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Inside India’s abstention

Three days before the end of February, the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution to condemn Russia for its recent invasion of Ukraine. As expected, Russia vetoed the resolution, predictably enough, as few nations would ever endorse a resolution specifically condemning its own actions.

Also expectedly, three countries of the fifteen-member Council abstained from the vote. China’s abstention is easily explained, given Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s very public solidarity with Vladimir Putin only three weeks prior. Even the abstention of the United Arab Emirates can be explained by its co-membership with Russia in the OPEC+ group of oil producing states.

The third abstention, though, is much more complex: India, the largest democracy in the world, and normally a staunch supporter of sovereignty and non-interference.

Did India betray its principles by abstaining? And was abstaining from the vote really in India’s best interests? Before we start criticizing India for the vote (more on that later), let’s see if we can understand India’s motivation here.

First of all, it is important to note that India’s abstention is by no means a surprise. For decades now, India has sought to maintain balance between the West, Russia, and other questionable actors such as Iran and Libya. And it has a long history of abstaining on votes meant to sanction or punish other countries.

Since this crisis began, India has studiously avoided making any meaningful statement, let alone condemning Russia.

The most pointed example of this came in 2006, when India abstained from a resolution calling for sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program. Even though Iran was in clear violation of its international nuclear obligations — something India would never abide from, say, Pakistan — India could not bring itself to support international sanctions. Similarly, India abstained in 2011, when it was last on the Security Council, on a resolution to authorize action in Libya, where dictator Muammar Gaddafi was threatening to massacre thousands of his own citizens.

Even in the current case of Ukraine, India has signaled its unease with this whole situation. Since this crisis began, India has studiously avoided making any meaningful statement, let alone condemning Russia,  thereby joining China, the only other global power to be silent on this matter. And on January 31, it abstained from a procedural vote on the Security Council to even discuss the issue, claiming it had “legitimate security interests.”

India’s stance betrays its continued fealty towards Russia, despite professing to be non-aligned. But is this fealty still warranted? Why does India still kowtow to Russia even three decades after the end of the Cold War? Answering these questions requires a careful look at India’s complicated relationship with its oldest benefactor.

A large part of the answer of course is defense sales. According to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), from 2015-2020, Russia was by far the largest arms exporter to India, supplying over 50 percent of India’s imports and eclipsing the next largest supplier (France) by a factor of three. As a result, the vast majority of matériel deployed to the field by India is of Russian origin, driving India’s continued reliance on Russian imports and maintenance.

The United States has made halting inroads into India’s defense market, the largest in the world, and is poised for growth following the signing of major defense cooperation agreements in 2019 and 2020. But for India, the United States is still too unreliable and Russian military supplies are simply too important to jeopardize in any way.

Beyond the battlefield, the Soviet Union was historically a reliable proxy on any resolutions targeting India that came up in the Security Council. Over the years, Moscow used its veto power no less than six times to shut down resolutions on issues such as Goa and Kashmir.

More recently, when Kashmir came up for discussion in the Council in 2019, after a gap of 48 years, the Council could not even agree on a statement, let alone a resolution. Although the proceedings were closed-door, it is not hard to guess which team Russia was batting for.

In this light, India’s non-votes on the Ukraine invasion are a recognition of this historical support and consistent with New Delhi’s long-standing relationship with Moscow. All of this makes India’s actions understandable. However, that does not make them wise. Or even excusable.

Even if you concede that India’s special defense relationship and diplomatic alliance with Russia puts India in a tough position on Ukraine, you are still left to wonder if the abstentions are in India’s best interests. They may have the short-term benefit of not irritating Putin, but what about the long-term strategic implications? Will India be in a tougher spot than before?

Let’s first look at defense imports, which undoubtedly is the major factor in India’s calculations. Here, the notion that Russia will curtail exports to India because of a Security Council vote or a strong statement on Ukraine is almost absurd to even contemplate.

Just as Russia is the main supplier to India, India is by far the main customer for Russia. The SIPRI database tells us that from 2015-2020, India received over 25 percent of Russian arms exports. Were Russia to suddenly cut off this flow of arms because of non-support on Ukraine, it would only spite itself. No industry can afford to lose one-quarter of its customer base and expect to survive, especially in Russia where the sclerotic industry faces structural challenges and significant limitations.

Even if other countries such as China and Algeria (the next two biggest customers Russia has) step up their own purchases, they cannot in the short-term make up for a loss of the Indian market. By any rudimentary analysis, India is almost single-handedly keeping the Russian defense industry solvent.

On the flip side, any number of countries would rush in to supply the Indian market if Russia were to halt defense trade. The transition would be rocky but in this scenario, India has many other options in the long-term. Russia’s only other real option is China, which in turn is rapidly building its own domestic market. In real terms of defense imports, India actually holds the upper hand in its relationship with Russia.

Unfortunately, it isn’t acting like it right now. New Delhi is so concerned with protecting this lucrative import market that it now finds itself actively undermining sanctions that might sideline Russia as a trade partner. According to news reports, rather than support international sanctions, which it has generally always done, India is now considering ways it can ease the blow by establishing rupee payment mechanisms for defense trade. While the rest of the world is moving to isolate and punish Russia, sometimes at great expense or risk to themselves (evidence Germany’s cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline), India seems to be thinking only about itself.

This could have immediate ramifications for India. Prior to the Ukraine crisis, for many it was a foregone conclusion that the United States would waive sanctions on India for its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, an act for which the United States has already sanctioned Turkey. However, after these UN votes, is that conclusion so reliable anymore? The calculation in Washington must surely be changing now, and granting India the waiver is now much more uncertain.

Let’s look now at the diplomatic side of the equation. It is true that Moscow has been solid for New Delhi in the past. But Putin has already shown himself to be a cold, calculating enigma. So does past support automatically extend into the future? Unfortunately for India, the answer is not necessarily.

We can easily imagine a theoretical scenario where India gets into a territorial crisis with China. What may start out as a border skirmish, which already happens with alarming frequency, could result in China sending troops across the Line of Actual Control in Kashmir, or even declaring that one of India’s northeastern states is actually part of China (much like Putin just did with eastern Ukraine).

In this scenario, does Russia support India at the United Nations? Most likely not. Given Moscow’s burgeoning relationship with Beijing, Moscow would at best abstain or at worst support China. In addition, we know that sovereignty means nothing to Russia. So New Delhi’s claims of sovereignty violations by China would fall on deaf Russian ears.

Even thinking more broadly, would Western powers be receptive to New Delhi in such a scenario? If India cannot be counted on to stand up for sovereignty and international law during a global crisis, other countries may not extend the same courtesy to India. If India is undermining sanctions efforts imposed by the global community, that same community may not then rally to India’s defense. We know that other countries should because it’s the right thing to do. But whether they would is an open question.

India may have just squandered a good portion of the broad international goodwill it has painstakingly built up over the last two decades.

This scenario, while theoretical, only highlights the fundamental difference between India’s historical abstentions and this one on Ukraine. The earlier votes on Iran and Libya (and others) generally concerned one government’s domestic actions that the international community did not like. India could plausibly argue that these were internal matters and that other countries shouldn’t interfere.

But Ukraine is entirely different — the wholesale invasion of a sovereign nation by a larger power without any provocation or believable justification. By not standing up to or speaking out against such aggression now, India may have just squandered a good portion of the broad international goodwill it has painstakingly built up over the last two decades.

This brings us back to the question we asked at the beginning: did India betray its own principles here? It would be hard to argue that the answer is no. For decades, India has stood up for and promoted sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. And it has also been a stalwart supporter of international sanctions. Whether you agree with them or not, these are the principles that have guided India’s foreign policy almost since its independence. Russia has now violated all of these principles in a most devastating fashion. Still, India remains silent.

In a partial explanation for India’s stance, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reportedly told his American, Russian, and Ukrainian counterparts that “dialogue and diplomacy” are the best way to defuse the crisis. This is a noble sentiment, one that everyone agrees with. At the same time, Western powers are not the ones who have abandoned diplomacy. In fact, the door to diplomacy is still open if carried out in good faith, according to Western officials. Curiously, Jaishankar avoids mentioning the fact that Russia is the one not interested in pursuing meaningful dialogue.

And finally the other question we posed: was abstaining from the vote really in India’s best interests? One has to wonder if this is what India wants — to be on the wrong side of sovereignty and multilateral diplomacy, not to mention the very countries that are now its partners on the global stage. Given the potential long-term ramifications for India outlined above, again it is hard to argue that these votes are in India’s best interests.

In votes such as these, and in its entire approach to international diplomacy, India would be well-advised to look to its future, not to its past.