Ukraine conflict – Analysis: India faces mounting predicament

by Oishee Majumdar

According to Janes data, Russia has been India's biggest defence supplier. (Janes Markets Forecast)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has pushed the Indian government into a delicate situation, with mounting diplomatic pressure from the United States and its allies and Russia to take a clear stance in favour of one side.

Given its dependence on both the US and Russia for defence and security, New Delhi has been trying to strike a balance between them.

Although India has internationally condemned the ongoing violence in Ukraine – Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached out to both Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin to urge an end to the violence – the country has abstained from voting in the United Nations (UN) polls that intended to pass resolutions against the Russian attack.

Critics have described India's position to be ambiguous or dubious, calling for a stronger Indian stance against the Russian aggression in Ukraine. On the other hand, many have also supported India's decision to prioritise national interests and take a middle ground to not explicitly antagonise either the US or Russia. Since the beginning of the conflict, India has abstained from UN voting four times in polls held by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Deepa Ollapally, research professor of international affairs and associate director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, told Janes that New Delhi “did not have much choice” in these votes given India's dependence on Russia for military hardware.

“Russia has always been more willing to sell military equipment at relatively cheaper rates to India”, leading to a historically strong defence partnership between the two countries that India is obliged to safeguard, she said.

“The country also cannot afford to alienate the Russians who are much closer to them geographically than the Americans,” Ollapally added.

India's relation with the US, on the other hand, is “more strategic” in nature given the two countries' common concerns about China's efforts to expand its presence in the Asia-Pacific, she noted.

Ollapally said that abstention from voting is similar to a “non-decision” on India's part and is a “smart move” because it will enable New Delhi to “continue its goodwill” with both the US and Russia.

However, with “emotions running high in the US Congress against Russia, it complicates matters”, she said.

Although there may be “some amount of backlash against India in the US with certain members of the Congress strongly pushing for sanctions against the country”, Washington may choose not to do so as “India is a critical part of US' Indo-Pacific strategy”, Ollapally said.

Nonetheless, India-US relations, which had been “going on an upward trajectory” in the past few years, will witness a rupture because of India's stance on the Ukraine conflict, she said.

“India has stood firm in maintaining its strategic autonomy and is willing to incur some costs for that,” she said. This is a critical moment for the US, which will “pause to think how much they can really count upon India in the Asia-Pacific”, she added.

“Though there might be a temporary tiff, regular dialogues and a deepening partnership over the last 15 years have brought about a certain level of maturity in India-US relations, enabling the two countries to understand each other more. Many in the US realise that India did what it had to do in order to secure its national interests,” she said.

Despite India's attempts to diversify its defence suppliers by engaging with countries such as France, Israel, and the United Kingdom, Janes data shows that Russia continues to be India's biggest supplier of weapons.

In December 2021 India and Russia deepened their long-standing defence alliance by renewing the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military and Military-Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-M&MTC) until 2031.

Besides the procurement of weapons, India relies on Russia for spare parts and maintenance of these systems. Given this dependence, a major concern for New Delhi has been facing US sanctions through the US Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was enacted in August 2017 in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

As a close strategic and military ally, India has been lobbying hard for more than two years for a CAATSA waiver, which can be granted by a US president under the act's “modified waiver authority” for “certain sanctionable transactions”.

However, as Russia extends its military offensives in Ukraine, India could find it more difficult to remain immune from such sanctions. In comments to Janes, the US Department of State concurred.

“The sweeping sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its invasion of Ukraine are likely to make it difficult for any international customer to procure new systems and parts from Russian suppliers,” a spokesperson for the US Department of State told Janes.

“As for CAATSA, we have not yet made sanctions or waiver determination regarding potential sanctions in response to any Indian transaction with Russia. We continue to urge all countries, including India, to avoid major new transactions for Russian weapons systems,” the spokesperson added.

Official spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Arindam Bagchi, did not respond to a Janes request for comment on how the Indian government plans to respond to potential US sanctions if it continues to maintain defence collaboration with Russia.

Since Russia is the primary contributor to India's military imports, New Delhi may not be able to immediately cease its defence collaborations with Moscow. However, delay in defence procurements because of the diversion of Russian resources to the war in Ukraine will give opportunities to other countries to expand their defence trade with India.

The present circumstances may also give an impetus to India's efforts to boost indigenous defence manufacturing. The government of India has been investing in the local defence industrial complex with the vision of not only making the country self-reliant but also enhancing its exports.

India expects its defence and aerospace manufacturing market to be worth USD65 billion by 2047. India has also outlined a vision of achieving a turnover of USD25 billion, including exports of USD5 billion in aerospace and defence goods and services by 2025.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has pushed the Indian government into a delicate situation, with mounti...

Request Consultation

Request a free consultation to discover how Janes can provide you with assured, interconnected open-source intelligence.