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Ukraine crisis: why India isn’t condemning Russia, unlike the rest of the Quad

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Russian President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi in December. Photo: AFP

As US allies lined up on Tuesday to denounce Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, one voice was conspicuously absent from the multinational chorus of condemnation: India’s.

New Delhi’s ambassador to the United Nations told a Security Council meeting on Tuesday that the escalation of tensions in Europe was “a matter of deep concern” and had the potential to undermine regional security – but India has stopped short of criticising Russia’s actions or threatening to join in with US-led sanctions, as Japan and Australia have done.

This makes it an outlier among the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, but its neutral stance is not entirely unexpected. Russia has long been a close defence partner, selling India some US$70 billion worth of weaponry since 1991, and Delhi has a policy of not commenting on others’ affairs.

“Neither the US nor European Union take sides on issues of core concern to us,” said Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary of India, in reference to recent tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir and border disputes with China.

“We need not get into this game and [instead] maintain a constructive position on the issue of favouring a de-escalation and dialogue without taking sides,” he said, highlighting Russia’s grievances, such as the threat of Nato expansion and Western arms sales to Ukraine, and adding: “If condemnation has to take place it should be of all sides.”

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Nandan Unnikrishnan of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, who specialises in Russia, agreed that “right now there is no significant reason for India to change its position” of neutrality – though he said references to a 2014 agreement signed in Minsk that tried and failed to put a stop to fighting in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region may have to stop “because that is in cold storage for the foreseeable future”.

Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions – collectively known as the Donbas – broke away from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent “people’s republics”.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognised the breakaway regions and ordered the deployment of troops there.

Foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan said India needed to show deft diplomacy to navigate the complexity of the Ukraine issue.

“While India must maintain its relations with Russia, it will also have to look at the changed scenario in central Europe where Indian interests are also growing,” he said, adding that Delhi had to balance its Moscow ties with other countries’ concerns about Russian aggression.

“I would not describe India as the last holdout,” said P.S. Raghavan, a former Indian ambassador to Russia. “We are asking for legitimate security concerns to be taken into account. That includes [the concerns of] the US, Russia, Nato and Ukraine.”

Raghavan further pointed to “the careful way the US and the EU are reacting to Russia’s decision” in terms of actual action beyond “the harsh condemnation”.

US officials indicated on Tuesday that the deployment of Russian troops to the breakaway regions of Ukraine did not yet merit the harshest sanctions that Washington and its allies had prepared in the event of a full-scale invasion.

Sibal, the former top diplomat, said the Ukraine issue had been bound to blow up sooner or later, as too much went unresolved following the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014, which immediately preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As its largest arms supplier, Russia accounts for nearly half of India’s hardware – and even refused a request from China to halt weapons sales to India as both the countries were locked in a stand-off at their border since May 2020.

Putin visited Delhi in December for a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where the two vowed to renew their “special privileged strategic partnership” and signed a number of agreements to deepen cooperation that ranged from space, energy, science and technology to joint defence production.