When Russia began its unprovoked invasion of its democratic neighbor Ukraine last week, the initial response from the world’s largest democracy was silence. The government of India has been reluctant to condemn the invasion in the same language as other countries and international bodies. When the U.N. Security Council considered a resolution condemning Russia’s actions—a symbolic measure that Russia was sure to veto—India’s representative said his delegation was “disturbed by developments in Ukraine” but abstained from voting for or against the resolution.
Despite recent strengthening of the U.S.-India relationship, India has a long history with Russia (and the Soviet Union before that) and remains dependent on Russia for much of it’s defense equipment. Modern India was set up by a strong socialist, Jawaharlal Nehru, and had Soviet-like five-year plans for most of its history. Although Prime Minister Nehru cofounded the Non-Aligned Movement, he generally found himself on the side of the Soviets—as did most subsequent Indian governments. In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR and India’s acceptance of free markets under Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, India started to shift toward a more pro-Western outlook. The U.S.-India relationship has grown stronger in the last two decades, especially with the 2005 nuclear deal, significant growth in foreign direct investment, defense and trade agreements, and joint military exercises.
Yet India has managed also to remain fairly close to Russia for much of this time, especially in the defense arena. Even today, more than half of India’s defense equipment, spread across its navy, air force, and army, is of Russian origin. Indeed, one of the reasons India is loath to get involved in the discussions about the invasion of Ukraine is that India worries about further Chinese incursions on the border and doesn’t want to be left without military supplies. So even as India has grown closer to the United States, its relationship with Russia has remained in good shape, with Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi announcing a ten-year defense pact just this past December in only the second foreign trip by the Russian president since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet less than a month later, Putin, on a third foreign trip, signed a joint statement with China’s Xi Jinping saying that “friendship between the two States [i.e., Russia and China] has no limits” and that the “new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era.” The strengthened Russia-China ties are already paying dividends for Putin, with the Chinese government offering support for the Ukraine invasion, no doubt with the expectation that China will receive similar support should Beijing choose to pursue military action against Taiwan. The Russia-India defense language is strong but the Russia-China language is significantly stronger.
Which raises the question: Next time India and China clash around the border regions, where will Russia come down?
In addition to China, Russia is pulling closer to another of India’s adversaries: Pakistan. During a 2020 visit from the Indian defense minister to Moscow, Russia’s defense minister pledged to not supply arms to Pakistan. But during a 2021 visit to Islamabad, the Russian foreign minister said that Russia and Pakistan will strengthen ties in the fight against terrorism and that Russia would provide military equipment and participate in joint exercises. Additionally, the two countries are collaborating on the Pakistan Stream gas project oil pipeline from Karachi to eastern Lahore.
All of this is to say that Russia has moved closer to Pakistan, which creates an opportunity for the United States to tighten its bonds of alliance with India. The United States could and should be doing more to dislodge the chokehold Russia has on Indian defense spending.
India may not have adopted a uniformly pro-Western policy but it is moving in that direction. India’s explanation of its vote at the U.N. offers no defense of Russia—indeed, identical reasoning could be offered as a defense of a vote in support of Ukraine. And more generally, the fact that India didn’t vote in favor of its main arms supplier is fairly significant. India has been pushed toward the United States in other contexts but it is possible that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will push the world’s two biggest democracies still closer.