President Joe Biden meets virtually with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, Monday, April 11, 2022. 

Amid war in Ukraine, India maintains 'strategic partnership' with Russia

When it comes to speaking out against Russian aggression in Ukraine, India has largely remained silent. Defense and energy needs are key factors, but a "heavy dose of nostalgia" is also playing a role.

The World

President Joe Biden meets virtually with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, April 11, 2022. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP

In a virtual call between US President Joe Biden and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, Russia’s war in Ukraine was a main talking point. 

The US has imposed sanctions on Russia and continues to condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine, and India has spoken up against the killing of civilians and sent aid to Ukraine. But the world's largest democracy has purchased oil from Russia at a discount and has abstained from voting in any Russia-related matters at the UN Security Council. 

During the call, the Indian prime minister made no public commitment to refrain from Russian oil.

When asked why India has largely remained silent, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that any country that doesn't stand against Russia is essentially standing with them.

But India’s reasons for their response to the Ukraine crisis so far are complicated. 

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India’s dependence on Russia for armaments is one factor, but skepticism toward the West also plays a role. And a “heavy dose of nostalgia” is another factor, according to Harsh V. Pant, an international relations professor at King's College London, and vice president at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent think tank in Delhi. 

At times when the West did not come to India’s aid or share technology, he said, India was a “nuclear pariah.” 

“I think the Soviet Union was a country that we could rely upon. ... And India forged a strategic partnership. And though we said we were non-aligned, I think much of the rest of the world believed that we were in the Soviet camp, and for good reasons."

Harsh V. Pant, international relations professor, King's College London

“I think the Soviet Union was a country that we could rely upon,” he said. “And India forged a strategic partnership. And though we said we were nonaligned, I think much of the rest of the world believed that we were in the Soviet camp, and for good reasons."

Pant also points to various historical cultural exchanges between the two countries that reinforced these bonds. 

"For a certain generation, what is happening today and their response to it is colored by that historical imagination of what this relationship was and how Russia, then the Soviet Union, stood up for India at some of the most difficult periods," Pant said. 

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Growing up in India, many Indians held positive images of the former Soviet Union, with plenty of Russian fairy tale books and those related to physics and engineering, too. Others remember watching Soviet gymnastics or attending Russian cultural events in their towns and cities. 

"We used to get the ‘Soviet Union Monthly,’ a publication which used to provide us with information about some of the best welfare work in the Soviet Union and how the state provides education, health and facilities as such."

Vishy Teki, documentary filmmaker, Hyderabad, India

"We used to get the Soviet Union Monthly, a publication which used to provide us with information about some of the best welfare work in the Soviet Union and how the state provides education, health and facilities as such," said Vishy Teki, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Hyderabad.

And many schools even offered Russian as a foreign language. These cultural bonds continue today, as Bollywood songs and stars have become famous throughout Soviet republics.

Pant underscores that the United States did send aid to India through the 1960s, but whenever India faced conflict with China or Pakistan, Russia stepped up. And the former Soviet Union used its veto power at least six times at the UN Security Council in support of India. 

The former Soviet Union also shared critical technologies like nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, "which, because of America's nonproliferation commitments, America was not willing to do," Pant said. 

Modi has stated that India is on the side of peace and diplomatic talks. He also said that in terms of economics, defense, education and politics, India has bonds with both Russia and Ukraine. 

India's discounted, wartime oil purchases from Russia ultimately account for “a very small percentage of India's energy sector, and it's not going to make a major difference either to India's energy security needs or to Russia's Forex reserves."

The main reasons for India's refusal to condemn Russia may center on security and defense.

Today, Russia supplies about 55% of India's armaments. And India shares two neighbors with Russia: Afghanistan to the west and China to the east. India needs Russia's backup, Pant said. 

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In India, on social media as well as in mainstream media, many have voiced mistrust about the West’s narrative of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Teki in Hyderabad said he was concerned about the violence in Ukraine, but that understanding Russia's perspective is also important — especially in understanding NATO's stake in the situation. 

"NATO has always shown a security threat to countries in Europe but it has a vested interest in controlling the energy sector in Europe," Teki said, adding that "the global powers have not handled Russia's insecurities and security threats."

In the last month, representatives from Austria, Britain, China, Greece, the US and Russia have all come to India to discuss the Ukraine crisis. India has mostly abstained from taking a side. 

But Pant said India's position has evolved in the last month. 

"Today, India is largely focused on some of the fundamental principles like territorial sovereignty, territorial integrity, the UN Charter, international law. I think India is trying to frame it in a manner that helps India in the Indo-Pacific," pointing to its relationship with China. 

Pant also thinks there is an opportunity for India to become self-reliant in manufacturing defense equipment. 

"I think if COVID[-19] was an indicator that over-reliance on China [for medicines, vaccines, even electronics] is bad, the Ukraine crisis is an indicator that overreliance on Russia, for whatever reasons, is equally bad.

But experts monitoring the conflict say it seems unlikely that India will change its position on Ukraine any time soon.