During the United Nations General Assembly session held on February 27th, 2022, an overwhelming majority of nations voted to condemn the Russian government for its invasion of Ukraine. One of the few countries to abstain from the vote was India. The General Assembly, where all countries are represented, was requested by the UN Security Council after it was unable to find a compromise given Russia’s position on the council.
Following Russia’s suit, India used its status as a non-permanent member of the Security Council to abstain from the vote to denounce Russian aggression. But what motives does India have for siding with Russia? As the world’s most populated “democracy,” India’s leaders’ choice to abstain can in part be explained by the country’s domestic politics, strong diplomatic ties to Russia, and its need to balance its interests with neighboring countries.
A History of Solidarity Between India and Russia
Following independence from the British Empire, India pursued a strong self-dependent economic structure known as Import Substitution Industrialization, which emphasized the importance of the state when it came to the operation of essential industries. This system shared many similarities with the brand of communism being practiced in the Soviet Union and other newly independent countries that sought state control of industrial development and were cautious of free-market demands by Western governments. In the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and India emerged as close partners given their left-leaning governments of the time. Eventually, both India and the Soviet Union would open up to allow foreign investment and free-market economies, but the nature of balancing self-interest with strategic partners has been critical to the foreign policies of both countries.
In addition, the Soviet Union was supportive of India’s claim to Kashmir, repeatedly vetoing any proposed UN interventions in Kashmir during the latter half of the 20th century. Kashmir is a contested region located between India, Pakistan, and China that was not explicitly placed under either Indian or Pakistani authority during the partition of the two nations in 1947 by the British. As a result, there is still animosity regarding who controls the region.
Domestic Politics on the Global Stage
In the contemporary context, India relies heavily on Russia’s supply of weapons to maintain its military occupation of Kashmir. Indian state authority in Kashmir is not the only security concern where Russia’s and India’s interests overlap, however. While Russia enjoys close relations with China, India is hesitant to let China dominate Central Asia – an area in which both nations are invested geopolitically.
For example, much of India’s military focus is on the disputed border between China and Pakistan, where all three nations have been involved in military skirmishes. While this did not escalate into a full-scale war, it made all three countries much more vigilant defensively, contributing further to India’s increased militarization with the help of Russian arms. Thus, having Russia as a key supporter has been an important part of India’s security strategy and makes it not worth condemning the invasion of Ukraine outright – aggressors seek support from other aggressors to rationalize their own campaigns of violence.
One might think that the rich legacy of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements and leaders in India would prompt the country to condemn Russia’s actions. Like the British did to India decades ago, Russia is now subjugating Ukraine to fulfill its own imperial dreams. Not only did it have to contend with the British, but India itself felt the threat of Russian imperialism in the late 18th century: having already taken over much of Central Asia, the Russian emperors considered the India subcontinent to be the next piece of land for the taking. The interest of these Russian autocrats was to create spheres of influence outside of their country that they could control remotely through imperial control.
Understanding the imperial urge that Russia’s leaders have and how it once threatened India should mean understanding the threat that Ukraine now experiences. In response to the invasion of Ukraine so far, India has expressed concern over the safety of international residents and students stuck in Ukraine facing discrimination and has also established some humanitarian assistance. As well, economic sanctions on Russia and the invasion of Russia affect a globalized world where we are reliant on stable relations. Considering how much countries rely on each other for sustaining themselves, India should be able to see how much this conflict impacts more than just Ukrainians and Russians. However, these actions are frankly not enough to absolve a country that is willing to cooperate with aggressive countries destroying innocent people’s lives and livelihoods of its complicity.
Edited by Chelsea Bean