Art school students display their work calling for peace on February 21 in Mumbai, India. While many oppose the war in Ukraine, a large chunk of Indians favour Russia over the United States and the broader West. Photo: AP
Shairee Malhotra
Shairee Malhotra

India’s neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bolstered by mixed feelings towards the West

  • Mistrust of Washington is a remnant of the Cold War era and Western coercion only rubs Indians the wrong way
  • The threat of sanctions against a developing country ravaged by the pandemic comes across as insensitive
Recent days saw a flurry of diplomatic traffic to New Delhi from across the globe to urge India to shift its neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India’s position has garnered it some disfavour with its Western partners, particularly the United States and Europe.
The tipping point, though, is India’s increase in discounted Russian oil imports – at least 13 million barrels since the war began – amid Western sanctions and a spike in global crude prices.

During his trip to New Delhi, US deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh warned of “consequences” for countries circumventing Western sanctions. The entire readout of Singh’s comments was more nuanced, but headlines in India’s sensationalist media emphasised the US warnings. Signals from British foreign minister Liz Truss and German national security adviser Jens Plotner have also been mixed.

While consultations continue at the government level, the damage to broader Indian public opinion seems to be done.


Why India is walking a diplomatic tightrope over Ukraine-Russia crisis

Why India is walking a diplomatic tightrope over Ukraine-Russia crisis

While many oppose the war, a large chunk of Indians favour Russia over the United States and the broader West. Through sections of India’s right as well as left-leaning Twitterati plus India’s pro-BJP media, strong strains of anti-Western pro-Russian sentiment can be observed, with #IStandWithPutin hashtags trending.

And yet, India’s ties with the US have deepened substantially. Despite strong opposition from Russia, India joined the Quad, emerging as a key Western partner to balance Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, India’s relations with Russia are narrowing. Even though Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier, Russian defence imports fell from 69 per cent in 2012-2017 to 46 per cent in 2017-2021. Russia has also deepened its relationships with India’s rivals, China and Pakistan. Annual India-US trade is over US$120 billion, compared to India-Russia trade of US$8 billion.

Several factors explain the puzzling anti-Western pro-Russian sentiment in India despite the country’s steadily progressing ties with the West.

For New Delhi, a mistrust of Washington is a remnant of the Cold War era, when the US allied with Pakistan. Moscow, with its steady political support at the United Nations on the Kashmir issue, was considered a reliable ally, compared to a transactional West. Nostalgia for the India-Russia relationship has even led some right-wing groups like the Hindu Sena to hold a march in Russia’s support.

Indian soldiers standing in Russian-made T-90 tanks salute during a ceremony to celebrate India’s 73rd Army Day in New Delhi on January 15. Even though Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier, Russian defence imports have been falling. Photo: AFP
Another issue is the question of oil imports – the European Union increased its Russian oil and gas imports by 15 per cent in March, while coaxing India to stop buying the same. But despite being the world’s second largest importer of oil, Russia accounts for barely 2 per cent of India’s oil imports. What’s more, India has already curbed its oil imports from Iran and Venezuela due to US sanctions.
Besides, India never supported unilateral sanctions, which it has its own uncomfortable history with – the US sanctioned India after its nuclear tests in 1998, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself was barred from visiting the US and Britain for his alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Now, the insensitive West threatens secondary sanctions on developing nations like India, whose people have nothing to do with this war and are recovering from a ravaging pandemic.

Members of the Congress party stage a protest in front of an Indian Oil petrol station over the rise in fuel and liquefied petroleum gas prices in Chennai on March 31. India has come under Western scrutiny for its purchase of discounted Russian oil. Photo: AFP
For Europeans, war on the continent is an existential threat, but India has different threat perceptions. Like the 35 nations, comprising almost half the world’s population, that abstained from condemning Russia in early March, Indians do not view this war as their war. Rather, India is facing its own battles with an aggressive nuclear-armed China-Pakistan axis on its borders.
Yet, despite Islamabad’s history of state-sponsored terrorism in India, Washington and Brussels continued granting Pakistan foreign aid and Generalised Scheme of Preferences+ status. Moreover, the US’ reckless exit from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban have cost Washington its credibility and hampered Indian interests in the region.
Western coercion only rubs Indians the wrong way. “Strategic autonomy”, whereby India pursues an independent path based on its national interests, is the cornerstone of Indian foreign policy. This postcolonial state of 1.3 billion people is averse to others publicly dictating its choices, issuing ultimatums and trying to treat it as a satellite state. These dampen positive engagement, dilute empathy for Ukraine and instead push Indians into reflexive positions.
Other ideological reasons for Indian support of Russia include admiration for strongmen like Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin and their centralised governance. Also, criticism from the US’ liberal media of the alleged erosion of Indian democracy and the rise of Hindu nationalism has upset India’s once pro-American pro-Trump right wing.

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Instead, the themes of ethno-nationalism that underpin Russia’s invasion resonate with parts of India’s right wing, who espouse fantasies of an Akhand Bharat – a geopolitical concept that envisions the whole subcontinent as part of a single Indian nation.
People also see through the West’s hypocritical tendency to claim the moral high ground despite its history of colonialism and its illegal invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations. Combine this with racist commentary in the Western press, including Prince William’s normalisation of bloodshed in Asia and Africa, and racially motivated treatment of refugees.

Ultimately, Edward Luce argues in Financial Times, the West is rash “to mistake a local consensus on Russian aggression as a global one”. In today’s more multipolar world, the US’ previous “with us or against us” approach has less chances of working.

Shairee Malhotra is a foreign affairs analyst who has worked with the European External Action Service, the official foreign policy arm of the European Union, and with think tanks in Mumbai and Brussels