The World

Why the World’s Largest Democracy Won’t Back Ukraine

Inside the globe’s most awkward diplomatic puzzle.

Kishida and Modi sit at a table with flowers and little flags of Japan and India in front of them.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on March 19. Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

As the war in Ukraine has raged on, no country has found itself in a more awkward diplomatic position than India.

While most of the world’s major democracies have rallied to Ukraine’s cause, the world’s largest democracy has conspicuously declined to publicly take sides in the conflict. Earlier this month, India joined with 34 other countries that abstained from the United Nations’ motion condemning Russia’s attack, and it has continued to abstain from U.N. General Assembly motions taking stances against Moscow’s aggression.

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India’s most powerful allies have firmly, yet fruitlessly, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to reconsider its stance.

Shortly after India’s first U.N. vote abstention, the U.S. State Department dispatched, then retracted, a diplomatic cable referring to the subcontinent as being “in Russia’s camp.” The European Union, United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan later held multiple mostly hopeless discussions with New Delhi to persuade it to fully divest from Russia. Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden claimed in a public address that the United States and its allies “presented a united front” against Russian President Vladimir Putin—then called out India, exclusively, for “being somewhat shaky” on the issue.

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Some important context adding to these tensions is that India is a member of the so-called Quad alliance with the U.S., Australia, and Japan. The geopolitical foursome was conceived as an explicitly democratic coalition meant to stand up against China’s economic aggression and military dominance. But the U.S. also considers the Russia-Ukraine conflict to be a litmus test for other countries’ commitment to democracy. So from Washington’s perspective, India appears to be failing that litmus test, which may bode poorly for the Quad’s future.

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Why won’t India just join its friends and back Ukraine? There are, in fact, many reasons the South Asian powerhouse would not wish to jeopardize its ties to Russia—and why its own varying self-interests might preclude it from joining a grand battle for liberal democracy.

For starters, Russia is the subcontinent’s most important weapons dealer. Its tools account for up to 60 percent of India’s current defense arsenal, including missile systems that were subject to sanctions by the U.S. since before the Ukraine crisis. “India is highly dependent on Russian military gear,” Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in an email. If India is “to face another military crisis with either Pakistan or China, it will rely on Russian military equipment to protect itself.”

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India has reduced Russian arms imports in recent years, in favor of controversial weapons trades with France as well as surveillance tech exchanges with Israel. But Modi can’t totally scrap Russian equipment in favor of other countries’ exports in part because of the cost. Angshuman Choudhury, a senior research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, explained to me over email that “American military systems are significantly more expensive than Russian ones.” Thus, even if India wanted to cut off Russia and pivot to a U.S.-focused arms deal, it would need a “fatter defense acquisition budget and more streamlined procurement processes,” both of which would be difficult to accomplish in the near term thanks to economic woes.

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Beyond the defense sector, India imports oil, fertilizer, and pharmaceutical drugs from Russia—and exports lots of medicine to Russia in turn. Even though neither country is the other’s biggest trade partner, India’s government will want to keep these trade lines open in an attempt to tamp down skyrocketing inflation at home, driven by energy and food price spikes.

New Delhi is also now buying Russian crude at discounted prices and establishing an arrangement to ease trade in both countries’ local currencies across borders, the latter being an attempt to evade new Western sanctions.

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And it’s conceivable the U.S. won’t sanction India’s continued purchases of Russia’s weaponry, because the very reason India needs Russian artillery happens to square with American interests. Avinash Paliwal, an associate professor at the University of London, told me that India’s use of Russian equipment “will be more capable of countering Chinese and Pakistani air power during moments of crises, and that’s in the interest of its allies”—like, of course, the Quad nations.

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Thanks to its decadeslong rivalry with Pakistan and China, there are also long-term strategic reasons India may be nervous about crossing Russia. Pakistan has cultivated close ties with both China and Russia, with its head of state even visiting the latter the same day Putin ordered soldiers into Ukraine. Ramesh Thakur, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general, told me that “if India loses Russia” as a partner, “you maybe get the nightmare of Russia and China backing Pakistan” with military resources. Should India go to war with Pakistan yet again in the future—a not entirely implausible prospect—such a conflict would bode poorly for the subcontinent without Russia’s aid.

Even setting aside the flow of weapons and commodities, India has reaped some immediate rewards from its goodwill toward Russia. Indians previously made up the largest number of foreign students within Ukraine, drawn there by the affordable and prestigious medical schools in cities like Kyiv and Sumy. After the invasion, the Indian government established a back channel with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who personally directed his soldiers to protect Indian students and offered vehicles to transport them to safe havens, including into Russia. This is special treatment not afforded to the many other international residents displaced in Ukraine, and one that helped save many Indians’ lives even as their own government botched its evacuation effort and amplified misleading information at home regarding students’ safety.

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With all of that said, India also has some important incentives not to alienate Ukraine—or the United States. Again, arms sales are a big factor. Choudhury pointed out that India relies on Ukraine to supply some key military equipment, and noted that “Ukraine has been eager to expand its defense market in India.”

Meanwhile, India’s partnership with the U.S. has given Modi’s government a useful cover for its democratic backsliding. As I’ve previously written, the U.S.’s pursuit of diplomacy with India has conveniently ignored the world’s largest democracy’s increasing authoritarianism: the mass surveillance, the physical and legal attacks on Muslims and refugees, the media censorship, and the suppression of states within borders, like Jammu and Kashmir.

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When publicly questioned about India’s human rights abuses, the Biden administration has been content to wave them off. Modi doesn’t want to lose that slack. Plus, should continuing border tensions with China escalate into armed conflict, he will want the diplomatic and military support from the U.S. that it’s historically provided before.

All of which may help explain why, even though it hasn’t condemned Russia outright, Modi’s government has at least made implicit gestures of solidarity with Ukraine. Thakur, the former U.N. official, told me that those criticizing India for its ambivalence should “look at the substance of the statements” the Indian government has made on Ukraine: “They’ve gone further than they have historically in condemning the violence, and they’ve called for cessation of hostilities. Which side do you think that favors?” Thus, some EU officials are now left hoping that India’s waffling stance could at least lead it to persuade Russia to draw down its military hostility.

In some ways, India’s in-between posturing is historically familiar. After all, during the Cold War, it led the global Non-Aligned Movement of countries that chose not to side with either the United States or the Soviet Union. But the country has also tried to position itself as a defender of democracy against authoritarian nations in recent years. By sitting on the sidelines of the Ukraine conflict, India may be showing it’s not a reliable ally in that battle.

Update, March 30, 2022: This piece has been updated to clarify Angshuman Choudhury’s current institutional affiliations.

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