It’s not just China: India is tiptoeing around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine too. Here’s why

March 2, 2022, 11:30 AM UTC

The United States and its Western allies have unleashed unprecedented sanctions against Moscow and President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, cutting the nation off from the outside world and condemning the assault as an unprovoked war. But other nations have issued far more muddled responses to the crisis. China, which finally called the conflict a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on Tuesday, is one. India is another.

India abstained from a vote in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Monday that called for a special emergency session of the UN General Assembly to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The move marked the second time in as many days that India declined to vote to condemn Russia’s aggression.

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last week, the South Asian nation has failed even to cite Russia by name. Instead, India has said that dialogue is the only answer to settling disputes and that “it is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up.”

India’s stance so far has disappointed Western allies. India is a member of the Quad, an informal security bloc that includes the U.S., Australia, and Japan, but analysts say New Delhi’s long-standing dependence on Moscow for military equipment has left it little room to confront Russia.

“I don’t think we are in a position to be seen doing something that could annoy the Russians,” says Yashwant Deshmukh, a political commentator and analyst. “It’s not about what is right or wrong.” 

The U.S. is India’s largest trade partner, and New Delhi has stepped up weapons purchases from the U.S. and European nations like France in the past two decades, but the majority of India’s military hardware is of Russian origin.

Nearly 70% of India’s air force combat aircraft are of Russian make and design, such as the Sukhoi 30 MKI fighter jet. The majority of India’s army tanks are Russian-made T-72s and T-90s. Several of India’s naval frigate warships, too, are Russian-made, as is the country’s sole aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya.

In 1961, India and Russia signed a pact to produce MiG-21 fighter planes, which for decades accounted for the bulk of India’s air force fleet. New Delhi leased its first nuclear-powered submarine from Russia in 1988, and Russia helped India build nuclear submarines, a technology New Delhi had a hard time obtaining elsewhere. 

After 1991, when New Delhi turned away from socialism and began opening its economy to outside trade and investment, the country’s relationship with Western powers bloomed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely accelerate New Delhi’s effort to wean itself from Russian arms.

Indeed, the U.S., France, and Israel now compete with Russia for the position of India’s top arms supplier. In 2016, India signed a deal with France and Dassault Aviation to buy 36 Rafale fighter planes and had imported 35 of the aircraft as of last month. India contracted to buy 22 Apache helicopters and 15 Chinook helicopters from the U.S.’s Boeing in September 2015 and had received both shipments by 2020. India also signed a $4.1 billion contract with Boeing for C-17 planes. The Indian air force already has 11 of them, making it the largest operator of the aircraft outside the U.S. The Indian air force last September launched its Barak 8 air defense systems, which it developed alongside Israel.

Still, New Delhi is wary of jeopardizing its arms relationship with Russia because of the threats that loom across India’s own border: an increasingly aggressive China and hostility in Pakistan and Afghanistan that has surged since U.S. troops left Afghanistan last year. Case in point: The Indian air force says it needs 42 aircraft squadrons to protect the country from simultaneous attacks from Pakistan and China, but it only has 32.

New Delhi could reduce its military imports from Russia by up to 15% in the next decade by boosting local manufacturing and buying more from Western nations, says Ashok Mehta, a retired lieutenant general in the Indian army and an independent defense analyst. India’s state-run Hindustan Aeronautics is making Tejas fighter aircraft to replace the MiG-21s for the Indian air force. India makes a battle tank called Arjun, ballistic missiles called Agni, and rifles called INSAS, but it lacks the technical prowess to produce advanced weapons systems. 

A more comprehensive shift away from Russia would also be tricky since India has already entered into so many joint ventures with Moscow. India and Russia signed a deal last December to jointly produce 600,000 AK-203 assault rifles in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and inked a 10-year defense cooperation pact.

New Delhi even signed a deal for S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia, despite the risk of sanctions from the U.S. Based on a 2017 law, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Turkey and China for taking delivery of the Russian-made weapons, but New Delhi considers them a critical deterrent to Beijing.

In the past, India’s arms alliance with Russia had few critics, but now Indian politicians are split over the country’s middle-of-the-road position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Members of the main opposition Congress Party have slammed the ruling BJP for not taking a tougher stance against Moscow. 

“India should unequivocally condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine in unambiguous terms. There comes a time when you need to tell ‘friends’ they can’t indulge in regime change,” Manish Tewari, a member of the Congress Party and former minister for information and broadcasting, tweeted.

New Delhi will have to reevaluate its military ties with Moscow not just on principle but because Russia signed a new cooperation agreement with India’s rival China in February. 

“After Russia’s invasion, [Russia] has become completely isolated from the rest of the world, and its dependency on China will increase,” says Mehta. “That is not a very good thing for India.”

Indian and Chinese troops clashed at their shared border in the Himalayas last summer, and since then relations between the two nations have remained frosty. 

“One other reason why India should rethink its position with Russia is because it [Moscow] is increasingly flirting with Pakistan,” Mehta says.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan went to Moscow to meet Putin on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India and Pakistan have fought three wars and were engaged in a conflict in the mid-1990s over the Himalayan region of Kargil.  

“If we were not so reliant on the Russians, [India] would have become the 12th country in the world to support the UN resolution,” says Mehta. 

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