When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Vladimir Putin “today’s era is not of war” last month, the West welcomed his comments as a sign the world’s largest democracy was finally coming off the fence about Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron praised Modi and the White House lauded what it called a “statement of principle.”
But the reality, analysts say, is less straightforward.
Rather than cutting economic ties with the Kremlin, India has undermined Western sanctions by increasing its purchases of Russian oil, coal and fertilizer – giving Putin a vital financial lifeline.
New Delhi has repeatedly abstained from votes condemning Russia at the United Nations – providing Moscow with a veneer of international legitimacy. And in August, India participated in Russia’s large-scale Vostok military exercises alongside China, Belarus, Mongolia and Tajikistan – where Moscow paraded its vast arsenal.
Last week, India abstained from another UN draft resolution condemning Russia over its sham referendums in four regions of Ukraine, which have been used as a pretext by Moscow to illegally annex Ukrainian territory – significantly upping the stakes in the war.
India is “deeply disturbed” by the developments in Ukraine, said Ruchira Kamboj, New Delhi’s permanent representative to the UN, but stopped short of attributing blame and urged an “immediate ceasefire and resolution of the conflict.”
This apparent contradiction exemplifies India’s unique position on the war: verbally distancing itself from Russia, while continuing to maintain pivotal ties with Moscow.
Modi’s “stronger language to Putin” should be seen in the context of rising food, fuel and fertilizer prices, and the “hardships that was creating for other countries,” said Deepa Ollapally, research professor and director of the Rising Powers Initiative at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.
“There’s a certain level of impatience (for India) with the intensification of the war,” she said. “There’s a feeling that Putin is pushing India’s limits because in some ways, it’s put itself out on a limb. And it’s not a comfortable position for India to be in.”
‘A tale of two Indias’
As Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border in December last year, Modi welcomed Putin in New Delhi during the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit.
“My dear friend, President Vladimir Putin,” Modi said, “your attachment with India and your personal commitment symbolize the importance of India-Russia relations and I am very grateful to you for that.”
New Delhi has strong ties with Moscow dating back to the Cold War, and India remains heavily reliant on the Kremlin for military equipment – a vital link given India’s ongoing tensions at its shared Himalayan border with an increasingly assertive China.
But according to analysts, India is concerned that Putin’s increasing isolation could draw Moscow closer to Beijing – and that requires India to tread carefully.
New Delhi’s contorted maneuvering in its stance on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was on show when, alongside China, it took part in Russia’s Vostok military exercises – a move attacked by its Western partners.
“This can be seen as a tale of two Indias,” said Ollapally. “On the one hand, they are pushing back against China and then exercising along with China and Russia, giving Russia a certain amount of legitimacy.”
Superficially at least, India and China also appear to have similar positions on the Ukraine war. Both have positioned themselves as neutral onlookers rather than vocal opponents. Both have also called for peace – but refused to condemn the invasion outright.
But that’s where the similarities appear to end, analysts say.
China has decried Western sanctions and repeatedly blamed the United States and NATO for the conflict, parroting Russia’s view that NATO precipitated the crisis by expanding eastwards. Chinese state media has also amplified Russian talking points and disinformation. India on the other hand has steered clear of criticizing NATO and has used stronger language to call for peace as the war intensifies.
But despite India’s increasing closeness with the West, it is prioritizing the dangers in its own backyard, analysts say.
“China remains the big threat on India’s borders and India would not want the Russia-China alliance to become very strong,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “That is not in India’s interest.”
US President Joe Biden has, since the start of Russia’s aggression, used Putin’s war to bolster his global campaign for democracy.
“Ukraine and its people are on the front lines fighting to save their nation,” he said during a speech in March. “And their brave resistance is part of a larger fight for an essential democratic principles that unite all free people.”
While New Delhi’s ties with the West have been growing ever closer since Modi’s election in 2014, India, the world’s largest democracy of 1.3 billion, isn’t thinking along the same lines as the US.
For years after its independence, India’s international relations were defined by its policy of non-alignment, the Cold War era stance that avoided siding with either the US or the Soviet Union.
Despite India’s contemporary alliance with the West, and pressure from the US to take a stronger stand, that policy is continuing to play out, analysts say.
And according to Singh, India’s actions “have been to protect its own self interests.”
Speaking on the sidelines during a face-to-face meeting with Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last month, Modi said the world was facing challenges, including food and energy shortages, that were particularly affecting developing countries.
“I know that today’s era is not of war and we have talked to you many times over the phone on the subject that democracy and diplomacy and dialogue are all these things that touch the world,” Modi told Putin.
And under Modi’s government – which has been decried for a clampdown on free speech and discriminatory policies toward minority groups – India risks being called hypocritical for doing so, according to Singh.
“India has been very hesitant to raise issues about democracy because it has been called out again and again for its authoritarian nature and anti-democratic acts against religious minorities,” Singh said.
But while Ollapally said what India was doing is “understandable” as a developing nation, New Delhi could do more to uphold democratic principles outlined in the preamble to the country’s constitution.
“I think there is certainly more that (India) could do on that front, at least in its statements, because it really doesn’t have that much to lose by making those statements,” she said.