Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 2022
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 2022
Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

India’s initial reluctance to condemn Russia for its war against Ukraine has been the subject of much debate and criticism in the West. In mid-March, Jen Psaki, then the White House press secretary, urged India to reflect on “where you want to stand when history books are written at this moment in time.” Numerous world leaders and diplomats have expressed impatience with India for effectively abetting a Russian agenda by remaining on the side-lines.

Some analysts and former policymakers in strategic circles in New Delhi insist that such a reproach is unfair and fails to appreciate India’s nuanced position on the war. India, they argue, is merely navigating between clashing geopolitical powers, Russia and the United States, that happen to be two of its major partners. Yes, India notably abstained from key votes about the war in Ukraine in the United Nations (in the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, and the International Atomic Energy Agency). But it has also toughened its statements about the invasion, decrying the killing of civilians and the violation of national sovereignty. New Delhi has its own concerns, this line of thinking runs, and doesn’t want to jeopardize its relations with either Moscow or Washington.

A deeper look at Indian actions, however, suggests an altogether different reality. India is not backing Russia’s invasion, nor is it simply balancing between two major powers. Instead, a subtle but major shift is underway: India’s slow but inevitable decoupling from Russia.

Such a reorientation began before the invasion of Ukraine, but the war has accelerated it. Although Russia remains for now an important source of both military equipment and energy, New Delhi is slowly extracting itself from any dependence on Moscow. Deeply entrenched anti-Americanism, a staple of India’s old strategic elite, is disappearing, and India and United States are now closer than ever before. Russia’s ties to China have grown stronger just as India and China’s relationship has become rocky; border clashes in 2020 left India’s government and strategic community viewing China as an existential challenge to Indian national security.

The contours of a future geopolitical framework are clear, with India drifting closer to the West and the U.S. to hedge against China and, in the process, withdrawing from its long partnership with Russia. This decoupling will not happen overnight, and Indian and Russian officials will make concerted efforts to keep the relationship afloat, perhaps for years to come. But larger geopolitical pressures will invariably drive India and Russia apart.

THE TIES THAT DON’T BIND

India’s decision to ramp up its purchases of Russian oil since the invasion of Ukraine has piqued many Western commentators. In February, just before the war began, India’s purchases of Russian oil were negligible; by April, they had risen to 389,000 barrels a day, and in June the figure reached the one-million mark. But the boost in oil imports is largely opportunistic. Russia has offered India deep discounts, much as it has other willing buyers. In May, for instance, buying Russian oil saved India $16 per barrel over the average oil import price for that month. The injection of Russian oil has helped alleviate economic distress resulting from the lingering aftermath of the pandemic and the rise in retail prices driven by the war in Ukraine. Indian officials bristle at criticism about these purchases, especially considering that most European countries have continued to buy at least some Russian gas—and have been reluctant to stop doing so.

In other important areas, however, great change is afoot. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia was India’s largest supplier of arms in the last decade. But from 2012 to 2021, the share of Russian weapons in India’s arsenal shrunk by nearly half. Over the years, India has been attempting to diversify its defense procurement, turning to alternate suppliers, including France and the United States. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, New Delhi deferred its plans for more military purchases from Moscow, including a deal for 21 new MiG-29 fighter jets for the Indian Air Force. Indian officials claimed to have made the move to support domestic production, but the country is clearly slowing its rate of arms purchases from Russia. The protracted nature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has also raised concerns in New Delhi about Russia’s military production capabilities. In particular, India worries that Russia won’t be able to follow through on scheduled deliveries of new hardware and spare parts for older equipment, especially in emergency situations.

At the level of public diplomacy, India is also sending important signals. The contrast between New Delhi’s official statements during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year further demonstrates India’s tilt away from Russia. In 2014, there was little condemnation of Russia’s attack. In fact, Shivshankar Menon, then national security adviser, insisted that “there are, after all, legitimate Russian and other interests involved.” However, the phrase “legitimate Russian interests” is notably absent from recent Indian statements. Although Indian officials have not named or condemned Russia, their statements from March onward have been indirectly yet undeniably critical of Russian actions. Their continuous references to respect for international law, the UN Charter, and the principles of territorial integrity and the sovereignty of states suggest that India does not in fact consider Russia’s invasion legitimate.

India’s overtures to the West in the last year have been highly consequential.

