Russian President Putin meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi
Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, December 2021 
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

In February, as Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border and Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities, India equivocated. Its representatives at the UN abstained on 12 resolutions condemning the invasion. Its initial statements at the Security Council were decidedly mealy-mouthed: its UN ambassador did not mention Russia by name, nor did he criticize the war. India’s foreign ministry expressed a curious evenhandedness, seeking “de-escalation,” as if both countries were belligerents, and pleading for a “return” to “the path of diplomatic negotiations and dialogue.” Despite the rhetorical care the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted to appear neutral, the time may have come for India, in its own interest, to rethink its stance.

Sharp criticism at home and abroad appears to have prompted India to take steps in that direction. It has toughened its language and reiterated the principles of international law it has traditionally upheld: respect for the UN Charter and the sovereignty of states, the inviolability of borders, and opposition to the use of force to resolve political issues. By hardening its tone while refraining from full-fledged repudiation, New Delhi is signaling to Moscow that even if it is unwilling to condemn its old friend, it does not exactly approve of its actions either. Thus a stance that began with equivocation has progressed to mild disappointment.

Some have argued that the war in Ukraine will “consolidate a global alliance that unites democracies against Russia and China,” as the scholars Michael Beckley and Hal Brands wrote in Foreign Affairs. There is an element of wishful thinking in that proposition, which overlooks, as the Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon pointed out in response, “Asia’s sense of its own difference—its focus on stability, trade, and the bottom line that has served Asian countries so well in the last 40 years.” But it would be wrong to look at the reluctance to take sides that India and other developing countries in Asia have shown and conclude that a faraway war in Europe simply does not matter to the rest of the world. India’s dilemma is more complicated than its repeated abstentions on the Ukraine question imply, and it illustrates why the world order cannot simply remain what it was before the invasion.

A Rising Trajectory

India has spent the twenty-first century seeking to establish itself as a major player on the world stage. As galloping economic growth drew a level of attention the country had not experienced since the 1950s, India asserted itself on a variety of fronts. It became a founding member of the G-20 when that organization was established in 1999; concluded a nuclear deal with the United States in 2005 that was portrayed as enshrining an “Indian exception”; took over the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2006, dubbing itself “the world’s fastest-growing free market democracy”; won then President Barack Obama’s endorsement of India’s claims to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2010; got the UN to adopt an International Day of Yoga in 2015, showcasing its cultural soft power; and joined the quadrilateral security dialogue with the United States, Australia, and Japan known as the Quad. That last development also marked a change in the way American officials referred to the region, speaking of “the Indo-Pacific” rather than “the Asia-Pacific.” After decades of marginalization, India became a force to be reckoned with, a player of consequence in global councils, and a growing regional counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

Now, however, the West has implied that there could be consequences for India’s ambivalence. Shortly after the invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden warned, “Any nation that countenances Russia's naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.” And in a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early April, he pressed India to align itself with the United States on this issue. Despite a number of statements by Western visitors to New Delhi expressing understanding for the Indian position, India seems out of step with the passions felt in the West. According to Indian publications including ThePrint, Germany is considering disinviting India to meetings on the sidelines of the G-7 summit, solely because of its stance on Ukraine. While the German government has denied those rumors, such reports have heightened apprehensions among Indians that their country has damaged its standing and marginalized itself in the eyes of its valued partners.

India has not leveraged its nonaligned position to play peacemaker on Ukraine.

The irony is that India has never needed Russia less. Yes, India depends on Russia militarily, with the Kremlin supplying some 45 percent of its weaponry and defense equipment. But that share is down from 75 percent a decade ago, and India has diversified its purchases to include U.S., French, and Israeli armaments. Yes, the Indian government has a history of relying on Russian support when problems with Pakistan and China—notably over Kashmir—come to a head. But support from the United States has meant that India no longer needs a Russian veto at the Security Council to keep Kashmir off the agenda.

Moscow, moreover, has become ever less reliable as it gravitates closer to Beijing, which India’s hostile neighbor and traditional antagonist, Pakistan, calls its “all-weather friend.” Russia has even conducted military exercises in Pakistan—which began in territory India claims—and on the very day the invasion of Ukraine began, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was welcomed in Moscow for meetings.

India Shouldn’t Make Assumptions

Washington’s interest in India was always predicated on the justification of “shared values” between the two democracies—the world’s largest and the world’s oldest, as U.S. presidents never tire of reiterating. Before the invasion, whether or not the fledgling “community of democracies”—Biden’s democracy-promotion effort—would ever constitute themselves into a formal alliance, many in Washington argued that a democratic India deserved U.S. support for what it was, not only for what it might provide. It was in the United States’ interest to shore up and facilitate the influence of a regional power that stood for the same democratic norms as the West. A secular and democratic India, committed to the rule of law and the liberal international order, was thought to be an invaluable partner in global governance.

