With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many have been closely watching India’s stance as a key U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific. India’s response to the invasion has prompted questions about its commitment to international law, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. It has also spurred multiple myths and misconceptions, which negatively influence public perception of India or its role as a U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific.
These narratives play directly into China and Russia’s hand, which seek to drive a wedge between India and the U.S.-led West. As the United States and India head into the fourth 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, it will be important for the U.S. to show an understanding of India’s position without the use of coercion or public warnings, which will only lead to backlash among India’s public and policymakers.
India’s Response: Central Misperceptions
India Supports the Russian Invasion
Perhaps the most central myth, which stems from India’s repeated UN abstentions, is that India has sided with Russia. But the world isn’t binary, and India has long held the position that condemnation does not lead to solutions. Nehru outlined this approach in parliament in 1957 and this remained India’s stance in 2003 following the U.S invasion of Iraq when then Defense Minister George Fernandes stated that there was “no need to antagonize the U.S. by using words like condemn.” Even following the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers at Galwan in June 2020, the Indian government stopped short of condemning China. Its approach to Russia echoes this foreign policy.
These narratives play directly into China and Russia’s hand, which seek to drive a wedge between India and the U.S.-led West.
India also subtly changed its pre-war position from the first UN abstention—where it called for a solution that kept in mind the “legitimate security interests of all countries”—to urging all members to obey the UN Charter, international law, and respect the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” During Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to India, New Delhi noted concern over “global volatility in different domains,” signaling to Russia that its war is hurting.
India termed the horrific killings of civilians in Bucha as “deeply disturbing” and “unequivocally condemned” it, calling for an independent investigation, pointing to Russia without naming it, which was seen as another shift in its position. India once again abstained on the vote to suspend Russia from the UNHRC, even as Moscow threatened to view abstention as an “unfriendly gesture.” While India’s statements try to keep doors open, its actions have aimed to do the right thing—declaring humanitarian support for Ukraine once the conflict broke out with the first shipment within the first week with more to follow. Going by the past, it is likely that India would have very strongly expressed its opposition to the war in private to Russia.
India and China are on the same page and forming a bloc with Russia.
This myth flies in the face of the fact that India-China relations are at their lowest since their 1962 war with an ongoing border conflict that involves over 50,000 soldiers on both sides, tanks, artillery, air defense systems, and other military equipment. This rift may have even widened with Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s blunt statement that the relations are abnormal and India’s refusal to allow Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to meet Prime Minister Modi during his recent visit to India.
Part of this myth stems from what appears to be China’s aim to convey a level of unity, such as Wang Yi calling on China and India to speak with “one voice.” However, contrary to the unified position, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar made it a point to note that he and his counterpart held different views on Ukraine. Beijing has also supported Russia where India has not—publicly condemning NATO expansion and promoting Russian disinformation about Ukraine biolabs.
It makes little strategic sense for India to band together with Russia and China. This author has argued that between the United States and China, the choice is obvious for India. India needs to trade, attract investments, and acquire technologies to achieve its developmental goals. It must play a key role in rebalancing the global supply chain, and the West is critical for this, with which it has over USD $200 billion in trade, its biggest source of Foreign Direct Investment, and supports India’s rise.
China aims to hinder India’s rise so that it can establish hegemony in the region, and Russia is far from the economic and industrial partner that the USSR once was for India. During Lavrov’s visit, India called for economic, technological ties to remain stable and predictable, alluding to India’s concerns over China’s leverage over Russia in denying India critical supplies. For India, China is a long-term threat and Russia—even if the junior partner China—is seen as a balancer.
India’s oil are imports rapidly rising and Rupee-Ruble trade is being used to beat sanctions
There is no embargo on oil and gas from Russia and it is excluded from SWIFT sanctions since Europe relies on it, nor is Rupee-Ruble trade under sanctions or a new thing. While it has been reported that India and Russia have reportedly been exploring a new mechanism for this trade, Rupee-Ruble trade grew fivefold between 2014 and 2019 to nearly 30 percent of India’s trade with Russia.
Nor is India alone in oil imports. Enacting sanctions on oil and gas have been among the most difficult to pass given strong resistance from EU states. Germany has refused to sanction oil, saying that millions of its citizens would be thrust into poverty. Since the war began, the EU has so far imported more than $29 billion in energy supplies from Russia, as compared to the less than $200 million India likely paid for the steeply discounted 3 million barrels that gained attention on social media—less than its daily requirement, something that the United States acknowledges. In 2021, India bought more oil from the United States than its total trade with Russia.
India did not import any oil from Russia in January and February which probably contributed to the misconception that India has increased oil imports from Russia, now that it is at cheaper prices. However, it is essential for policymakers to understand that Russian oil makes up a nominal percentage of India’s oil imports. Among major economies, India is the most dependent on imported fuel, which makes up 32 percent of its total imports, as well as the poorest nation in per capita terms. High fuel prices hurt farmers and the poor the hardest and weaken India’s post-pandemic recovery. There must be appreciation for India’s choices to safeguard its economy.
India is continuing to undermine sanctions efforts by purchasing defense equipment from Russia
Even as India has reduced purchase from Russia over the last decade, almost all its war fighting equipment is of Soviet/Russian origin. This not only forces a dependence for spares, maintenance and upgrades, but also a dilemma for India, owing to China’s leverage over Russia. India is not in a position to anger Russia, nor stop buying weapons overnight and endanger its security. Expecting otherwise immediately is unrealistic and any negative action by the United States will be counterproductive.
India’s commitment to the Quad is shaky
Facts are to the contrary. Amidst an ongoing border crisis with China—which has regularly objected to the Quad and may have acted aggressively in the Himalayas to coerce India to leave the grouping—India attended the first-ever meeting of leaders, establishing a roadmap for the Quad and giving it purpose. India has even rebuffed Russian pressure to leave the Quad.
The Quad serves India’s interests in playing a greater security role in the Indian Ocean, which will give the U.S Navy an opportunity to focus its declining force levels on the Pacific. After years of consideration and opposition from some quarters, India finally signed the logistics and other foundational military agreements with the United States, followed by logistics agreements with Japan and Australia, which has increased interoperability. India regularly conducts naval exercises with its Quad partners and has major investment commitments from Japan and signed a historic trade agreement with Australia. On the contrary to shakiness, India has deeply committed itself to the Quad which serves as a multiplier for its power.
Risks of a Rift in U.S.-India Ties
As the war in Ukraine continues, these narratives could create a rift in U.S.-India ties, the beginnings of which were already visible when the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor warned India of consequences if it undermined sanctions. While the Biden administration had so far shown remarkable understanding as evident from the statements from White House spokesperson, the Pentagon and the State Department, such public warnings are likely to contribute to backlash and poor perceptions of the relationship on both sides.
On the contrary to shakiness, India has deeply committed itself to the Quad which serves as a multiplier for its power.
India and the United States recognize the importance of their relationship, with China as a long-term threat. Both sides must work to hasten the long overdue trade agreement. Meanwhile, slow progress on initiatives like the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative announced over ten years ago may also hinder expanding their defense relationship. It is up to the United States to share critical military technologies and convince India that it is a reliable defense partner that Russia has been for India—something that France is doing. India has shown flexibility and is willing to diversify sources, but its economic and security realities constrain the speed at which it can do this.
Warning of consequences for the choices India makes in its national interests, will reignite old doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a partner and influence India’s decision making on purchasing big ticket items, like fighter jets. Any rift between the two countries will be detrimental in taking on the challenges in the Indo-Pacific, where the key contest of the 21st century will take place.
Image 1: Drew Angerer via Getty Images
Image 2: Bloomberg via Getty Images