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India Must Take a Stand on Russia’s War in Ukraine

New Delhi’s fence-sitting no longer serves its diplomatic or security interests.

Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Sumit Ganguly
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington.
People hold placards protesting Russia’s invasion in India.
People hold placards protesting Russia’s invasion in India.
People hold placards protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at San Thome Cathedral Basilica in Chennai, India, on March 2. ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

On March 2, 141 countries in the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India was one of 35 countries to abstain, just days after it declined to vote on a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council. Although the abstention seems jarring for a democratic country, it is not a surprising move for India, which not only has a historic friendship with Russia but also depends on Russian weapons. New Delhi also has concerns that the anti-Russian vote could cement Moscow’s strategic partnership with Beijing, with which it has a troubled relationship.

India has not supported Russia’s aggression tacitly or otherwise, but it has consciously refrained from publicly condemning it. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked for an immediate cessation of violence, but he did not criticize Russia. Other officials, including Indian ambassador to the United Nations T. S. Tirumurti, have urged all parties to seek a peaceful resolution. Moscow welcomed New Delhi’s “independent and balanced” stance, which may preserve the bilateral relationship.

But India’s position on the war in Ukraine is likely to tarnish its own global image as a democracy. From Brazil to Kenya, other countries have rebuked Russia for its actions. India, which professes its support for universal human rights, can’t expect the world to ignore its response to the current crisis.

On March 2, 141 countries in the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India was one of 35 countries to abstain, just days after it declined to vote on a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council. Although the abstention seems jarring for a democratic country, it is not a surprising move for India, which not only has a historic friendship with Russia but also depends on Russian weapons. New Delhi also has concerns that the anti-Russian vote could cement Moscow’s strategic partnership with Beijing, with which it has a troubled relationship.

India has not supported Russia’s aggression tacitly or otherwise, but it has consciously refrained from publicly condemning it. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked for an immediate cessation of violence, but he did not criticize Russia. Other officials, including Indian ambassador to the United Nations T. S. Tirumurti, have urged all parties to seek a peaceful resolution. Moscow welcomed New Delhi’s “independent and balanced” stance, which may preserve the bilateral relationship.

But India’s position on the war in Ukraine is likely to tarnish its own global image as a democracy. From Brazil to Kenya, other countries have rebuked Russia for its actions. India, which professes its support for universal human rights, can’t expect the world to ignore its response to the current crisis.

India has historically avoided taking an unequivocal stance on many foreign military interventions, often because of its own foreign-policy and security vulnerabilities. It has rationalized its choices through its commitment to nonalignment, which (from New Delhi’s perspective) has meant the ability to pursue an independent foreign policy and to make case-by-case decisions. In the 20th century, New Delhi condemned the Vietnam War as well as English, French, and Israeli actions during the 1956 Suez Crisis. But the same year, it refused to support a U.S.-sponsored resolution to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Then, India’s considerations were similar in motivation to today: Its leaders feared that disapproval of the invasion could undermine Soviet support at the U.N. Security Council over the Kashmir dispute.

Similarly, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was silent on the subject. When Gandhi returned to office in 1980, her government blandly endorsed the official Soviet explanation for its invasion of Afghanistan out of fear of alienating its trusted partner. When the United States invaded Iraq on dubious premises in 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government resorted to mild disapproval—careful not to upset relations that had improved substantially during its time in office.

India’s diplomatic strategy of ducking when faced with unpalatable choices on the global stage may now have run its course. New Delhi cannot maintain neutrality under the guise of pursuing strategic autonomy, like the nonalignment doctrine before it. India’s propensity to avoid taking a position as Russia bears down on Ukraine could ultimately prove untenable. Although India’s foreign-policy decision-makers seem to think they can take a contrary stance on an issue of global concern and get away with it, there may be limits to the tolerance of the United States and other partners. Although they may not be surprised by India’s position, these partners also may not be willing to indefinitely give India a pass.

India’s failure to stand with the United States and other democracies on the Ukraine question could lead to some diplomatic isolation. India has already faced considerable censure over the erosion of democracy within its borders. It now has a moral obligation to take a stand based on its own principles. Its failure to uphold fundamental human rights and international norms of sovereignty to curry favor with Russia is likely to tarnish its image further. Moreover, refusal to weigh in on the war in Ukraine may not even gain much from Russia to begin with.


New Delhi’s acute dependence on Moscow for arms transfers is in large part a legacy of the Cold War, when India relied on the Soviet Union for diplomatic and military support against China, its principal adversary. But modern-day Russia has demonstrated its unwillingness to serve as such a strategic bulwark. Although it still supplies India with a panoply of weaponry, it expects payment at market prices and in hard currency, unlike in the past. Indian policymakers have started to diversify military acquisitions, but as much as 60 percent of New Delhi’s arsenal remains of Soviet or Russian origin—making it difficult to put an end to its dependence entirely.

However, India’s reliance on Russia for weapons doesn’t serve its interests: Moscow no longer steadfastly supports New Delhi on a host of foreign-policy and security issues. Russia has recently cozied up to China and has made overtures to Pakistan, India’s nettlesome neighbor. The arms sales are now on strictly commercial terms, with New Delhi at liberty to acquire future weaponry from the global market. Although this cannot be accomplished overnight, it behooves India to stop investing in a relationship that has largely outlived its utility: Relying on Russia for advanced weaponry will increasingly come at the cost of diplomatic penalties.

At this point, it is obvious to leaders in New Delhi that Russia has a strategic partnership with China that impinges on India’s security interests. During the deadly border skirmish between India and China in the Galwan Valley in 2020, Russia maintained a neutral stance rather than offering any support to India, marking a shift from its historic posture. The incident shows how India avoiding criticism of Russia on matters of grave international concern no longer serves its own diplomatic standing. Nor is New Delhi likely to sway Moscow from its relationship with Beijing. Russia’s diplomatic isolation in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine will only make it more dependent on its security alignment with China.

India has two other compelling reasons to walk away from its habit of fence-sitting now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. First, Moscow apparently intends to snuff out nascent democracy in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. India’s failure to take a firm position against Russia’s actions further undermines its own identity and image as a democracy, which has taken a significant battering under Modi. There are some notable voices of dissent emerging in India regarding its military dependence on Russia. Furthermore, the death of an Indian medical student in Ukraine even as India sought to evacuate its citizens from the country could stir a domestic debate about the wisdom of its response to the crisis.

Finally, India aspires to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council; it is currently serving as nonpermanent member until 2023. During this tenure, it must demonstrate that it can make difficult decisions that contribute to global peace and security. India’s recent abstention from the vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows it is incapable of making a costly decision on a big stage. New Delhi’s latest stance won’t bolster its case for permanent membership and could in fact undermine fledgling U.S. support for its quest.

For far too long, India has hidden behind nonalignment to justify its unwillingness and inability to adopt unequivocal positions on crucial issues of international security. This waffling has cost India considerable international regard for decades. If New Delhi’s leadership hopes to burnish its image as a democracy and as a responsible emergent power, it will need to muster the fortitude to make costly choices and take a stand.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy as well as a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington.

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