Milan Vaishnav on India’s Response to the Russia-Ukraine War

Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior. He is the author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (Yale University Press and HarperCollins India, 2017), which was awarded the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay New India Foundation book prize for the best non-fiction book on contemporary India published in 2017. He is also co-editor (with Devesh Kapur) of Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India (Oxford University Press, 2018) and (with Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur) of Rethinking Public Institutions in India (Oxford University Press, 2017). His work has been published in scholarly journals such as Asian Survey, Governance, India Review, India Policy Forum, Studies in Indian Politics, and PS: Political Science and Politics. He is a regular contributor to several Indian publications. Previously, he worked at the Center for Global Development, where he served as a postdoctoral research fellow, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He is an adjunct professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and has previously taught at Columbia and George Washington Universities. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.
Grace Hickey CMC '22 interviewed Dr. Milan Vaishnav on March 10, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Milan Vaishnav.

As of yet, India has not explicitly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine or backed sanctions against Russia. Additionally, India has also thus far abstained from UN Security Council votes on the war, instead claiming that the two sides should engage in further talks. Why is it remaining neutral? Do you expect India will be able to maintain this balancing act without antagonizing either Russia or the West? 

India's stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is shaped by two important factors. The first is the history of the relationship. The second is India's deep reliance on Russia for military and defense hardware. 

Let’s start with the first factor: the history of the relationship. India has had a long partnership with first the Soviet Union and then Russia, dating back to the immediate post-independence period. Many important powers have shifted their alignments in Eurasia. The U.S. and China have both changed their positions on numerous occasions. Yet, the close ties between India and Russia have been relatively constant. At various points in time, Russia has come to India's aid, whether that was in India’s 1962 war with China, India’s 1971 war with Pakistan, or various points during the Cold War. On the other hand, India has often backed Russian positions, including most recently not condemning its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Generally, there’s a feeling of warmth between the two nations and leaders of the two countries. 

The second factor is the defense relationship. A 2021 study by the Stimson Center estimated that the share of major Russian systems in India's Armed Forces stands around 85%. If you look at the past few decades, you will see that Russia accounts for somewhere between 55 and 65% of India's annual arms imports. As a result, it is not so simple for India to simply condemn Russia and pivot towards other defense suppliers. Even if India were to put a stop to all future Russian purchases, it would take a very long time before the overall defense pipeline was diversified, given how much path dependency there is the system. Those are two of the major factors that are responsible for India's dedicated neutral stance.

The Indians are trying to walk a very fine line. They are clearly not happy with Russia's actions in Ukraine. Even though they have abstained from major UN Security Council votes condemning Russia, they have issued very detailed explanations of those votes, which make clear that they are not happy with what Moscow has done. They have also taken the step of sending humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and Prime Minister Modi has spoken with President Zelensky of Ukraine. 

India is trying to please all sides here. The sustainability of that position ultimately hinges on how the invasion plays out. If this is a very long, protracted invasion that gets increasingly brutal and bloody, and we see the civilian death toll rise, there is going to be a lot of pressure on the government to change its position. The most critical factor here is not outside pressure, but domestic public opinion. You will start to see people in India grow increasingly alarmed by the Indian government’s silence. For now, India does not plan to deviate far from its line.

Given Russia is India’s most significant arms supplier, how will economic sanctions on Russia impact the supply of military materials from Russia to India, and how will that influence India’s defense readiness?

The sanctions on Russia and on the Russian arms industry are going to create a number of complications for India's defense readiness. India is already talking to Russia about workarounds for the sanctions. In the past they have reverted to what they call the rupee-ruble trade. Rather than denominating transactions in dollars, they will be in non-dollar denominated payments, which gets around some of the harshest sanctions. However, if you look at the fall of the ruble and all of the pressure that Russian banks are under, India may have to resort to a barter system. Basically, they would buy arms in exchange for agricultural products. They would actually not be paying cash, but goods in kind. 

Even if they were to solve the financial part of the transaction, which is very complicated, there is the additional issue of delays. Sanctions on Russian defense companies could lead to cost overruns, manufacturers facing bankruptcy, and supply chain disruptions. 

