How India broke up with Russia over the Ukraine issue

G-20 summit reveals: India has moved closer to the West. However, he will not completely give up his long-term partner Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Narendra Modi at the 2021 meeting.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Last week, the world’s powers met at the G-20 summit in Bali, and at the end of this summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was allowed to take the symbolic gavel: the presidents opened and closed the conference by blowing the hammer. India will chair the G-20 next year.

What is remarkable is what happened in the previous hours: the summit finally released a statement in which “the majority of participants” condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine and called on Russia to withdraw unconditionally.

It was a surprisingly tough formulation, with which two of Russia’s allies, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Modi, agreed. India thus distanced itself from Moscow on the issue of Ukraine.

India and Russia are long-standing allies

In the months following the Russian invasion, Modi’s government initially behaved opportunistically: India did not condemn the Russian invasion and only released vague statements calling for peace. Relations between Russia and India have historically grown.

The states are long-standing allies on the international stage. With its veto in the Security Council, Russia prevented the international community from interfering in South Asia, for example when India invaded East Pakistan in 1971. India, in turn, defended itself against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but also against the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Indian soldiers stand guard at a crossroads after capturing the city of Jessore in eastern Pakistan in December 1971.  Russia then prevented the international community from getting involved in the conflict after India invaded East Pakistan.

Indian soldiers stand guard at a crossroads after capturing the city of Jessore in eastern Pakistan in December 1971. Russia then prevented the international community from getting involved in the conflict after India invaded East Pakistan.

AP

Russia and India are also linked militarily and economically, as a large part of India’s weapons arsenal is of Russian design – an estimated 70 to 85 percent. After the invasion of Ukraine, India also bought cheap Russian oil.

The differences between India and Russia on the issue of Ukraine did not come to light for the first time at the G-20 summit. Western diplomats in Delhi have been trying for months to influence India and squeeze a clear commitment from the government to the war in Ukraine. India is cooperating more and more closely with the West in the field of security. It is part of the Quad with Japan, Australia and the US – a security dialogue launched in response to China’s ambitions in the region.

In September, Modi took on Vladimir Putin for the first time on the Ukraine issue. The two met at a summit in Uzbekistan for face-to-face talks, the exchange taking place in front of cameras. Modi took the moment to tell Putin it was not time for war: “I know our era is not an era of war, I told you that on the phone.”

Putin must have been surprised, or at least not pleased, by the Allies’ public rebuke. He pursed his lips before replying that he was aware of Modi’s concerns and that everything was being done to end the conflict as quickly as possible.

Concerns about the price of war in Ukraine

“This is not an era of war” – almost the same words can be found in the G-20 statement against Russian aggression. Indian media is taking this as an indication that Modi had a strong influence on the statement. It is not clear whether this wording was what India wanted. But it again allows Modi to present himself to the Indian public as a strongman to whom world leaders listen.

Harsh V. Pant, a foreign policy expert at the Indian think tank ORF, said in his podcast after the Putin-Modi meeting in September that he did not believe India had fundamentally changed its stance toward Russia, “but India is concerned about the cost of this war.” The developing country of India relies on a stable international environment for economic development, which was first affected by Covid and then by the Ukrainian war.

It is not as if India has sidelined long-term partner Russia. Indian and Russian diplomats met in Delhi shortly after the G-20 summit. In December, India will take over the presidency of the UN Security Council for a month. Russian and Indian diplomats decided to strengthen cooperation in the Security Council.

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