‘Мore sentimental than pragmatic’ Researcher Aparna Pande explains India’s dependence on Russia and how the Russia-Ukraine war could change that relationship
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, India has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions condemning Russian aggression. At the same time, the country maintains a strategic partnership with the U.S., and Indian media predict an even closer relationship with America in the future. Meduza spoke to Aparna Pande, a research fellow specializing in India, defense policy, and foreign policy at the Hudson Institute, about India’s reliance on Russian military supplies, its rivalry with China, and its partnership with the U.S. in relation to its stance on Ukraine. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What’s necessary to know to understand India’s domestic political landscape?
India is a parliamentary democracy, like the United Kingdom. So, we have a prime minister, and we have a president, [who] is indirectly elected. The prime minister is Mr. Narendra Modi. His political party is BJP [the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party with right-wing ties]. The other political parties are the Indian National Congress, which was founded by the Gandhi family and was the political party that helped India gain independence in 1947, and then parties which are to the left of center. We still have communist parties and leftist parties which date back decades, and they still have support, especially in a few states like West Bengal and Kerala.
And then we have what are called state parties. So, India is a country with a lot of not just religious diversity but linguistic diversity. There are 28 states or provinces, and each of them has a different language and a different history over the last few centuries. And so there are parties which cater to that ethno-linguistic minority all across the country. In most of northern India, the language spoken is English or Hindi. And then in the northeast you have Sino-Tibetan languages, and in the south [Dravidian languages]. Each state has its own party [on the national political stage].
How do these parties differ in their views of the global context? Are some more focused on domestic issues while others are concerned with India’s status as a global power?
Indians [across the political spectrum] have always believed that because India is one of two 5,000-year-old continuous civilizations (China is another), India is, was, and will always be a global power. Indians differentiate between India, the civilization, and the modern Indian state, which came into existence only in 1947 [with independence from the British Empire]. And so the assumption is: We’ve always been great, but we fell under colonial rule under the British. When India became independent in 1947, it needed to build its economy and its military and [develop] human capital and alleviate poverty. It does not matter which side of the ideological spectrum you are on — left, right, center — Indians and Indian political parties believe India is a global player and has a right to be at the global table.
The difference [lies in] whom they see as India’s partners in the global arena. You know, there is a certain fondness for Russia, which dates back to the Soviet era, when the Soviet Union helped India build its manufacturing capability, its military, and also was the veto power on the UN Security Council. Those on the left, like the Congress, used to be skeptical of the West, but [now] they would like India [to have better relations with the U.S.]. The right, the BJP, would [also] like better relations with the U.S. The entire spectrum believes that India’s foreign policy should remain what India today calls strategic autonomy, or what used to be called non-alignment — meaning that India will align with [other countries on an issue-by-issue basis]. [That’s] why India does not join military alliances or security alliances. India does not want to be involved in any conflict. India does not take sides in any conflict. It tries to stay out of it.
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Is that why India has abstained from voting on the U.N. General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine?
To understand why India did this, we have to go back to the Cold War and India’s independence in 1947. Two hundred years of British colonial rule totally wiped out India’s manufacturing, and India was primarily an agricultural country in 1947, with very poor people and everybody dependent on agriculture. [The architects of India’s independence] believed that India needed to build its economy to give employment to people.
[They] needed factories to be built and didn’t have the capability to do so, so they looked to other countries to help. India turned to the Soviet Union, but also to the Western countries. The Western countries were not interested in building factories there unless they controlled them. They weren’t interested in transferring technology or helping a newly independent country build a factory, which would be run by Indians. The Soviet Union offered to do that. So, India’s coal and steel mills have Soviet roots because the Soviets offered to transfer the technology, build the factories, train the Indian engineers, and then hand it [over] to India.
On the military side, the same thing happened. Western countries and Western corporations wanted to sell tanks to India, but they did not want to help India co-develop them or manufacture them in India. And so the Soviets again offered, which is why 70 percent of India's military is of Soviet origin.
[Another important aspect is that] for India, the relationships with China and with Pakistan matter. India has fought four wars with Pakistan, primarily over Kashmir. It has also fought a war with China, and China has taken over Indian territory. If you put yourself, geographically [in India’s shoes], it has two neighbors who have attacked it and who claim its territory. It needs another country, on the same continent, that can act as leverage against China.
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For decades, especially with the Sino-Soviet split in the Cold War, and the Russia-China relationship, which is always problematic, India [believed it was] in Russia’s interest to keep India on Russia’s side. For India, having Russia balancing China in Central Asia was important from a strategic point of view.
Finally, at least till the end of the Cold War, India saw the U.N. Security Council as biased against India and in favor of Pakistan. The U.S., U.K., and to some extent China all used to support Pakistan on Kashmir. But from 1952 [onwards], the Soviet Union would veto any discussion of Kashmir. So, India had one superpower that exercised its veto on the country’s behalf.
All of these things made the Indian strategic and political leadership view the Soviet Union/Soviet Russia/Russia as a genuine strategic partner of India. In the last decade or two, India has become closer to the United States and America’s partners. It’s purchasing more [military equipment] from Israel and France and the U.S. than it is from Russia. India’s security concerns align with the West’s, not with Russia’s. But India’s geography makes it such that it does not want to lose Russia, [otherwise it won’t] have any other country that can come and help it.
These were all reasons that India did not speak out and did not call out Russian aggression.
What would be necessary for India to speak out against Russia?
If India were not dependent for 70 percent of its military on Russia, if [that number were only] 30 percent, it would be different. I’ll give you an example. Three years ago, in 2020, remember when China and India had a clash at the border, the first thing the Indian defense minister did was to go to Moscow because he wanted to make sure that the Russians would provide spare parts. Now today, the problem is that Russia may not be able to supply all those spare parts, and Russia will not be able to supply the equipment. If India had started a decade ago or even five years ago to move away [from Russian supplies], it would have been better. But India’s current position is: if you’re so dependent on somebody, you cannot stand up and say something. It creates a problem [with] India’s policy of strategic autonomy, which means that India should be able to disagree with somebody [on one issue] and agree [on another]. Right now, India isn’t able to disagree with Russia simply because 70 percent of India’s military equipment is Russian-made.
And how do the US authorities feel about India's position on the war? Is there any risk of sanctions on India from the U.S. or E.U.?
No, there’s no risk of sanctions. I mean, Europe continued purchasing [Russian] oil because it had to. The U.S. would like India to do more, but they understand India's dependence on Russian military equipment. What everybody is hoping is that the Russians cannot supply spare parts or equipment. There's also [the issue that] this war has made Russia weaker. It’s made Russia more dependent on China, which means that in a future conflict between India and China, Russia might actually side with China.
Americans and Europeans are hoping that India understands that the closer Russia gets to China, the worse it is for India. But they understand India's dependence on Russian military equipment, and by and large, they have not really said anything to India. They have asked India to speak up, but they understand that India has a problem.
How do current Indian authorities see the U.S.?
The U.S. and India are allies, but India doesn’t like to use that word. For Indians, “ally” and “alliance” mean a security alliance or partnership like NATO, and security alliances often lead to wars because if something happens to one [member], everybody else has to join. That would mean India giving up its right to make issue-based decisions. India prefers to call [its relationship with the U.S.] a natural alliance or a partnership or a friendship. The current leadership does believe that India’s relationship with the United States is important on a strategic level, and economic and defense levels, for regional and for global reasons.
What about the E.U.? Is it the same kind of unnamed ally situation?
No, actually, India has a closer relationship with the European Union. There are very strong strategic, economic, and defense partnerships with France and Germany. And India views Europe as being a little more sympathetic to its considerations because European civilizations are also very old. Take the example of France. Even though France is a former colonial power in India, India views France as a friend and a partner because France has been a lot more sympathetic [than the U.K. or the U.S.] to India's desire [for economic growth].
