How the Russia-Ukraine war is accelerating three long-term shifts in Indian foreign policy
In South Asia
“What we realized in the last couple of years, based maybe on a direct fallout of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the pandemic situation…[was] that we need to become self-reliant. We also need to have more robust and secure supply chains […] to better handle security challenges as we move forward.”
— General Manoj Pande, Indian Chief of Army Staff, January 14, 2023
Over the past year, domestic and international observers have questioned India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war, often reading its muted public stance as support for Russia. But as the words from General Pande above suggest, a closer look at recent Indian policy reveals quiet but significant steps to reduce New Delhi’s dependence on Moscow. Russia’s poor performance in the war, its constrained ability to produce arms post-Western sanctions, and its global isolation have forced a debate within the Indian strategic establishment about the future utility of Russia as a strategic partner.
India has long seen Russia as a reliable partner that has supported it at the United Nations (UN), played an integral role in building up Indian military capabilities across domains, and allowed it the space to practice strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the West. Post-invasion, however, New Delhi faces a host of challenges linked to its ties to Moscow. Domestically, the war has raised concerns about food, fuel, and fertilizer insecurity. Internationally, India has had to balance its support for the principle of territorial sovereignty and integrity with a hesitancy to vote against Russia at the UN. The war has also turned India’s primarily Soviet/Russian-origin military equipment into a liability due to concerns over battlefield performance and availability challenges.
In response to these concerns, policymakers in Delhi have sought to walk a tightrope in staking out a middle ground publicly while accelerating three significant, long-term shifts:
- A greater focus on defense diversification and indigenization;
- Growing caution over risks from China-Russia ties; and
- Deepening partnerships with like-minded Western partners, like the United States, France, Israel, and multilateral groupings.
Towards Self-Reliance in Defense
To be sure, India’s twin strategy of diversifying its military equipment sourcing while also focusing on defense indigenization predates the war. As Figure 1 suggests, Russian defense supplies to India have declined over the past few years as those from Western partners like France have risen. Additionally, in the 2022-2023 budget, the Indian government allocated about 68 percent of the capital procurement budget to the domestic defense industry compared to 58 percent the previous year.
Some of these efforts have started to bear fruit recently. For instance, in April 2022, India successfully tested its first fully domestically designed and produced loitering munitions. In February of this year, the domestically designed and produced HAL Tejas fighter undertook its maiden landing and takeoff from India’s first indigenously-produced aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.
FIGURE 1 – INDIA’S ARMS IMPORTS FROM MAJOR DEFENSE PARTNERS, 2011-2021
The war has only further underlined the vulnerabilities of relying on Moscow for key defense supplies. For example, Gen. Pande specifically pointed to India facing sustenance issues and concerns regarding timely delivery of spare parts and military equipment in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war and sanctions imposed on Moscow. Most worryingly for Delhi, the war has delayed the delivery of prized S-400 air defense systems. Fears over Russia’s ability to deliver big-ticket items in the future may also explain India’s decision to suspend some arms deals with Moscow. In addition, about two months after the war began, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh added 101 items, many of which were previously sourced from Russia, to a growing list of defense equipment that will now be produced indigenously.
Fears of a Russia-China Strategic Embrace
The war in Ukraine has likewise raised difficult questions in New Delhi about implications of the deepening Russia-China alliance. While their announcement of a “no limits” partnership preceded the war, the past year has only solidified Russia-China ties and brought into stark relief an outcome Delhi has been actively working to thwart: Moscow becoming more dependent on Beijing. Delhi has traditionally pursued a wedge strategy vis a vis Russia and China, seeking to incentivize Moscow’s neutrality in an India-China standoff while securing its own immediate defense needs. India’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system, its participation in the Russia-India-China trilateral, and its economic investments in Russia’s Far East reflect this approach.
However, in the wake of the Ukraine war, many Indian analysts rightly observe that this strategy may have outlived its utility. Instead, they argue that India must prepare for a weakened Russia that is more beholden to China and could be pushed to take actions inimical to India’s interests, such as holding back emergency defense articles. There is historical precedent for this: the Soviet Union delayed delivery of the Mig-21 aircraft to India to ensure support from China during the Cuban missile crisis. More importantly, Indian defense planners must contend with the national security implications of Chinese components potentially making their way into the Indian arsenal via Russian weapons in the future due to sanctions on Moscow and its lack of other suppliers.
The Indian debate on whether it still possesses meaningful mechanisms of influence over Moscow to prevent a Russian drift toward China has still not been resolved. Indeed, India has a degree of economic leverage over Russia, as one of its few remaining non-China economic partners. Delhi’s purchase of discounted crude oil from Moscow could arguably be seen in this light. From April to December 2022 alone, India imported $21.7 billion in Russian crude oil—17.1% of its total crude imports—compared to about 0.94 billion in 2020-2021 or 0.2% of total crude imports. This theoretically gives Delhi levers to use vis-à-vis Moscow if Russia acts against Indian interests at the behest of China.
FIGURE 2 – INDIA’S CRUDE OIL IMPORTS FROM LEADING SOURCES & STRATEGIC PARTNERS, 2014-2022
However, this strategic logic fails to explain why India has not purchased more Russian oil historically (see Figure 2). Instead, India’s recent increase in Russian crude imports is better explained as a domestic strategy tied to the country’s massive energy needs. India, which imports about 85% of its total oil requirements, is a developing country whose economy would be hit hard by rising prices were discounted Russian oil not available on global markets. Though primarily driven by domestic considerations, buying oil from Russia arguably allows India to keep supply in the market steady while preventing further Chinese leverage over Russia through greater energy purchases.
Reorientation Towards the West and Likemindeds
Delhi’s political moves over the past year especially highlight the extent of its discomfort with Russia’s actions. For one, according to former Indian Ambassador to Russia and former Deputy National Security Adviser, Pankaj Saran, India was “quite upset” in February when Russia chose a military solution to the conflict. Further, going against the grain of established Indian diplomatic behavior of not publicly criticizing a partner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a rare public rebuke of Russia when he cautioned President Vladimir Putin that “today’s era is not one of war.” In December, Modi cancelled his one-on-one summit with Putin, a standing annual bilateral summit that has been a fixture of the Indian diplomatic calendar for the last two decades. Most recently, at the G-20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in late February and the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in early March, India called attention to the negative ramifications of the war in the chair’s summary despite Russian and Chinese efforts to resist inclusion of such language in the statement.
India’s policies toward Russia are best characterized as an example of its multi-alignment strategy. New Delhi has repeatedly emphasized its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity, including delivering humanitarian aid to the war-torn country, and Prime Minister Modi has positioned himself as a mediator between the two countries, speaking multiple times to both President Putin and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In fact, India helped negotiate the grain shipment deal last summer and raised concerns about the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Moreover, India hosted the Voices of the Global South Summit in early January, where it vociferously highlighted the war’s negative impacts on global fuel and food prices. Nevertheless, India has still not voted against Russia on any meaningful resolution related to the war at the United Nations, is continuing its joint venture of the Brahmos cruise missile production with Moscow, and exploring new economic projects.
But as Delhi looks to a future characterized by increasingly intensified competition with China, it recognizes that a partnership with the West and other likemindeds is vital. For one, most Russian technology is not sufficiently cutting-edge and innovative for India to compete with China in new domains. Additionally, Delhi’s views on the importance of the Indo-Pacific and the rules and values that must govern it align more with its Quad partners than with Moscow, which has called the Quad grouping “devious” and “exclusivist.” Thus, it makes sense for India to strengthen strategic ties and defense collaboration with partners like the United States and other members of the Quad, as well as France and Israel. For instance, at the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology in late January, Delhi and Washington expressed their intent to jointly develop and produce munitions and jet engine technology in support of Indian defense capabilities. Likewise, India is coordinating with France to add air-independent propulsion technology to bolster the stealth capabilities of its submarine fleet. Finally, India and Quad partner Australia have dramatically stepped up interoperability in the past year and are developing a critical minerals partnership.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has said that “Indian foreign policy is a relentless quest to go up the international order” and in some ways, India is maximizing the opportunities that have come with disruptions like the Russia-Ukraine war and the pandemic, particularly with regard to supply chain diversification and assuming leadership of the Global South. However, India’s ability to do so will be constrained over time, as frictions during its G-20 presidency have already shown.
This presents an opportunity for the United States. Washington can leverage India’s need for diversification in defense and its desire for global leadership. Using its diplomatic engagements with Delhi this year, especially at the G-20, Washington can work with India to more effectively burden-share on various issues in the Indo-Pacific. It can continue to show India what would be on offer on the defense side to further cement the relationship, as it has done by showcasing the F-35 at the recent Aero India show, and remove export control barriers that hamper collaboration. It can also quietly discuss best practices for effective defense cooperation with India with like-minded mutual partners like France, Israel, and the UK.
Meanwhile, to indicate its intent to Washington, Delhi can make a commitment to provide a market for the specific products developed through the iCET process and ensure that purchases are made in a timely manner. Reforming its defense procurement process and regulatory policies to enable more effective U.S.-India defense cooperation would go a long way. India’s relationship with Russia is need-based and not values-based, and over the past year, Delhi has subtly shifted away from Russia in both rhetoric and tactics. As India tries to find a middle ground between the West and Russia, the United States and its partners should create space for Delhi to do so in the interest of balancing China in the Indo-Pacific.
Jaiya Lalla contributed research. Photo: Alexander Demianchuk.
The article appeared in the Stimson Center Commentary South Asia Program