Why India's Implicit Support to Russia on Ukraine War Is a Strategic Blunder

That Russia is India's largest arm supplier and has been a dependable ally seem to have guided India's response. But support for Ukraine could have allowed helped India to fuse both principle and its national interest.

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The Narendra Modi government’s abstentions on the UNSC resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UNHCR resolution on human rights, and even the decision to take the issue to the UN general assembly have been condoned by most Indian commentators as an attempt to make the best of a bad hand. As our largest arms supplier, Russia has been a dependable ally, they say; it has shielded India at the UN over Kashmir, not to mention Bangladesh, back in 1971. Moreover, to vote against Russia will push it further into China’s arms, multiplying that country’s security threat to India.

All three arguments have been out of date since the end of the Cold War three decades ago, and Vladimir Putin’s rise 20 years ago. More dangerously still, they reveal a fatalism towards India’s own national security interests that will only damage us further as time goes by.

Yes, Russia is our largest arms provider and our supplies will be hit if we vote against it. But no, Russia is not a reliable arms provider; it has not been one since Putin came to power. Arms supplies are frequently long-delayed, and Putin had used the delays to up the prices, sometimes even double them. By contrast, the French deliveries of the Rafael jets have been comparatively speedy, though there too prices rose steeply between those agreed by the Manmohan Singh administration and those agreed under Modi.

Also read: Russia Invading Ukraine Will Have a Domino Effect on India’s Arms Deals

Far from helping us, Putin has turned a blind eye to China’s many acts of aggression against India. It was Russia that kept us out of Afghan peace negotiations in the very recent past. What was our response then? Appeasement. We bought large quantities of arms to placate Russia – since Putin accused us of drawing closer to the US – in the hope they would intervene with China. What was the result? Another Chinese salami-slice.

Russia did little to help us when China raised Kashmir at the UNSC in 2019 and 2020. It was the US and European countries that helped then – going against their own human rights principles.

An Indian Border Security Force soldier patrols the fenced border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, located southwest of Jammu and Kashmir. Credit: Reuters

Representative image. A BSF soldier patrols the fenced border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Reuters.

Indeed, the argument that the US and Europe were absent when it came to our China conflict is also factually incorrect. It was the Modi administration that sought to downplay China’s aggression. We did not raise the issue at the UNSC or seek a resolution. Given that our government continues to deny that we have lost territory and appears to regard the loss of patrolling rights as inconsequential, accusing other countries of absence is a bit rich. Seeking allies against China should be a priority, but we do not even know if the Modi administration has accepted the US offer of high-tech surveillance. Such vacillations only embolden Xi’s China.

Mistrust of West and resistance to end Russian dependence 

India’s isolation from the high-tech world of the Atlantic alliance ended as long as three decades ago, at the end of the Cold War. The doors to military cooperation with the US were thrown open first by the Bush administration 20 years ago; both the EU and France have lobbied to sell their aircraft to us for over a decade (France won). NATO offered us a cooperation agreement at least 10 years ago, which we turned down, even though it would have helped us upgrade our capabilities, even perhaps our arms manufacture. We chose to restrict or spurn most of these opportunities for two reasons: first, we did not trust the US and Europe to come to our aid when we need it; and second, because it would roil our regional relations, alienating China.

Nevertheless, we recognised changing geopolitics and began to try to reduce our dependence on Russian military arms during the Manmohan Singh administration. The process was excruciatingly slow, in part because A.K. Anthony was a disastrous defence minister, and more so because of the entrenched resistance to change of our defence establishment. Despite trumpeting its commitment to security, the Modi administration’s three defence ministers have done no better; our dependence on Russian arms has not decreased in any significant way over the past eight years, even though Putin’s Russia has increasingly played the China game.

Also read: India’s Abstention on Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Will Shift Perceptions in Washington

In fact, it is our failure to significantly reduce military dependence on Russia that is responsible for our finding ourselves between a rock and a hard place today. If we do not fast-track the reduction of this dependence now, we will make ourselves even more vulnerable to the headwinds of the new Cold War that Putin and Xi are attempting to spearhead.

Police officers inspect the remains of a missile that fell in the street, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has undermined that effort, by severely weakening Russia’s clout militarily, economically and diplomatically. It is now becoming clear that it would be a great mistake to assume that Putin is Russia. There have been anti-war protests in 52 Russian cities; thousands of protesters have been arrested. Two Russian oligarchs have already disassociated from Putin’s actions. Many Russia-watchers are beginning to speculate, perhaps over-optimistically, that Putin’s days are numbered. Even Putin’s allies are beginning to wonder at the scale of his overreach, and that wonder will only increase as sanctions bite deeper.

India, a net loser in the changing world 

To be fair, the Modi administration is beginning to doubt too. Its call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, and offer of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, indicates a cautious retreat from its earlier ostrich attempts. But this change is still far too small, and its effect will only be to alienate all sides in the conflict. In other words, the argument that India is a net loser will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also read: An Avoidable Own Goal for India Over Ukraine

But such a result was not inevitable, and may yet not be. At the risk of sounding deplorably cynical, Russia’s unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine opens new opportunities for India, in the same way, that it has strengthened the trans-Atlantic alliance. Support for Ukraine allows both principle and national interest to fuse. We have ourselves faced invasions across our land borders, and it is in our interest to fortify the non-aggression principle. Internationally, we are likely to find more support from the US and Europe, as well as Quad partners Australia and Japan, to fast-track our long-overdue military modernisation. Globally, Russia’s veto had pointed the problem with the UNSC: not only does it have to be expanded, but the veto power also has to be replaced, perhaps with a minus-one formula on such a critical issue as the invasion of one country by another.

Most important of all, allowing Russia to slip even further into China’s embrace may actually further our interests. China does not wish to be burdened with yet another pariah, and a weakened Putin will hamper China’s global reach. It was Russia’s connections to the Middle East that helped China make inroads in that area. Similarly, Putin helped ease Chinese economic and military penetration into the central Asian republics. The belt and road initiative relies heavily on access to Europe through Russia; it will be seriously threatened by Russia’s isolation.

Curiously, there is one element of national interest that has been little discussed, and that is the stakes that our students and some of our business people have in Ukraine. The pain that they feel for their friends or employees in that beleaguered country has been evident on our television screens. It has been good to see the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) swing into action to evacuate students, and good too to hear them counsel students to be patient as they wait at checkpoints and stations (without discounting their allegations of racism).

But evacuation apart, there is a lot more we can do for them. Support for Ukraine also means the protection of our education and business equities in that country. Both our students and our business people have been heavy losers in this conflict. Their losses can be mitigated or compounded, depending on what position the Modi administration takes now and in the days to come. The least the Modi administration can do is to assure them that they will be helped to return and recoup as soon as a concerted global effort stops this war.

Hopes for any breakthrough in peace talks are near zero as long as Russia continues its onslaught. The Modi administration has called for a cessation of hostilities and return to diplomacy, but it has not called for a withdrawal of foreign forces, which is a precondition for peace talks as we well know from long experience. If its statements are to be treated as something more than hollow hypocrisy, which will lose us the few allies we still have, then it is incumbent upon it to call for the withdrawal of Russian troops. I suspect many in Russia, including the army, would secretly welcome such a call.

Finally, it has been truly disappointing to witness the opposition’s silence on this grave issue. They at least could have expressed solidarity with Ukrainians in this dark hour of their need. We all know why the Modi administration cannot stand up for human rights, but what is stopping the opposition?

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst.