Dr Ayesha Ray on India’s Attitude Towards the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Ayesha Ray is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at King's College, Pennsylvania, USA (2008-current). Prior to joining King's College, she received a PhD in Political Science from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. While pursuing her doctoral degree, she received a fellowship from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin to complete her doctoral fieldwork in India. She received her Master's in International Relations and her MPhil in Disarmament Studies from the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in 1999 and 2001 respectively. Her research interests focus on civil-military relations, nuclear strategy, and security issues in South Asia. She has published chapters and articles in peer-reviewed books and journals, and her work has been quoted in the Guardian. She also serves on the Executive Council of the Pennsylvania Political Science Association.
Umer Lakhani '25 interviewed Dr. Ayesha Ray on on February 9, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Ayesha Ray.

At the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, what was India's initial position? What was the relationship, if there was one, between India and each country respectively?

After the outbreak of the conflict, India maintained a neutral position, which it has maintained ever since the war began. There really hasn't been any significant shift in India's position. To understand the context, we have to go back to the Cold War period where India had a stronger relationship with the former Soviet Union. Its defense industry is heavily reliant on Russia. Seventy percent of India's military hardware and equipment are of Russian origin. That's what really complicates the relationship to some degree. Even though India says it's maintaining a neutral position, it's not able to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine publicly.

Since the outbreak of the war, India has provided humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Another  issue I would like to emphasize is that India has argued for negotiations between both countries, and wants a cessation of hostilities through dialogue and diplomacy. The only problem here is that Russia is the aggressor state. Calling both countries to compromise and have a dialogue doesn't quite sound like a very reasonable proposition for the Ukrainians. Ukraine's ambassador has been critical of India's position for this reason.

How has India's position evolved as the conflict has gone on? Has there been any changes, major or minor, to their stance? How has that impacted Indo-Russian ties, if at all? 

I don't see much of an evolution of India's position. I would say that India has maintained the status quo, mainly because of its strategic and defense ties with Russia. It's reluctant to call out Russian aggression. In the UN, in the General Assembly and the Security Council, India has abstained on every resolution that has either condemned or called for condemning Russian aggression, including the resolution where Putin was making direct nuclear threats. 

Even though India says its position is one of strategic autonomy, that doesn't quite make sense when you're heavily reliant on one nation for defense, and as a result of that, you are unable to take a position on really significant matters of international security like nuclear threats issued by an autocratic leader. India has also been purchasing barrels of oil from Russia at discounted prices. This is not something that only India is doing, of course. There are countries in the West that have done it. But, again, that complicates the situation.  What I worry about is that we've seen that Putin is an autocrat. We've also seen enough evidence of Russia churning out propaganda and conspiracy theories about this war. I'm afraid this is not in line with Indian interests, because there may come a time when India is perceived as a puppet of Russia. There's a cost to reproducing those conspiracy theories. For instance, in 2022, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Lavrov, visited India, and India is very much focused on the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense obligation that it has with Russia. India wants to go through with procuring those missiles, and I don't think it wants to risk derailing its chances. 

It's very clear that India has some level of dependence on Russia, but obviously, India has its own interests as an emerging major player on the global stage. Do you see this conflict reaching a stage where India has to choose between its relationship with Russia and its own interests? 

There could come a time, yes, where India may have to take a stance. It's going to happen when it realizes that India needs Russia more than Russia needs India. If Russian propaganda or rhetoric is detrimental to Indian interests, India has to recognize that. If the Russian state is churning out blatant lies about its invasion, there is only so much that India can do do in terms of ignoring it. 

However, the relationship is not going to end. I do think it's not in India's interest, however, to associate with an autocratic state with totalitarian, anti-democratic ambitions. India says this relationship is historic, and it has deep ties, and all of that is true. But things have changed. Today Russia is under Putin and is not the former Soviet Union during the Cold War period. What he's doing in Ukraine is beyond despicable. If you see the extent of the crimes that are being committed against the Ukrainians, I wouldn't even call them war crimes. This is state-sponsored  terrorism. Bombing hospitals, maternity wards, shopping malls, civilian centers, apartments. It's the playbook of a terrorist. 

India in the UN is constantly speaking up against terrorism, yet remains silent on Russia’s actions. How will India balance that? There may certainly come a time when India has to really draw a line in the sand and condemn Russia. 

How do you think India's position on the conflict affects their relationship with other countries, specifically major players like the US or China?