In theory, India has a policy of reducing its reliance on foreign arms imports. The problem is that India's domestic defense industry is quite nascent. The government does not spend nearly enough on things like research and development in the defense sector for that to be a viable option in the short run. The government is really stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Should the United States continue to pressure India to condemn Russia? What steps should the U.S. take if India refuses to do so?

The US should continue to pressure India. That pressure should primarily be applied in private, rather than public. The danger is that if you really ratchet up the public rhetoric, you back the Indian government into a corner. Then it's a matter of saving face. The Modi government could dig in, and pressure could actually backfire. This is where behind the scenes diplomacy is probably the first resort. 

If India does not back down from its position, the US government does have some options. One is putting together a framework for India to move away from a dependency on Russian equipment. That could include talks about systems that the United States or its allies would sell to India or joint collaboration on things like defense research and development. The US could use groups like the Quad, not to instigate discussions about Russia, but to start talks about what this invasion means for the future of Indian cooperation on the Indo-Pacific where China may engage in similar activities.

I don't think that the United States should publicly issue a sanctions threat. That is likely to backfire, and, frankly, there is not a lot of appetite for sanctions within either the executive branch or in the halls of Congress. The US should instead work towards giving India an off-ramp. The best way of doing that is to prove that you can be a reliable alternative supplier of the kinds of material and hardware that they need.

There are currently thousands of Indians trapped in Ukraine, unable to leave. How does this impact India’s decision-making?

The presence of 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine definitely accelerated the response time of the Indian government, especially because the plight of those students had become headline news in India. The images and video were being shown 24/7 on Indian news channels. When Indian students showed up on television and declared they were going to travel on foot to the Russian border, the Indian government immediately issued a response. They worked with Russia, and claimed that Russia had given them a heads-up about where the Indian students should go to avoid being collateral damage in attacks that they were planning. Clearly, there was some back-channel communication there. 

The presence of Indian students in Ukraine definitely played a role in India not wanting to antagonize Russia before they got those students out. Now that the students are largely home, it gives India a little bit more flexibility to operate. For any country, the first priority always has to be the safety of its citizens. Now that most Indian citizens are gone, the playing field changes somewhat.

Do you see domestic popular opinion in India leaning for or against condemning Russia? Do you expect popular opinion about the war to alter the Indian government’s position?

There has been a lot of speculation about this, but we don't have a lot of hard data. My own sense is that domestic popular opinion actually leads towards condemning Russia. The videos of the stranded Indian students and the brazenness of the invasion have contributed to that. Interestingly, in my view, elite opinion is actually much more mixed. Within the foreign policy and political establishments, there are people with decades-long ties to Russia. Top Indian leaders have strong connections with their Russian counterparts, both current and former. It is hard to move past those personal connections sometimes. 

If we see a shift in this position, it will largely be because popular opinion about the war has become louder and more intense. That’s something that could start to change the. 

Another reason elite opinion remains mixed is that there are a lot of people in India who are very skeptical of the United States. They feel burned by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and they feel like they were betrayed by the US war in Iraq and the false intelligence that led up to those events. They also feel let down by the volatility of the Trump administration. Many are questioning the reliability of the US as a partner, and that contributes to the Indian stance.

Like India, China has also not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, China has become an important strategic partner for Russia over multiple years under Presidents Xi and Putin’s leadership. How concerned is India about Russia and China’s rapprochement and support for each other’s geopolitical interests?  

India is very concerned about Russia-China ties. It is an important factor preventing them from coming down harshly on Russia, because they are worried that doing so could potentially push Russia further into China's arms. Public opinion in India on China is at the lowest point in six decades, since the two countries fought a war in 1962. Chinese aggression in the contested border areas has really penetrated downwards across Indian society. 

India wants to be very careful that it doesn't do something that is going to push Russia and China closer together. Russia is already working closely with Pakistan. So, they fear an encirclement if the India-Russia relationship goes badly. Even before the Ukraine invasion, there were signs of growing proximity between Russia and China, cemented by the ties between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. There are many people in India who believe that Russia delayed its invasion of Ukraine until after the Beijing Olympics. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. But sometimes perception is more important than reality.

Grace Hickey CMC '22Student Journalist, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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