India’s tough tightrope walk between the Western bloc and Russia

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As tensions mount between the West and Russia over it's invasion of Ukraine, India finds itself caught in a diplomatic dilemma with key strategic partners on both sides.

As fighting intensifies and Russian troops move to cover more ground in Ukraine, India has appealed for an immediate end to the violence and called for concerted efforts from all sides to return to diplomatic negotiations and dialogue.

India has avoided taking sides even though Russia finds itself increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, particularly Western nations, which have been imposing a slew of sanctions since it launched its invasion of Ukraine.

"Prime Minister Modi expressed his long-standing conviction that the differences between Russia and the NATO group can only be resolved through honest and sincere dialogue," the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

Importantly, India has avoided condemning or calling out Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

Balancing Russia ties

In the UN Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, India conspicuously abstained from resolutions deploring Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. It joined China and the United Arab Emirates in abstaining from the UNSC resolution that condemned the invasion. Russia vetoed the measure.

On the global stage, India has abstained five times so far from condemning Russia’s actions at the United Nations and only reiterated a "commitment to the principles of the UN Charter, to international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states".

"All of us have been working to urge India to take a clear position, a position opposed to Russia’s actions," Donald Lu, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia told the Senate hearing, and warned that India needed "to further distance itself from Russia."

In the past, India depended on Russian support and its veto power in the UNSC in its dispute over Kashmir with its long-time rival Pakistan.

Former diplomats and policy experts believe that India’s position is shaped by its concerns on territorial integrity and sovereignty and the difficult relationship with its two northern neighbours.

"There are understandable reasons for India’s subtle pro-Russia position. An aggressive Russia is a problem for the US and the West, not for India. NATO’s expansion is Russia’s problem, not India’s. India’s problem is China," said Happymon Jacob, a foreign policy and international relations expert.

But there is more that makes New Delhi’s balance of relations much more difficult.

Military and trade ties

India and Russia have a deep historical relationship that go back to the early decades of the Cold War. It is dependent on Russian military hardware, parts and technology for the foreseeable future, especially at a time when a military confrontation with China is possible.

For instance, Russian T-90 tanks form the mainstay of the Indian army, and Russian MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets are part of its air force arsenal. Moreover, India recently purchased Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, which could trigger US sanctions.

"Over the years, Russia has been providing India with submarines, tanks, fighter jets, and even assistance to develop its nuclear program," said Jacob.

Both Modi and Putin met last year to discuss defence and trade relations, and signed an agreement to extend their military technology cooperation for the next decade.

Apart from military ties, bilateral trade between India and Russia stood at US$11.9 billion (€10.7 billion) in 2021. India exported $3.3 billion worth goods and once again pharmaceutical products were the largest export commodity at $542 million. India is also dependent on Russian oil and gas.

In equal measure, the two-way trade between India and Ukraine was over US$3 billion (€2.67 billion) in 2021. India’s exports to Ukraine stood at $510 million, with pharma products making up 32% of it. Other exports include telecom instruments, iron and steel, agro chemicals and coffee.

In addition to the impact on India’s economy and trade, the Ukraine crisis has a direct impact on thousands of Indian citizens. Over 20,000 students from India are in Ukraine studying medicine or engineering, forming roughly 24% of total international students there.

It is still unclear how New Delhi’s position will change especially if confronted by large-scale civilian casualties or if there is no quick resolution to the crisis.

"India’s failure to stand with the United States and other democracies on the Ukraine question could lead to some diplomatic isolation," said political scientist Sumit Ganguly.

Even with pressure piling from the western bloc, officials in the foreign office and security mandarins believe that India should be pragmatic in its approach and not jump at hasty decisions to make a strategic choice.

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