Mar 17, 2022 - World

India undermines effort to isolate Russia

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waits for a visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin last December. Photo: T. Narayan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

India's refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and efforts to protect trade with Russia mean one of Washington's most valued strategic partners is actively undercutting its efforts to isolate Moscow.

The big picture: Vladimir Putin's invasion has become a stress test for America's global partnerships. America's treaty allies are all onside, including those outside NATO such as Japan and South Korea. India, for reasons of history and geopolitical pragmatism, is very much not.

Driving the news: India abstained on a series of UN votes condemning the invasion. One such resolution was backed by 141 countries, though a Russian diplomat contended that — with China and India both abstaining — the critics represented less than half of the global population.

  • While the U.S. and EU have led a global push to isolate Russia economically, India has been buying up more Russian energy at a discount.
  • Now, per the Financial Times, India's central bank is discussing a rupee-ruble trade plan with Moscow to ensure it can continue to buy Russian goods, potentially weakening the effects of Western sanctions.

What they're saying: U.S. officials say they understand India's delicate position vis-a-vis Russia, though White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called on India's leaders to "think about where you want to stand when history books are written.”

How countries voted on UN resolution condemning Russia
Data: United Nations; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Between the lines: India's position is informed by decades of cooperation with Russia and the then-Soviet Union, including its disputes with China and Pakistan.

  • Additionally, 70% of India's military arsenal is Russian-made, and New Delhi is counting on Moscow for additional systems and spare parts.
  • Buying Russian oil and weaponry "is India's way of trying to ensure that Russia keeps India's interests in mind," and doesn't shift toward Pakistan or become entirely beholden to China, says Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute. That also helps explain the post-invasion silence from New Delhi.

But calling for peace without picking sides is also India's default approach to global crises, she says.

  • India doesn't want other powers to intervene over Kashmir, and is reluctant to use sanctions because it doesn't want to face sanctions itself.
  • "At its core, Indian foreign policy is very realpolitik," Pande says. For example, "India is a democracy but India doesn't do democracy promotion."
  • India coordinates most closely with the U.S. than any other country, Pande adds. But rather than seeking to bind itself to Washington through a formal alliance, its focus is on balancing relations with multiple global powers, including Russia.

Zoom out: India isn't alone in hedging its bets over Ukraine.

  • Saudi Arabia has been snubbing the Biden administration as it seeks to increase oil production.
  • Israel has condemned the invasion but is also treading lightly to protect its security coordination with Russia in Syria.
  • South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, defending his own neutral stance, went so far Thursday as to blame NATO for the "instability" that led to war.

What to watch: Successive U.S. administrations have made India a centerpiece of their strategies to counter China.

  • But Pande says if China claims territory in the South China Sea or even invades Taiwan, India's response will be much the same as with Ukraine.
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