Some Indian journalists have called India's neutrality in this war a “hidden pro-Russian position.” How justified do you think this assessment is?
I don't like to use the word “neutral.” It's not as though India doesn't have a stake in either side. One side is an aggressor, and one side is a victim — this is true. Russia did this in Georgia, when it took over Abkhazia, Russia did it in Crimea, and Russia did this when it took over Luhansk and Donetsk — Russia has done this in stages. Russia is the aggressor, and in conflicts like this if you do not condemn the aggressor, then you do end up being seen as someone who is supporting them. That doesn’t look good for India, which is the world’s largest democracy, which has been a member of the U.N. since 1945, and which always believes that the U.N. must stand up to aggression. When Prime Minister Modi met President Putin, he said that “this is not the era for war.” Unfortunately, India’s hands are tied, because of the fact that, for the last few decades, the Indian state has not diversified its defense acquisitions and its military purchases.
Can you talk more about how India's confrontation with China affects the two countries' position on the Russia-Ukraine war?
The India-China relationship is multi-dimensional. First, both are old civilizations and both believe that they have a right to be the big player in the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific region. India believes that the Indian Ocean region is India’s sphere of influence — that includes all of South Asia, the Persian Gulf and Middle East, and Southeast Asia. China believes that all of Asia, including what India views as its own sphere, is the Chinese sphere of influence. Second, China has built up its economy and its military over the last few decades. India has unfortunately not built up its military and its economy at the same pace.
Third, when India became independent, it inherited the borders that had been decided by the British colonial authorities. The India-Pakistan, India-China, and India-Nepal borders were all what you can call imperial fault lines. However, India is a status-quo power, not a revisionist power — it accepts the global reality and the regional reality. China has never accepted its borders. It believes they were imposed on China, and it believes that Indian acceptance of those borders means that India was in league with the colonial powers and [is now in league with] with Western powers, because India does not give back to China what China believes are Chinese territories: Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, along with a lot of Nepal and Bhutan. It believes all of these were part of the Tibetan Empire and by default, since Tibet is now part of China, it is all Chinese territory. They fought one war in 1962, which India lost, and China walked in and took over about 30,000 kilometers [11,500 square miles], which it has not returned. And then finally, there’s the Tibetan issue. As I’m sure you are aware, the Dalai Lama lives in India, where he escaped in 1959. Since then, he has lived there and India has given him refuge, which China views as an anti-Chinese action.
One of India’s nightmares is a very close Russia-China relationship because, from India’s point of view, if Russia balances China in Central Asia and China engaged there, then China is less likely to have the strength or the power to do anything in South Asia. Second, the closer Russia gets to China, the closer it may also get to Pakistan. India does have a problem — Russia is not going to get stronger; Russia is not going to move away from China. It’s going to get closer to China, it’s getting weaker as long as the conflict goes on in Ukraine. Even if its oligarchs have lots of money, the state will get weaker.
How much oil and other energy resources has Russia reallocated from Europe to India because of the war in Ukraine?
Actually, quite a lot. About 80 percent of India’s energy needs are imported, but most of them are from the Middle East and North Africa. Before the Ukraine war, Russian oil used to form one percent of what India imported from around the world. With the Ukraine crisis and the lowering of prices of Russian oil and the rise in prices of global oil, Russian oil forms around 20 percent of India’s oil imports right now, which is huge. It won’t last because, one, Russia cannot be paid in dollars; and two, Russian crude is different from others, so there are only a few refineries in India that can actually use that oil.
What are the main items that make up the military trade between Russia and India?
One aspect is spare parts for aircraft carriers, planes, and automatic weapons. The second is big pieces of equipment, like aircraft, tanks, aircraft carriers [themselves], nuclear submarines. Third are big new purchases, like the 2018 purchase of S-400 air defense systems. I think there are four or five parts. Two have been delivered but I don’t believe Russia has yet delivered the remaining parts. The only country which has India build nuclear reactors over the last few decades has been Russia, because India’s liability laws are so strict that no other country will do it.
Here’s the way I explain this to people: let’s say that all my apartment furniture is from Ikea. Now, if a chair or a stool breaks, I can get another one from Ikea, right? Yeah. But if I go to a high-end store, I can’t ask them for a stool or a chair for an Ikea table, I’ll have to buy an entire set. India’s purchasing style over the last seven decades has been: I will replace that one knob which is broken, I will not replace the entire door even though replacing the knob may be costlier than replacing the door [in the long run], because if I replace the entire door it gives me 20 more years whereas replacing the knob means in a few years again I’ll have to replace the knob again. If you buy an F-16 plane from the United States, you get 30 years or 40 years of life-cycle support, maintenance, upgrades. That doesn’t happen with the Russian [planes], but they’re half of the cost of the F-16 [up front].
Is Russian military equipment less prestigious or less desirable because of the war or because of Russia’s failures in Ukraine?
In the beginning, when I spoke with Indian military analysts, they would say, “No, no. It’s a question of how they trained their soldiers.” But one year in, yes, many of them will admit that there is an issue with the equipment, not just personnel and training. I do think that there is concern in the Indian military and the Indian strategic establishment if Russian equipment won’t stand up to Ukraine, then maybe our equipment won’t be able to stand up against China or any of the other problems we have moving forward.
At the beginning of the war, Prime Minister Modi spoke to President Zelensky, and he promised humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Has India really aided Ukraine this year? And does it clash with India’s friendship with Russia and dependence on the Russian military?
India has provided humanitarian assistance, primarily food and medical supplies. That is something which India is very proud of. India views itself as a country which is always going to be there for any humanitarian disaster anywhere in the world. It calls itself a first responder. It will be there. It will offer assistance aid for any country, it doesn’t matter which country it is. [This doesn’t affect its relationship with Russia, because] India does not view military aid as aid. For India, aid is only developmental, humanitarian, and disaster relief. So, from India’s point of view, it can give humanitarian aid even to China, if China would accept it. When Pakistan had the floods [in fall 2022], India offered but Pakistan didn’t want it.
In January, Russian analysts wrote that “Russia was entering a scramble for Pakistan.” And just yesterday, I read that Pakistan would pay for Russian oil with yuan, which aligns with the Russian goal of de-dollarizing exports. How does India feel about this potential friendship between Russia and Pakistan?
India does not have a problem with Pakistan importing Russian oil, because oil doesn’t really make a difference for India. If Russia sells Pakistan high-end military equipment, that’s a red line for India. India’s problem has always been with building Pakistan’s military, because that military then attacks India, which it has done four times. I think, at some level, the India-Russia relationship remains more sentimental than pragmatic. So, you can’t just hope that Russia will not sell Pakistan military equipment — if Pakistan can pay for it, Russia will sell it. When that happens, is India ready to move away from dependence on Russia? That is going to be the Indian challenge.
You've already mentioned that the past Soviet-Indian friendship influences Indian authorities today. Does this past also influence Indian public opinion towards Russia?
If you do a public survey, people in India are sympathetic to Ukraine. They remember the 30,000–40,000 Indian students who were studying in Ukraine and trying to get out. The Indian public, when it is asked, is sympathetic to any country facing aggression.
What’s the future of Russian-Indian relations and how will it depend on the situation in Ukraine?
There are three things. One: the future of the India-Russia relationship really depends on the Russia-China relationship. The closer Russia gets to China, the closer India will, by default, have to get to the United States and its partners. Two: the weaker that Russia gets in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the closer it gets to China and the further it drives India away strategically. Three: the weaker Russia gets, the less likely Russia is to deliver its spare parts and military equipment. That means India will need to find any country that used to purchase from Russia and which may have spare parts that India can buy — it may be the Eastern European countries or the Central Asian countries. And finally, India will have to start to distance itself slowly from Russia because India’s ability to make issue-based decisions is being hampered by its military dependence on Russia. It’s not as autonomous as India would like to be.