Ukraine war: Why India abstained on UN vote against Russia

Behind India’s UN vote lies a combination of immediate economic and security concerns, and long-held assumptions about its geopolitical role and importance.

Expert comment
Published 25 March 2022 3 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Since the war in Ukraine began, India has abstained from various procedural votes relating to the conflict, along with the early March resolution censuring Russia for its military actions. India, along with China and 33 other countries abstained; five countries including Russia opposed the motion while 141 supported it. What lies behind India’s stance on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine?

As Russia invaded Ukraine, India’s immediate concern was the safety of the approximately 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine. This issue presented both political risk and opportunity. India has a long and commendable record of evacuating its citizens, and those of other countries.

India’s membership of the Quad should not be taken as evidence that it is on some linear path to become part of a Western axis.

While successful evacuations play well both domestically and internationally, the potential for disaster here was readily apparent, and that would have played badly at a time when India was undergoing a series of state elections. Given the need for support in evacuating Indian nationals, abstaining was its best bet to avoid offending either side. 

History also plays a part. The Soviet Union used its veto on several occasions to protect India against various resolutions brought by the West regarding Kashmir, India’s invasion of Goa and the 1971 war with Pakistan which led to the creation of Bangladesh. In turn, India abstained on votes condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan a decade later. In the 21st century, it actually voted against condemning Russian actions in Chechnya and Abkhazia. Behind this lies India’s long-standing position against Western imperialism – though admittedly, to be consistent it should equally oppose Russian imperialism.  

The abstention also lays bare the reality that Western engagement with India reflects a changed Western perception of India rather than any fundamental shift within India itself. During the Cold War, Western eyes largely viewed India as a land of spiritualism, yoga, poverty and curry. Its non-alignment was distrusted, making it dependent on the Soviet Union for arms purchases, links which continue to this day. 

From the late 1990s however, the West started viewing India as a potential trigger for nuclear conflict, an economic opportunity and a buffer or bulwark against China. But while India’s outlook has certainly shifted over the last two or three decades, its membership of the Quad should not be taken as evidence that it is on some linear path to become part of a Western axis. 

What happens if the West starts treating Russia, rather than China, as its main adversary?  

And from an Indian perspective, why should it pick sides? In recent years, by maintaining good relations with countries hostile to each other, India’s foreign policy has demonstrated that, by and large, it is possible to have your cake and eat it too. When it has engaged with countries with which the West disagrees, such as Iran, it has received a pass. And while India’s ongoing purchase of a missile defence system from Russia has triggered US sanctions, most analysts expect these to be waived by President Biden.  

Some Indian commentators have argued convincingly that weaning India from Russia will take time, though whether India will ever reach that point must surely be questionable. 

That said, there are several arguments to suggest that India’s best interests might be served better by taking a more critical approach towards Russia. 

India’s reliance on Soviet weaponry during the Cold War coincided with a period of strained relations between the USSR and China. In recent years Russia and China have grown much closer and in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is likely to be even more reliant on China’s goodwill. Unless China’s attitude to India changes significantly, hindering Russian arms exports to India would seem an obvious means of pressurizing its southern neighbour.  

India’s calculus has been that it is valuable to the West because it provides a balance against China. If that underlying assumption changes, India position would become increasingly vulnerable. 

Relatedly, Russian alignment with India has historically balanced China’s deep relationship with Pakistan. But in recent years, Russia and Pakistan have started to move closer. Pakistan’s president, Imran Khan, was visiting Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. This leads to India’s nightmare scenario whereby Russia flips its South Asia ally (potentially under Chinese pressure) and India faces an alternative alignment of Russia, China and Pakistan, and potentially Iran. This would put India in a deeply precarious position with regards to both arms and fuel. 

There is the possibility India would seek a ‘grand bargain’ with China.

While there has been speculation that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could potentially set a precedent for Chinese action against Taiwan, China also has claims on Indian territory, notably the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, but also along the Line of Actual Control that separates the two countries. In addition, although the Kashmir dispute involves primarily India and Pakistan, China also controls a part of the former princely state.

Furthermore, India’s main priority remains domestic development. It will take years of sustained economic growth before India can play the type of global role envisaged by many in the West. While its economy is recovering, it was hard hit by the pandemic. The question – and the answer seems self-evident – is whether it is easier to sustain economic growth in a world of chaos or stability? Even if India can source cheaper Russian oil and offload some of its wheat stocks, the overall economic impact of the conflict is likely to be highly negative.  

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Another question, as noted by India’s former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, is what happens if the West starts treating Russia, rather than China, as its main adversary? India’s calculus has been that it is valuable to the West because it provides a balance against China. If that underlying assumption changes, India position would become increasingly vulnerable. 

That said, with the world order at a crossroads and countries like India being pushed to take sides, is it unambiguous that it would side with the West? India’s main ambition is domestic economic development and China is its largest trading partner and potentially a larger source of investment than the West. There is the possibility India would seek a ‘grand bargain’ with China.

Fundamentally, India’s tension with China and Pakistan stems from its claims over territory controlled by its two neighbours, and vice versa. While the upcoming no confidence vote against Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, weigh against the grandest of bargains, Modi and Xi should be able to end their border dispute. Whether or not they wish to do so remains to be seen.