This was the implicit deal, and it was a good one for India, opening up markets, supply lines, and global influence for New Delhi, as well as the new partnership of the Quad. The recent wishy-washiness on Ukraine, however, has raised fundamental questions about the extent of India’s commitment to those norms. At a time when the world media had woken up to the increasing signs of Modi’s illiberalism—the respected V-Dem Institute has suggested that India had turned from a “liberal democracy” into an “elected autocracy”—the country’s stand on Ukraine has raised fresh questions as to whether this Indian government genuinely shares the democratic assumptions that merited Western support. An India behaving increasingly undemocratically at home could hardly be expected to make common cause with democracies worldwide.

One way for India to salvage its reputation in the West would be to leverage its nonaligned position to play peacemaker on Ukraine. So far, it hasn’t tried to do so, even while Israel and Turkey have. Ahead of the first Security Council debate on the war, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted that in a call to his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, he had asked “India to use all influence in its relations with Russia to force it to cease military aggression against Ukraine.” Clearly, New Delhi’s influence with Moscow did not extend that far. India’s strategic autonomy had not won it such an influential role on the world stage.

There could be consequences for India’s ambivalence.

India’s lack of influence on Russia and failure to take a clear stand on the war have also undermined its case for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. As it happens, India is currently serving a two-year term as a nonpermanent member of the council; it was from that perch that it abstained on the resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine. That decision makes it harder to argue that India would advocate a liberal vision of world order if it were given a permanent seat.

Those who have put a gloss on India’s temporizing as a refusal to fall into the logic of what Menon calls a “global Manichaean struggle” overlook the very real interests that are at stake. The inexorable rise of China is a new geopolitical factor that India, which shares a 2,200-mile disputed border with China, cannot ignore. As recently as June 2020, Chinese troops killed 20 Indian soldiers in a mountainous region of the Himalayas that both countries claim as part of their territory.

It is true that India, a founder of the nonaligned movement during the Cold War, has historically been allergic to alliances and disinclined to put all its strategic eggs in one star-spangled basket. But China’s recent belligerence has made it increasingly necessary for India to make common cause with others—to use their collective diplomatic, geopolitical, and military leverage to limit Beijing’s ambitions and constrain how much it can get away with. At a time when Russia, weakened by its Ukrainian misadventure, risks becoming a satellite state of a rising Chinese imperium, reliance on Russia makes even less sense in the future. With Pakistan already reduced to a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the potential emergence of a hostile axis on India’s borders points to the imperative need for New Delhi to find and shore up its own partnerships.

The Ukraine war may indeed, as Menon suggests, have underscored the “fundamental incoherence” of “the free world.” But one of the results of the war is bound to be an increasing coherence, as nations aroused from their slumber dust themselves off and rearrange the global furniture. If Russia can do this to a neighbor and get away with it, China could easily try the same approach next. An India that equivocated on Ukraine cannot blame others for responding with the same indifference if China decided to teach it a lesson and redraw the Chinese-Indian border by force.

A Higher Standard

Before the Ukraine crisis, the United States had seemed to be more focused on the global threat from China, and the Indo-Pacific had loomed larger in Washington’s concerns than Europe. At that time, Washington might well have been inclined to give an increasingly illiberal India a free pass for the sake of shoring it up against China. That has now changed with the renewed focus on Europe and Western determination to resist Russian assertiveness at all costs—and it is not to India’s advantage. Today, the United States might well be tempted to put containing China behind its interests in Europe—and then norms and values matter more, for they are all that undergird the West’s interest in India. An increasingly autocratic, antiminority Modi government at home might find itself the object of greater Western criticism rather than the recipient of enhanced Western support.

Worse, China could take advantage of the situation by forcibly attempting to absorb parts of its disputed border with India while the world is distracted by the war in Ukraine. If, as Menon suggests, “geopolitical disputes and security dilemmas that could affect the global order are concentrated in maritime Asia,” that is all the more reason why India needs the West. The Quad has been weakened by India’s failure to go along with its other three members on Ukraine and on challenging the emerging geopolitical convergence between China and Russia. India finds itself in a position where its traditional reluctance to choose sides on any major international question could come back to haunt it—when it wants other nations to choose its side.

India, like France, will always cherish a prickly independence, but also like France, it cannot easily do without “the free world,” because the enemies of freedom are its own enemies, too. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has indeed opened up new fault lines that prompt clear strategic choices. India—and other nations far away from Ukraine but falling under China’s shadow—will have to make choices in their own interest that they have so far preferred to evade. At the UN, one of India’s pieties was that the developments in Ukraine “had the potential to undermine peace and security in the region.” It is becoming increasingly clear that they also have the potential to undermine India’s own peace and security—in the region and beyond.

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  • SHASHI THAROOR is is an opposition member of India’s Parliament, a former Undersecretary General of the United Nations, who has served as Minister of the Government of India and Chair of the Indian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
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