As the western world tightens sanctions on Russia, India is opting for a different strategy: sitting on the fence. ‘We are on the side of peace,’ India’s prime minister Narendra Modi insists. In reality, this means keeping shtum when it comes to condemning Putin’s aggression and abstaining at the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution criticising Russia.
India’s stance has, unsurprisingly, sparked a backlash. President Biden has said any country which effectively supports Putin would be ‘stained by association’. While he didn’t single out India by name, it was obvious who he was talking about. Closer to home, Tory MP Johnny Mercer has pinpointed India for its stance on Russia: ‘In 2021/22 we are giving £55.3m to India in Foreign Aid. I am a strong supporter of foreign aid and voted against this Government’s reduction of it. However if we sanction Putin’s mates, it’s time to end this donation too. Far worthier causes around’.
So why is India refusing to join in the condemnation of Russia? China is the simple answer. The Indian tiger relies on its partnership with the Russian bear as a channel with which to deal with its main regional rival – a nation with which it has previously gone to war. Only last year, there was brutal hand to hand combat between Chinese and Indian troops along a shared border (in Sikkim). India simply can’t afford to make enemies with Russia at a time when New Delhi is increasingly wary of Beijing.
As a result, despite the bloodshed in Ukraine, India continues to view Russia as a key trading partner. ‘Russia is offering oil and other commodities at a heavy discount. We will be happy to take that,’ an unnamed Indian official told Reuters this week. His stance was shocking but it is unsurprising: his is a widely held view in New Delhi. And these close ties are nothing new: much of India’s military kit is thought to be supplied by Russia, including fighter jets (like the MiG-29), warships, tanks and guns. A military and diplomatic alliance which dates back to the Soviet era – and which assisted India’s military victory against (pro-China) Pakistan in 1971 – is tantamount to a ‘special relationship.’ The feeling is mutual: in a 2018 opinion poll, Russians identified India as one of their top five ‘friends’. It’s not hard to see why New Delhi is, for now, giving Putin the economic lifeline he so desperately needs.
But can New Delhi keep up its balancing act over Ukraine without angering the West? While India has been criticised for not going further, the backlash has, so far, been relatively muted. India has avoided severing its diplomatic relations with the West and it continues to enjoy close ties with both Britain and the United States. It remains a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD, and its navy cooperates with Japan, Australia, and the US in the Pacific in countering Chinese influence.
Could this all soon change? Walter C. Ladwig III, from the war studies department at King’s College London, is sceptical that things will – even if Modi continues to refuse to call out Putin. ‘New Delhi’s ties with Moscow will cause irritation, but the US, the UK, France, and others will continue to build a partnership with India as long as shared concerns about China remain,’ he says. But others are more sceptical: Dr. Rekha Diwakar, a politics lecturer at the University of Sussex, says sooner or later India will have to make its choice. ‘This reluctance to take a clear stand could sour India’s relations with the West especially if the war gets prolonged with high civilian casualties and is also unlikely to have an impact on Russia’s growing tilt towards China,’ she warned.
Whether or not India’s relations with the West deteriorate over Ukraine remains to be seen. For now, when it comes to Russia, India is maintaining a difficult balancing act – and handing Putin a vital lifeline.
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