By John Elliott
India is facing growing calls to condemn Russia for its brutal invasion of Ukraine, which would mean breaking the habits of a friendship that has developed over more than 60 years. Friends should of course be able to criticise each other and India has done that implicitly by calling for hostilities to cease. But public condemnation of a dominant diplomatic friend might be more risky and India so far has felt bound by the ties of history, even though thousands of its students are suffering as they try to escape from Ukraine.
India abstained in the United Nations Security Council, where it is a temporary member, last weekend, and again on March 2 in the General Assembly, on a resolution “Deploring in the strongest terms Russia’s aggression against Ukraine”. The resolution also condemned Russia’s increasing the readiness of its nuclear forces and called on it to “immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine”. This was passed with 141 votes in favour, five against, and 35 abstentions that included the South Asian Commonwealth countries Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka along with India plus South Africa.
India took its position despite US president Joe Biden saying “any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association”. Antony Blinken then urged India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to accept “the importance of a strong collective response to Russian aggression.”
India also appears to have resisted going further during a meeting of the US-India-Australia-Japan QUAD grouping, where prime minister Narendra Modi repeated India’s line and “emphasised the need to return to a path of dialogue and diplomacy”.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman seemed to recognise India’s angle on February 25 when he said, “India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we have with Russia and that is okay.” Since then, the crisis has escalated and it was reported that the State Department had recalled a cable sent to its Delhi embassy saying India’s neutrality on Ukraine “puts them in Russia’s camp”. The head of US mission in Delhi told a TV station on March 4 that “the US doesn’t believe that India is in Russia’s camp”.
In terms of history, India sees Russia as a long-term diplomatic supporter on international issues in the United Nations and elsewhere, and also as a source of economic and defence support. I remember Indira Gandhi saying when she was prime minister in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union had never let India down.
The US, on the other hand, which has wooed India for past 20 years with growing success, is seen warily as a fair-weather friend that wants India’s support now as a buffer against China, but cannot be wholly relied on if priorities change or if it determines that India has stepped out of line.
The diplomatic relationship goes back to the 1950s when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru softened his non-aligned principles and moved closer to the Soviet Union at a time when the US was siding with Pakistan. The ties grew with the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace Friendship and Cooperation signed August 1971, which specified mutual strategic cooperation. It came after the creation of Bangladesh that India supported. President Richard Nixon, who once called Indians “slippery treacherous people”, ordered US ships to the Bay of Bengal in support of what was then East Pakistan. That has never been forgotten in Delhi.
Boosting India’s slowly developing economy, the Soviet Union supplied low-cost (and low-efficiency) steelworks, power projects and infrastructure. India bought from the west at market rates (with loans and grants) and it then went for cheaper options from Russia, whose reach in India became widespread. The mutual trust was so great that rewards for loyal Soviet workers included holidays in secluded Indian seaside resorts – in the 1980s I saw a party arriving at a small Oberoi hotel on the Orissa coast. A banker friend remembers in 1982 travelling by car to an aluminium project in the state and seeing a signboard saying “No Foreigners, Indians and Russians only”.
While such history has become less significant in the Russia relationship, India continues to be tied by large scale defence orders that amount to a priority catalogue of dependency. Ajai Shukla, a former army colonel and now a defence analyst and columnist, estimates that India has defence orders totalling some $15bn with Russia, which for years has accounted for 50-60 percent of the country’s defence imports (India buys 70% of its defence equipment abroad because it has failed to develop a manufacturing capability).
The orders include a $5.43 billion missile defence system, the S-400, with deliveries underway as well as frigates, and a nuclear submarine on a 10 year rental from 2025. Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, however, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on March 2 that “India, in just the last few weeks, cancelled orders for MiG-29 (fighter jets), Russian helicopter and anti-tank weapons”. (The Indian Ministry of Defence has not confirmed this development.)
The US pressed India to buy a missile system made by America’s Raytheon or Lockheed Martin instead of Russia’s S-400, but Delhi refused. A decision is pending from Biden on whether to impose sanctions on India under America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Before the Ukraine crisis, there seemed a chance the president would find a way to excuse India, but the S-400 constitutes a “significant transaction” under the Act and there is now a real risk that Biden will refuse a waiver. That could cause a serious disruption to US-India ties.
The US would be eager to replace some of the existing defence orders, but it has not been willing to co-produce and co-develop advanced defence technologies with India in the way that Russia has, for example, on nuclear submarines, fighter jets and missiles.
There is some concern in India about the line the government is taking. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran noted in the Indian Express on February 26 that “there is a rising level of discomfort among Russia’s friends who have chosen to look the other way”.
Saran was reflecting liberal opinion in India that is concerned about the government not speaking out and regrets that India will be heavily criticised. The Congress Party is broadly backing the government line, but Shashi Tharoor, a leading Congress MP and former senior UN official, echoed Saran’s point and said on television that India had “placed itself on the wrong side of history”.
[This article has been written for the Round Table website and has been adapted by the author from his blog on the website Riding The Elephant. Opinion pieces do not reflect the editorial position of the Round Table Editorial Board.]
John Elliott is is a journalist who blogs on and a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.