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For India, Putin’s War Starts to Look Like a Gift

From cheap Russian oil to sudden overtures from China, India’s neutral stance on Ukraine has many benefits.

Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
C. Raja Mohan
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit Sochi, Russia, on May 21, 2018. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Putin’s War

When Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine, India first appeared stuck in an unenviable corner. Having edged closer to the West in recent years as an insurance policy against its main adversary, China, New Delhi might have been expected to align with Washington and its allies in the conflict. Yet India has been reluctant to condemn Russia, on which it remains utterly dependent for the vast majority of its military equipment. At the same time, there is a deep reservoir of goodwill in India for Russia as a partner since the 1950s, when Moscow backed New Delhi as Western powers aligned with Islamabad. While India’s ties with the West grew rapidly in the last two decades, the empathy for Russia has endured. Little surprise, then, that India abstained on all the resolutions at the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly censuring the Russian invasion. That India found itself on the same side on this issue as China is a paradoxical effect of the war in Ukraine.

Now, it appears that the war may actually be a gift for New Delhi. Washington has muted its criticism—it knows that New Delhi is needed as a partner against Beijing and understands that India’s dependence on Russian military hardware requires it to play nice with Moscow. Just like China, resource-constrained India has also made good use of the crisis to snap up cheap Russian oil, which it is buying at a heavy discount to market prices as Western customers increasingly shun Russian deliveries.

Meanwhile, China and Russia are seizing the opportunity offered by India’s reluctance to join the West in condemning the Russian invasion in order to entice India into greater political cooperation. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in New Delhi on an unannounced visit. This Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to arrive in India as well. While Beijing and Moscow might hope to lure New Delhi into a new, anti-Western Asian coalition, India is unlikely to give up on its strategic reorientation toward the United States and its allies. But in the meantime, India is making the most of being wooed by both sides.

When Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine, India first appeared stuck in an unenviable corner. Having edged closer to the West in recent years as an insurance policy against its main adversary, China, New Delhi might have been expected to align with Washington and its allies in the conflict. Yet India has been reluctant to condemn Russia, on which it remains utterly dependent for the vast majority of its military equipment. At the same time, there is a deep reservoir of goodwill in India for Russia as a partner since the 1950s, when Moscow backed New Delhi as Western powers aligned with Islamabad. While India’s ties with the West grew rapidly in the last two decades, the empathy for Russia has endured. Little surprise, then, that India abstained on all the resolutions at the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly censuring the Russian invasion. That India found itself on the same side on this issue as China is a paradoxical effect of the war in Ukraine.

Now, it appears that the war may actually be a gift for New Delhi. Washington has muted its criticism—it knows that New Delhi is needed as a partner against Beijing and understands that India’s dependence on Russian military hardware requires it to play nice with Moscow. Just like China, resource-constrained India has also made good use of the crisis to snap up cheap Russian oil, which it is buying at a heavy discount to market prices as Western customers increasingly shun Russian deliveries.

Meanwhile, China and Russia are seizing the opportunity offered by India’s reluctance to join the West in condemning the Russian invasion in order to entice India into greater political cooperation. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in New Delhi on an unannounced visit. This Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to arrive in India as well. While Beijing and Moscow might hope to lure New Delhi into a new, anti-Western Asian coalition, India is unlikely to give up on its strategic reorientation toward the United States and its allies. But in the meantime, India is making the most of being wooed by both sides.

Far from being in an unenviable bind, New Delhi now looks well placed to leverage its position in the middle for its own benefit in the short and long term. From Russia, India is getting discounted oil, fertilizer, and other commodities as Moscow desperately seeks new buyers. From China, India is looking to extract an easing of the Sino-Indian military confrontation in the Himalayas. With the United States and other Western partners, India is looking to modernize its defense industrial base and reduce its dependence on Russian military supplies.

Since Washington’s early displeasure at India’s U.N. votes and U.S. President Joe Biden’s statement that India is “shaky” on Russian sanctions, senior administration officials have signaled their understanding of India’s positions. U.S. officials concede that India’s oil purchases from Russia do not violate current sanctions. New Delhi, in turn, has carefully avoided any contravention of the sanctions regime. As for India’s continued dependence on Russian weapons, U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland conceded this is to no small extent the fault of the United States, which was reluctant to supply India with modern weapons during the Cold War; during a recent visit to New Delhi, she said Washington is now prepared to make amends, possibly including stronger defense industry collaboration. This will likely be explored at a meeting of U.S. and Indian foreign and defense ministers in November.

Beijing and Moscow hope to lure New Delhi into a new, anti-Western Asian coalition.

Rattled by Russia’s military failures and the unprecedented Western unity in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war, Beijing and Moscow are edging closer to each other—and looking to enlist new partners in the non-Western world. Inevitably, India is at the top of the list of their targets. To that end, Wang expounded on what China sees as the “Asia moment” in global affairs and pleaded for Sino-Indian cooperation. Wang reminded New Delhi that China is hosting the BRICS summit in 2022—and it won’t have been lost on either side that the two remaining BRICS members, Brazil and South Africa, have also been reluctant to support the West on Russia and Ukraine. Wang is promoting BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—another non-Western multilateral forum where India, China, and Russia regularly meet—as ways to counter what Beijing considers unacceptable Western dominance of the global order, starkly underlined today by the sweeping sanctions imposed on Russia.

New Delhi, however, is not ready to jump onto the bandwagon of a new coalition led by Beijing and its junior partner, Moscow. India’s most immediate concern is ending its low-intensity border war with China in the Himalayas, where Beijing has yet to signal serious movement. New Delhi has insisted that restoration of the status quo before China’s 2020 incursion and occupation of territory claimed by India is a precondition for cooperation in other areas. While 15 rounds of talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders have helped ease some of the military face-offs in Ladakh, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is pressing for a quicker pace of disengagement, beginning with a pullback of thousands of troops stationed close to the contested border line. India is not holding its breath but would welcome any reduction in Chinese military pressure on the border.

But even if Beijing moderates its policies and New Delhi reviews its own thinking on China, India has little reason to change its focus on deeper security cooperation with the United States, most notably in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a partnership that also includes Japan and Australia. Just as India considered itself nonaligned during the Cold War but tilted to the Soviet Union, India’s current constellation—a multi-alignment among China, the United States, and Russia—will be weighted in favor of the United States and the West. For all the maneuvering, India’s difficulties with China are not about to disappear, nor can Moscow prevent the steady diminution of Russia’s importance for New Delhi.

In the new situation created by Russia’s war, India’s dependence on Moscow for weapons has also gotten the Biden administration’s attention. Although India’s massive reliance on Russian arms and spare parts is unlikely to come down quickly, the United States can play a critical role in accelerating India’s diversification. The government of Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi now has the opportunity to push for U.S. and other Western investment in the modernization and indigenization of India’s defense industrial base.

In India’s ideal but currently elusive scenario, Russia would be at peace with Europe and the United States and help in stabilizing (or stay out of) the Asian balance of power. Putin’s Russia, however, has embraced China, invoked Western wrath with its war on Ukraine, and complicated India’s quest for Asian balance. This significantly limits what India can do in the near future with Russia—and, in turn, with China—even as it remains open to engaging Moscow and keeping the lines of communication open with China.

C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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