On February 25, 2022, the UN Security Council convened a historic emergency session to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a dramatic vote, 11 nations, including the United States and its allies, supported a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion and ordering its withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Russia, unsurprisingly, vetoed the resolution, but not before a trio of notable abstentions entered the record—chiefly among them being India’s.
Some might be confused about India’s vote, as well as its follow-up abstention at a related UN meeting on March 2. After all, India usually appears in foreign policy news as a member of the American “Quad” alliance alongside Australia and Japan (both of whom joined the United States in sanctioning Russia). In our increasingly divided geopolitical landscape—where Switzerland broke its neutrality to sanction Russia, 141 nations at the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the invasion, and where even China, Russia’s close ally, chose to sit on the sidelines—why would India not vote with the Quad or stay silent on sanctions?
In truth, the Ukraine crisis has put India in a particularly tricky diplomatic situation. Under a longstanding foreign policy of “strategic autonomy,” India has leveraged its relationships with both Russia, its traditional trade and security partner, and the United States in order to defend itself against China, a longtime rival. The Ukraine crisis, however, has upended old policy assumptions and pitted India’s security interests directly against each other, testing the country’s foreign affairs like never before. Faced with a new world order, India must resist the temptation to stay neutral and instead pick one guarantor of its security, or otherwise face the consequences of having no true partner in their love triangle.
India has long forged its own foreign policy path. Following independence from the United Kingdom in the mid-1940s, India, fresh off centuries of colonial rule, sought to protect its newly-won sovereignty against imperialist influence. As a result, during the Cold War, India maintained a neutral position between the Americans and the Soviets; it even became a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of nations committed to avoiding public alliances with either major Cold War bloc. This independent position, however, was soon tested by China, who strained India’s national security capabilities by fighting a short but bloody border conflict in 1962. Since the Cold War, India has viewed China as an ongoing security threat and competitor for regional influence, highlighted by occasional flare-ups and troop movements along their borders.
Out of a pragmatic need to defend its territory, India built ties with both sides of the Cold War. During the early 1960s, India quietly worked with the United States to conduct espionage operations against China, helping to counter Chinese pressure on India’s borders. However, as the United States pivoted towards longtime adversary Pakistan in the 1970s, India forged a particularly close friendship with the Soviet Union, which became its regional trade partner, supplied arms for India’s fight against Pakistan, and provided backup when the United States attempted to intimidate India with its navy.
Since the end of the Cold War, India has maintained strong relations with Russia, which now provides about 60 percent of India’s arms, more than $11 billion in annual trade deals, cheap fossil fuels for its explosive economic demand, and consistent support at the UN and other international forums. Beyond pure pragmatism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other members of India’s political right have publicly admired Vladimir Putin as a model of a strongman nationalist leadership. As a result, in 2014, India abstained from condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As China also develops quickly and strengthens its Russian ties, many Indians continue to view Russia as an influential bulwark against Chinese incursions. Yet, China continues to threaten India’s borders, leading Indian leaders to look elsewhere to reinforce their security.
As a result, India has also enhanced its ties with the United States. Since the early 2000s, the United States and India have strengthened their political, economic, and (especially) military ties, with the United States becoming India’s biggest trade partner (and seller of $20 billion in military supplies). More recently, the United States and India focused their diplomatic attention on Chinese influence in the region, with the United States pivoting towards the “Indo-Pacific” and forming its Quad alliance to primarily counter China’s power. Subsequently, India’s new relationship with the United States seemed to strengthen its strategic autonomy; by playing the Americans and Russians against each other, India apparently enhanced its national security and limited the regional power of rivals like China, all while remaining “neutral” amidst wider great-power conflicts.
The Russia-Ukraine war upends that dynamic. Observers argue that, after Russia started a land war in Europe, many assumptions about international politics were done away with—including those upon which India’s strategic autonomy rests. As Russia’s invasion balloons from a quick takeover into a longer, insurgency-heavy conflict, both Russia and the United States have turned their attention from Asia to Ukraine, leaving the Indo-Pacific region open to Chinese influence. For its part, China conspicuously abstained from supporting Russia at the Security Council; instead, it released a five-point plan maintaining the importance of national sovereignty, suggesting it does not plan to insert itself into the war. At the same time, China has continued to dispute its Himalayan borders with India, stationing soldiers throughout the region to back up its negotiators. Meanwhile, Chinese naval forces amass in the Indian Ocean, which––if left unchecked––would let China control key maritime passages and coerce favorable trade deals out of India. Faced with its vulnerable geopolitical position, India’s love triangle looks less and less viable in this new world order.
Nor does neutrality in Ukraine work in India’s favor. Modi has offered to serve as a mediator in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, adhering to India’s policy of peace without picking sides. Yet, India’s refusal to vote against, sanction or speak out against Russia has strained its alliance with the United States. The State Department released a diplomatic cable calling India part of “Russia’s camp” (though that cable was later recalled). Meanwhile, Russia is apparently less nervous about Indian neutrality, arguing the abstentions of India and China mean only half the world’s population opposes their invasion. Yet, Russia has put Indians on edge with its ongoing pursuit of stronger Sino-Russian ties, suggesting its ultimate interests lie against the West more than alongside India. As a result, staying neutral only weakens India’s relationship with its security partners; if Ukraine captures both countries’ long-term interests, maintaining strategic autonomy may leave India without any friends against China.
Breaking up the love triangle will be painful for India. In either the United States or Russia, India would lose key military and economic support against rivals like China, as well as a major diplomatic ally at the UN and elsewhere. Yet, as the West’s unified response towards the Ukraine crisis suggests, pursuing deeper ties with either Russia or the United States may actually strengthen India’s ability to resolve foreign policy crises––giving it the freedom and independence that strategic autonomy, ironically, cannot.