India’s discomfort with Russia’s shelling of civilians in Ukraine is evident from its official statements; in June, India “unequivocally condemned the killing of civilians in Bucha and supported the call for an independent investigation.” New Delhi further suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin enter direct talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, stating that “there will be no winning party in this war, everyone will suffer.” In official statements, India has also criticized Russia for putting the developing world’s food and economic security at risk.

In August, India voted against Russia for the first time on the issue of Ukraine, favoring a move to invite Zelensky to address the Security Council via video. Most recently, during the September summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi openly expressed displeasure with Russia when he told Putin that “today’s era is not the era for war.” New Delhi may not have taken a formal position on the invasion, but its statements seem to convey growing disapproval. 

Just as its rhetoric and public messaging about Russia have stiffened, India has also sought to strengthen ties with Western states. Although New Delhi hosted the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in April and Modi had a phone conversation with Putin in July, India’s overtures to the West in the last year have been more frequent and far more consequential.

Since March, Modi has hosted Boris Johnson, then the British prime minister; Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president; and Kishida Fumio, Japan’s prime minister, in New Delhi. He attended the G­–7 summit in Germany with U.S. and European leaders in June and the summit of the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (an Indo-Pacific partnership grouping Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), in Japan in May. Such high-profile meetings with key world leaders, taking place as the war in Ukraine raged on, have allowed for meaningful discussion of crucial issues, especially at a time when the UN has been found severely wanting. This diplomacy shows quite clearly that as India’s ties with Russia remain practically frozen, its engagement with the West (including the United States) has intensified since the onset of the war.

DRIFTING APART

India’s slow but steady decoupling from Russia does not come as a surprise to close observers of the relationship. Despite a long history of friendship and a great deal of cooperation dating back to the Cold War era, the two are no longer natural partners. India and Russia are moving away from each other not because they want to but because they cannot help but do so.

Today, there is little that connects the two countries. India has limited incentive to remain closely tethered to Russia, outside of the legacy relationship based on their now-shrinking defense trade. In 2021, trade between India and Russia was worth around $13 billion. Fewer than 30,000 Indians live in Russia, and fewer Indians speak Russian than did during the peak of Soviet-India friendship during the Cold War. By comparison, India-U.S. trade totaled $157 billion in 2021, and 4.2 million people of Indian origin reside in the United States.

Not only is there little people-to-people contact between India and Russia and minimal trade, but the new generation of India’s strategic community has little interest in Russia. The pool of Russia specialists in India is shrinking. India’s old elite was more supportive of Russia, but younger Indian leaders and thinkers have less reason to be inclined toward Moscow—a process that began at the end of the Cold War and is even more pronounced today. Russia, for more and more Indians, is a friend whose utility is in terminal decline. When Indians think of their strategic partnerships, Russia is referred to in the past tense, and the United States in the future.

India and Russia are no longer natural partners.

India’s dependence on Russia will continue to wane over time as it leans on alternate military suppliers such as France, Israel, and the United States. Even though U.S. weapons often come with conditions (unlike Russian or even French weapons sales), growing diplomatic trust between India and the United States is likely to lead to ever closer defense ties and burgeoning purchase agreements.

One crucial area where Russia was useful to India was at the UN Security Council, where it often assisted India in opposing the adoption of sanctions or other resolutions. But many analysts and former policymakers in New Delhi today think that France or even the United States could help India pursue its interests at the Security Council. Furthermore, India could grow concerned that China may influence a weakened Russia’s votes on the Security Council. China and Russia are closer than ever, and it is only a matter of time before China begins exerting some influence on the independence of a war-fatigued Russia’s foreign policy. If skirmishes between Indian and Chinese forces recur in the Himalayan borderlands, for instance, China could put pressure on Russia to stop providing diplomatic backing or arms and ammunition to India.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has quickened the evolution of a more definitive realignment, with Russia and China drawing closer and India drifting to the West. Even if Moscow and New Delhi make a serious effort to sustain their relationship, structural constraints such as growing Sino-Russian ties, closer India-US relations, and the increasing geopolitical incompatibility between the two sides are bound to drive a wedge between them.

Still, the Moscow-New Delhi relationship has enough ballast not to sink in the immediate future. Nor will India make a decisive break with Russia anytime soon. The relationship will continue to persist, or flicker on, in an imperfect state and with diminishing returns for a considerable period of time. As it does, Western commentators must take care to understand India’s subtle movements as more than equivocations. India may not be toeing the line but preparing to jump across it.

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  • HAPPYMON JACOB is an Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
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