India enjoys a stable strategic and defense partnership with the United States that it has built over the last two decades, and I think that's going to remain constant. Yet, there is a fair amount of exasperation on the American side with how India has dealt with the conflict. It's like a tug of war. You have two countries namely, Russia and the US, and both want India on their side. The United States is befuddled by the Indian position of not condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The other angle here is the relationship that the US, India, Japan and Australia share in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is the newly formed alliance to act as a buffer to push back a rising China in the Indo-Pacific. Again, there is concern from the US here expressed in its QSD meeting last year where all members were very critical of Russia's aggression, except India. Many commentators were skeptical or wondering about where India stood on this position, since India chose to stay silent. When you want to be part of an alliance like that, you want to take a position, you want to take a stance. I think that was one situation where the United States really didn't understand where India was coming from. 

Separately, Russia maintains a fairly strong relationship with China, and India and China have been at odds in Ladakh. In the last two years, China has taken significant territory. We didn't hear the Indian prime minister say much about that.  If Russia and China are close friends, how is that going to impact Indian interests, vis-a-vis preventing further Chinese incursions? This goes back to the bigger resolutions in the UN. The UN is modeled for member states to uphold the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states, and so if China were to attack India tomorrow, how can India be certain that Russia is going to come to its defense?

Do you think that India's position or the Russia-Ukraine conflict in general has any bearing on the Pakistan-India relationship? Specifically, is there any fear that India would follow Russia as an example with respect to Kashmir?

I don't think India is going to follow the Russian example with respect to Kashmir. Now, I do want to say that in 2019, India did revoke Kashmir's autonomy. The current government went after journalists and activists and imprisoned them, and all of that is out in the open. Yet, given the legal standing that Kashmir has with India, if we go back to 1947/48 resolutions in the UN Security Council, I don't think India is going to do anything more. Kashmir is considered an integral part of India. The question is whether Pakistan is going to test those waters. Even then, I'm not sure. It may not. Pakistan has a relationship with Russia as well, which is something that India would have to also consider in terms of its own interests. 

I keep going back to the question about territorial integrity and sovereignty. That's the key here, whether it's Pakistan or whether it's China. I think India has diluted its interests by just playing to the Russian gallery through this invasion, because it weakens its position. The current Modi government doesn't have a stellar record in Kashmir. It has done things considered absolutely unacceptable by Kashmiris (rightfully so) and many Indians.

You said earlier that India has called for bilateral talks and specifically diplomacy to solve the conflict in Ukraine. Something that stood out to me was that President Zelensky called out Prime Minister Modi in particular, hoping that PM Modi would alter India's position on the war, and maybe that India would join the West in the sanctions regime. How significant do you think India's role is in Russia's ability to continue this war? How much of a role could India play in putting an end to the conflict?

I think this is a matter of perception. Right now, I know that some Indian strategic commentators vehemently believe that India can be a strong mediator between Russia and Ukraine. I'm not so sure about that. I think India has potential, but again, it goes back to the question of who is the aggressor in this conflict? It's Russia. Until India admits that, why would Ukraine want to negotiate anything that undermines its own sovereignty? To mediate between Russia and Ukraine, India would have to convince Russia of withdrawing from Ukrainian territory. Is it in a position to do that? I'm not so sure. 

Going back to what I said previously, I think India needs Russia more than Russia needs India. I may be completely wrong, but that's how I see it, because I don't think Putin cares what India thinks. Ultimately, Putin is going to pursue his imperial conquest at all costs. So, I would say India has a moderate influence, but not a substantial influence, in mediating the conflict.

A majority of Indian ambassadors keep echoing the Russian position. They were always pro-Russia. But you can't be pro-Russia and then defend your position by criticizing Western invasions elsewhere. That’s a sure way of losing all credibility. Using the United States invasion in Iraq is neither a strong nor a moral argument to support imperialism elsewhere. It's also not logical from the point of view of India, arguing for what it thinks should be a rule-based order not led by the West. Moral consistency is necessary Either you oppose all invasions, or you don’t. 

India presides over the upcoming G20 summit later this year, which the US and Russia are both slated to attend. Provided that the conflict is still ongoing at that time of the summit, how do you think that India might approach the subject of war? 

India is not going to go into a discussion of the merits of or the demerits of the Russian war. It is going to pursue what it constantly claims to be strategic autonomy.  India is likely to completely steer away from the discussion of war. The agenda is going to focus on issues like climate change and the environment, technology, and developmental issues. India will use that platform to promote its leadership role in the areas I mentioned.

Jaishankar, the External Affairs Minister, is correct in saying that while the West wants a rule-based order, it's also the one that breaks it. When it comes to the G20, India's going to shift its tide again. India will claim that it needs to pursue its own interests in what is largely emerging as a multipolar world. And in a multipolar world, it doesn't have to align with either the United States or Russia. 

Having said that, I would argue that it is in India's interest to work with a liberal democracy, however imperfect that may be, than an autocracy, which is what I think Russia, under Putin, is today.

Umer Lakhani '25Student Journalist

kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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