Despite pressure from Western countries, India has remained steadfast in its partnership with Russia, refusing to condemn the war in Ukraine and not joining Western sanctions against Moscow. However, analysts say, this has not affected, nor is it likely to affect, India’s growing ties with the United States.
On a visit to Moscow last month, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said New Delhi will boost economic ties with its Cold War ally.
“For us, Russia has been a steady and time-tested partner and, as I said, any objective evaluation of our relationship over many decades would confirm that it has served both our countries very, very well,” he said.
New Delhi has not joined Western sanctions imposed on Russia and has abstained from United Nations resolutions condemning Moscow over its aggression.
Analysts say with India’s military heavily dependent on tanks, fighter jets and other equipment of Russian origin, it could not afford to isolate Moscow, particularly at a time when tensions with China are running high with both armies massed for a third winter along their disputed Himalayan border.
“If your soldiers are facing the Chinese, you can’t really take on the one country that is supplying you weapons. That defense relationship India shares with Russia made India choose a more pragmatic engagement,” said Harsh Pant, Vice President for Studies and Foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
Rebuffing calls by Western leaders to not buy Russian crude, India increased its purchases of oil, coal and fertilizers from Moscow. From less than one percent before the war began, Russia became a top supplier to New Delhi of oil by the year’s end. Indian officials said that buying oil from Moscow was to the country’s advantage and it would continue to do so.
India also sent a contingent to participate in Russia’s large-scale Vostok military exercises alongside China and several other countries in August.
“There are transactional sides to the India-Russia relationship that are important for both, such as their energy and defense relationship, and India will take decisions in its national interests,” said Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs.
However, the escalation in the Ukraine conflict is causing concern in New Delhi. In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan that “this is not an era of war.” He pointed out that the world was facing challenges, including food and energy shortages that were particularly affecting developing countries.
In a recent phone call between the two leaders, Modi again called for diplomacy and dialogue to end the conflict, according to the Indian foreign ministry. Significantly, an annual summit that is held regularly between the Russian and Indian leaders has not been scheduled this year.
“India feels that a lot of things that Russians are doing at the moment, perhaps are unwarranted — the kind of strikes on civilians and the energy sector. So there has been some negative response to what Russia is doing,” according to Pant. However, he added that public condemnation of Russia is not going to happen because “India feels that there are multiple causes for this conflict, therefore political dialogue is the only way forward.”
Some have feared India’s neutral stance on Russia will strain ties with the United States – it is the only partner in the Quad alliance that consists of India, U.S., Japan and Australia, not to have sanctioned Russia. Critics said India’s huge purchases of Russian oil were undermining Western efforts to punish Russia for its aggression. But that did not happen as both countries stepped up their strategic partnership to counter an expansionist China.
“Today we are positioning the U.S. and Indian militaries to operate and coordinate closely together across all domains and increasingly across the wider Indo-Pacific,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in April during a meeting with Indian foreign and defense ministers in New Delhi.
In September, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the India-U.S. relationship “simply one of the most consequential in the world,” at a joint news conference with his Indian counterpart.
Indian and U.S. armies held exercises close to India’s border with China last month. While these were part of regular annual drills held by the two armies, the location was considered significant.
“The rise of China is one of the most powerful forces of our times and that has certainly consolidated this consensus that India and America would have to work together; there is no other option,” according to Pant. He said the partnership is important for both sides. “Without India there is no Indo-Pacific and I think America realizes the value of India as a partner, and India realizes the value of Washington at a time of this turbulence on its periphery.”
Analysts say India wants to help in negotiating a way out of the Ukraine conflict, pointing out that it is taking a punishing toll on the global economy. “India, as a close partner of Russia, and also of the West, wants to be a bridge builder,” according to Chaulia. “There are already behind-the-scenes talks and India is hoping to play a constructive role in reducing the differences between the warring parties so that at least the armed hostilities stop.”