Modi’s Hot Push To Remain Neutral amid the Ukrainian War

  • Modi is striving to be neutral despite growing pressure to condemn Russia
  • India and Russia have a close relationship since Indian independence
  • Economic issues and the growing threat of China make it difficult for Modi to sever ties with Moscow
Russia's President Putin meets with India's PM Modi, in New Delhi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi / REUTERS, Adnan Abidi

Why is Modi Hot?

Answer: Modi’s pursuit for neutrality with respect to Russia, a position rooted in history, is becoming increasingly more difficult as the invasion of Ukraine polarises the world. 

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparking international outrage, Western ministers look to New Delhi in the hopes of luring India away from Russia. As the pressure for condemnation of Moscow, at the very least, continues to grow, Modi is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its middle path within the international community. This inclination is likely the result of India’s role as one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement at the height of the Cold War, and the refusal to officially align with the US or the USSR which that entailed. Moreover, since Indian independence in 1947, relations between the two countries were shaped by reciprocal support on contentious international issues that have continued to this day. 

However, in Modi’s pursuit for neutrality, numerous questions are raised about his own country’s security. The Prime Minister runs the risk of angering the US and its other Quad partners who will be pivotal in New Delhi’s ambitions to curtail the rise of China. Simultaneously, the leader must contend with rising energy prices which have already further strained India’s stressed economy. Moreover, it would appear as though Modi is at an important crossroads in the relationship with Russia, as Putin grows increasingly dependent on Xi Jinping and China; a reality that does not bode well with Modi’s interests.

The question then remains how Modi will juggle his two rivalling allies in Russia and the US, while maintaining an amicable relationship with both. He must do so while also ensuring Indian security and economic interests are furthered with a Chinese neighbour that is looking increasingly like a significant threat to the country. At the moment, however, it would appear that the leader is faring well on the diplomatic tightrope between the US and Russia, with the White House being understanding of India’s historical relationship with Moscow. That being said, the Prime Minister continues to have questions that will not go away any time soon, including the increasing closeness between Russia and China. 

Who is driving Modi?

Answer: Modi is driven by India-Russian relations since Indian independence, as well as domestic issues exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Modi’s preference for neutrality in the situation of Ukraine is hardly surprising and is rooted in a long-standing history of executive support for one another in issues of controversy. In fact, in 1971, India and the USSR signed the “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” which was arguably responsible for India’s ability to contend at a regional level. Russia has even shown support for India on the issue of Kashmir, which has been a key tenant of Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister. In 2019, when Modi scrapped Article 370 of its constitution, revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, Moscow stepped up at the international stage and deemed it to be an “internal matter.” It is plausible that Modi feels obligated in some sense to demonstrate a similar support with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Therefore, New Delhi’s failure to criticise the war and India’s five abstentions from UN resolutions condemning the invasion is certainly not atypical. 

However, the inclination towards Moscow is further complicated by the fact that a flailing economy as a result of the pandemic will be a crucial talking point as the state legislative assembly elections get close in some key states including Punjab. On the one hand, Modi has to contend with rising energy prices and the role that Russia can play in providing much needed respite. On the contrary, however, the US, in particular, is one of India’s primary trading partners accounting for over $113 billion in traded goods in 2021. Although Modi has so far managed to conduct business as usual – with trade continuing with the US as usual and Russia offering to sell India 3 million barrels of oil at a heavy discount that the government is considering –  it would appear that patience in Washington is potentially waning with Biden recently labelling India as “being somewhat shaky” on the issue.

This alludes to an interesting dilemma for Modi in terms of whether pressure from the US is potent enough to cause an abandonment of his Russia policy. This is epitomised by India making an uncharacteristic statement breaking its silence on the issue calling for a peaceful resolution. In response, the US suggested that the relationship had not been impacted by the current situation with Russia. Hence, it would appear that although Modi has to compromise to a certain extent to pressure exerted by Washington, his long-term leverage in terms of the trade relationship and in counterbalancing China enable him to continue holding on to his current political inclinations. 

What is driving Modi?

Answer: Bilateral oil and weapons trade between India and Russia remains crucial with a growing Chinese threat.

India’s current economic stagnation due to the pandemic has exacerbated one of its key problems vis-à-vis China in its military capacity. Although Modi has been a major proponent of bolstering India’s strategic autonomy, he has not managed to distance himself from Moscow. In military terms, although India has increased its weapon purchases from the US to about $20 billion over the decade, it continues to depend on Russia for around sixty percent of its military equipment, including vital space technology, nuclear submarine technology and conventional army weapons. This weaponry is currently essential to India’s ability to counter a prominent external threat in China, especially in the current ongoing border dispute in the Himalayas. 

Moreover, certain features of US foreign policy have caused the Modi government to be increasingly wary of partnerships with Washington, in particular the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is given that Modi had closely aligned his interests in the region with American presence. The withdrawal is also seen as problematic given that New Delhi views the Taliban as a proxy of the Pakistani military that is considered to be beholden to Beijing. The Prime Minister is certainly vexed by Afghanistan falling to the Taliban and, in particular, the failure to consult him before the withdrawal. 

Russia’s increasing isolation from the global stage as a result of the war in Ukraine is an issue for Modi’s relationship with Moscow given that it is pushing Putin and Xi closer together. Furthermore, it also threatens to distract the US’ limited short-term political will away from the Indo-Pacific region which would only further exacerbate the China problem. 

Despite current cracks in the relationship with Washington and conflict with China, Modi has demonstrated on numerous occasions his ability to ultimately maintain India’s neutrality at the centre of the poles. In particular, the very decision to join the Quad partnership was opposed by Russia and China, which both drew parallels to NATO’s isolation of Russia. At the same time, Modi has managed to maintain his balancing act in buying weapons and oil from Russia despite threats of sanctions from the US. Hence, it becomes evident that although the leader has a number of big questions ahead of him, for the moment he has fared well in the face of the growing polarisation caused by the invasion of Ukraine.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: India’s pursuit for neutrality could cause cracks in the Quad relationship in dealing with China in the Indo-Pacific. 

As Modi tries to maintain India’s neutral stance amidst an issue of growing concern, Washington is increasingly impatient behind the scenes, having recognised that India is the only Quad member that has not condemned the invasion. Any cracks in the coordinated strategy in the Asia-Pacific region would accelerate a growing Chinese influence. However, although India runs the risking of frustrating the US over the short term, Modi is banking on his calculation that the bigger Chinese problem will take precedence. Hence, the Prime Minister is content with standing his ground because he expects the consequences pale in comparison to the benefits of a relationship with both powers. 

Finally, with Modi having to contend with his own issues domestically, including a recovering economy and rising energy prices, its relationship with Moscow is certainly a convenient solution. With New Delhi considering bolstering its rupee-ruble trade pact, there is the potential to undermine Western efforts that seek to isolate Russia from the global financial network.