As much of the Western world has united to punish Russia over its unilateral invasion of Ukraine, India has recently come under the spotlight for refusing to formally condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions. Over the last several weeks, New Delhi has received high-level envoys from countries across the global political spectrum: Russia and China, for example, but also Austria, Germany, Mexico, Britain, the United States, and more. The spate of diplomatic activity is ostensibly aimed at trying to influence New Delhi's stance.
India has been growing closer to the United States over the last two decades. This week, for example, its defense and foreign ministers are in Washington to meet their counterparts as part of a long-running dialogue between the two countries. But India also has a historic relationship with Russia going back to the days of the Soviet Union and to this day relies on Moscow for military weaponry and spare parts. India is also now purchasing Russian oil at steep discounts on global prices—an unpopular arrangement in global circles but perhaps a necessary bit of business given how much India relies on foreign sources of energy.
As Russia's human rights atrocities in Ukraine come to light, will India come under more pressure to adapt its studied neutrality?
To understand New Delhi's stance and the pressures it faces, I spoke with Shivshankar Menon, India's former national security advisor and former foreign secretary, and Suhasini Haidar, the national and diplomatic affairs editor of the Hindu.
The following conversation was conducted for FP Live, Foreign Policy's forum for live journalism, on Friday, April 8. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ravi Agrawal: Ambassador Menon, let's start with you. For many in the West, India appears to be a paradox. On the one hand, it's the world's largest democracy. But here it is, choosing to be in the same category as China and some other non-democracies in not censuring Russia. Can you explain that?
Shivshankar Menon: I think that's really a false dichotomy. If you look at those who abstained [on resolutions condemning Russia] in the U.N. General Assembly or who have not signed on to the West's economic sanctions, those countries include some large democracies—Brazil, for instance. China's reasons for the stand it's taken, I think, are very different from the Indian reasons. You'll notice when China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited India, there wasn't a joint statement on the Ukraine crisis.
RA: But India seems to be treated a little differently than, say, Brazil or South Africa. In recent weeks, you've had a convoy of foreign leaders come to New Delhi. India's foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, called it a campaign to try to influence India. In as much as it may be a false dichotomy, as you call it, there is surprise in the West over why India has maintained a studied neutrality. Is India frustrated by that surprise?
SM: I'm not sure that we should be frustrated. If anything, I think we should be flattered that people think it worthwhile to come and talk to us at a moment of crisis. When we pose it as a question of norms and principles, or as autocracies versus democracies, I think it's a framing which actually gets in the way of peacefully resolving and finding a better situation than the one that we have. We need to be looking at outcomes here rather than who was right and wrong.
RA: Suhasini, do you get the sense that India's stance is evolving? Given the revelations about the atrocities in Bucha, for example, do you imagine that that might move the needle in terms of potential pressure on the government to change its response?
Suhasini Haidar: Well, I certainly don't think the government is under public pressure when it comes to its stand on Russia. If anything, I think we've seen a lot of support for different reasons. Some are just supporters of the government, so they would go along with whatever the government does. Some are still very wedded to the idea of a historic, traditional partnership with Russia. Russia has come to India's aid in the international sphere and has protected India.
I don't think the needle is moving, if you go by the evidence of New Delhi's votes at the United Nations. The truth is that the government is not changing its position. [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov held a press conference in New Delhi and spoke very clearly about what India and Russia were doing together in terms of business. He even had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who didn't meet any of the other envoys from other countries. I think that speaks for itself.
RA: Western critiques of India's policies aren't as much strategic ones as they are moral arguments. Does that not matter for India?
SH: Moral discussions tend to produce moral counters. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar was asked why India was increasing its oil intake from Russia. In the past month, we bought practically as much as we bought from Russia in all of 2021. His response was very clear, and he said it on stage with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. He said the people who are asking us to cut off purchases of oil from Russia, such as European countries, are also continuing to buy oil from Russia. I think if you put all these moral reasons aside, there are very solid reasons why the Modi government feels that it's not just about traditional ties with Russia, but it feels very much that it is in its own interest in the future to keep, maintain, and stabilize our engagement with Russia.
RA: Suhasini, there have been so many crucial moments when Russia came to India's aid. And of course, there's the military relationship. How much do Moscow's historic ties with New Delhi play into some of India's decision-making as it looks to explain its stance on the world stage?
SH: I think this government in particular feels a comfort level with Russia, which it does not want to give up. 60 percent of India's defense hardware, 85 percent of India's spares, and practically all of India's transfer of technology hardware are coming from Russia.
Regardless of India's civil nuclear deal with the United States, it is only Russia that runs nuclear power plants in India. When it comes to oil investment, Indian firms have about $16 billion in oil investments in Russia. Russia owns an entire refinery on the Indian West Coast.
There is also an emergence of a new financial world. Not everybody is joining the sanctions regime. So if there is going to be a non-dollar and dollar-denominated world, India is going to keep its options open.
On the other side, we live in hyper-nationalist, majoritarian times; populist governments around the world are working in very similar ways. They are increasingly autocratic and tending toward protectionist policies. Whenever New Delhi has passed controversial policies—the Citizenship Amendment Act, the new farmer's bill, the revocation of Kashmir's autonomy—India has gotten flak from the United States and Europe. But not Russia.
RA: Robert Blackwill, the former US ambassador to India, wrote in to ask: Will the current disagreement between India and the United States over Ukraine have a long-term negative impact on the bilateral relationship?
SM: I think we both need each other, and frankly, I think the India-US relationship is much more robust than people seem to give it credit for. It's not going to be determined by what happens in Ukraine. This is a relationship that has survived pretty drastic changes of government in both countries.
And that's because the relationship is based on a congruence of interests. We like to stress common principles and democratic values, but it's the solid basis of common interests that we have continuously built up that drives the relationship.
Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement