Multipolar World

India and the war in Ukraine

Jorge Costa Oliveira

The Republic of India is one of the countries that has taken a neutral position when it comes to the war in Ukraine. Indian neutrality stems from historical reasons. Russia’s support of India on difficult occasions in the past has created a special relationship that has evolved into a “special and privileged strategic partnership”, focusing on five areas in particular: political, defence, civil nuclear energy, counter-terrorism cooperation and space.

India’s position on the Ukrainian war reflects the domestic public support Russia enjoys (compared to the US), evident in social media discussions. India’s disenchantment with the US stance during the Cold War is still reflected in current popular memory (the US alliance with Pakistan and its support for Islamabad during the 1971 war against India continue to elicit significant discontent). Washington’s failure to respond to India’s calls for what it considers to be Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism and continued US military assistance to Islamabad reinforces this perception.

In recent years, two new factors have entered the equation: (i) the close cooperation between China and Pakistan, where the Belt and Road Initiative’s most advanced land corridor (CPEC) is located (in addition to the construction of the port of Gwadar); (ii) India’s participation in the activation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), with the USA, Australia and Japan, as an instrument of China’s “containment”.

India is one of the countries that has benefited the most from globalization and the economic stability stemming from the liberal world order. This war is crating significant instability, disrupting logistic chains and causing a general increase in the prices of oil, gas, food and other commodities. High inflation has always triggered political volatility in India.

In 2020, bilateral trade between India and Russia was only c. US $9 billion, 1.4% of India’s total foreign trade. Agreements in recent years have set ambitious targets to increase trade between India and Russia to $30 billion and bilateral investment to $50 billion by 2025. The EU is India’s third largest trading partner, accounting for  €62.8 billion in trades in 2020, or 11.1% of total Indian trade, only behind China (12%) and the US (11.7%). The EU is the second largest destination for Indian exports (14% of the total) after the US. The EU’s foreign direct investment stock in India amounted to €75.8 billion in 2019.

In order to overcome the financial sanctions imposed by the West on Russia, an agreement is being negotiated between the central banks of Russia and India to provide for payments of bilateral foreign trade in rupees and rubles.

In 2021, India was the country that made the most purchases of foreign military equipment. And while the Indian armed forces have weaponry mainly supplied by Russia, they have increased arms purchases from Western countries, including the US, and want to continue to do so.

India is at a complex crossroads. The relevance of their main economic partners (China, USA, EU) for their development and their military future in geo-strategic terms – namely the Quad – do not fit well with the popular memory of a special relationship with Russia.

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