences

A ‘silent endorsement’ to the Russians is likely to catalyse a consolidatory push for Chinese interests in the South Asian region over time, risking the case for India.

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For a country that claims to be a ‘Vishwaguru’, India’s shortsighted stance on critical geopolitical events remains baffling.

This was evident in the recent United Nations Security Council vote when India joined Kenya and Gabon in abstaining from a vote to discuss the Russian military threat to Ukraine. Ten nations supported the successful American initiative, and only China joined Russia in opposing it.

In what is being perceived as a ‘tightrope walk’ for India, taking a more neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine war may have long term (adverse) consequences for the nation vis-à-vis its relationship with democratic allies of the EU, US, and of course, Ukraine.

Yes, India does not share a border with either Russia or Ukraine, and as many have already argued, the case for New Delhi not taking sides between Washington and Moscow may appear ‘straightforward’, or a replay of its earlier ‘neutral’ stance when Russia annexed Crimea.


Russia is one of the largest arms suppliers to India and a key strategic ally. More than half of India’s arms imports between 2016-2020 were from Russia. As Wall Street Journal’s Sadanand Dhume argued: “Many Indian foreign policy elites also view what’s officially called the country’s ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’ with Russia as a totem of Indian strategic autonomy. India shares Russia’s goal of a multipolar world. It is a member of the Russian- and Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and of BRICS, a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.”

Also read: Modi Appeals for ‘Cessation of Violence’ in Call With Putin, First Indian Reaction to Russian Attack

But Russian military action against Ukraine is a different event at a different point of time in world history. The world has never been this polarised since World War II. The global economic landscape, in a post-COVID-19 scenario, is in shambles, and with the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism across the globe, including India, moments such as this in history, warrant bold, corrective action – and more importantly, a principled, moral outlook.

India’s efforts to maintain a delicate balance between its partnerships with the US, Europe and Russia isn’t surely easy. But, as Tanvi Madan at Brookings (correctly) argues: “Delhi (in the Russia-Ukraine war) could try its posture, post the Russian annexation of Crimea, of neither openly criticising nor endorsing Russian actions. However, its silence will be seen as an endorsement. Moreover, even as Moscow might seek support from Delhi, it will sell India’s ‘silence’ as an endorsement, as it did in the case of Crimea, and recently when it unilaterally issued a joint statement on Afghanistan.”

The Western response to Russia’s unwarranted aggression in Ukraine has drawn critical sanctions which will inhibit any nation, including India, from doing business with Russia and will potentially diversify Russia-India ties. This could also come at a time when Washington is considering a waiver for India from the CAATSA sanctions.

The elephant in the room is China.

A deepening global crisis would allow Russia to further deepen its ties with China for political support, market access and technology. A US-led international order, dominated by anchors of financial imperialism through dollar-dependence, a petro-dollar market and via strategic military dominance, perceived in the late 20th century and during the breakdown of the Soviet Union, now, seems pretty much over.

China is likely to use this opportunity to slowly side with Russia or employ whatever ways it can to exhaust America’s foreign policy attention and capital away from China, moving the US further away from its strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. It can even use this to deepen its ties with Europe, while presenting itself as a ‘useful interlocutor’ between the West and Moscow.

From the Indian perspective, a ‘silent endorsement’ to the Russians (as one can see now) is likely to catalyse a consolidatory push for Chinese interests in the South Asian region over time, risking the case for India – whose network to counter China in the Indo-Pacific is dependent on the US. Further, as Madan argues, “In order to focus on the Russia challenge, European capitals could (also) seek to stabilise ties with China, rather than act against its assertive actions. This, in turn, could negatively affect the coordinated approach that Delhi seeks among like-minded partners to balance China.”

Also read: US, India Cracks? Biden Says Talks on Russia ‘Unresolved’

When power triumphs principle

Though realpolitik compulsions often argue that ‘power often trumps principles’, there is a question over ‘principle’ here too. Realists might even argue that India’s recent effort under the Narendra Modi government to ‘reclaim’ or expand its ‘sphere of influence’ in the Indian subcontinent, creating a rhetoric around the integrated creation of ‘Akhand Bharat’, is part of the RSS-BJP’s thought process.

However, India is not the only one. Many middle eastern powers are seeking to build or rebuild ‘spheres of influence’ – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Australia is fending off the growing Chinese influence in the Pacific islands. The fear of American retrenchment has created an urgency for the regional powers in the Middle East to expand their networks of influence.

However, when a war isn’t at your doorstep nor directly involves you, taking a more principled approach that is in alignment with India’s international law commitments and its constitutional vision may help the Indian cause, and not hurt it.

Putin’s justifications for its actions against Ukraine are similar to those Beijing makes against India, such as historical claims on territory, ethnic-linkages, and Indian steps that it says threaten China. The Russian president has made similar claims with the perception of Ukraine trying to join NATO. And, so, Russian military action would go against the respect for ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘sovereignty’ that India frequently advocates for.

Some, including myself, would even ask the question: What principles or core value objectives does India’s foreign policy have? Is there logical coherence in what it says on one issue and on the stance it takes on another?

Silently siding with Putin’s imperial nostalgia and suffering from a mistaken, lethal identity, Modi’s ‘balanced posturing’ and ‘silent endorsement’ of the Russian invasion may hurt India’s credentials as a democratic-republic and affect its partnership with liberal democracies across the world. A principled, moral outlook in India’s foreign policy – one founded on a charter of liberal inclusive principles – must anchor the government to take a more lucid stand against Russia’s (unwarranted) invasion of Ukraine.

Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of Economics and director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University.