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How India broke with Russia over the Ukraine issue

The G-20 summit reveals: India has moved closer to the West. However, it will not give up its long-term partner Russia entirely.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Narendra Modi at a meeting in 2021.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Last week, the powerful of the world met at the G-20 summit in Bali, and at the end of this summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was allowed to take over the symbolic gavel: the chairmen opened and closed the conference with a hammer blow. India will chair the G-20 next year.

What happened in the hours before is remarkable: the summit finally published a statement in which “most of the participants” condemned the Russian war in Ukraine and called on Russia to withdraw unconditionally.

It was a surprisingly harsh formulation that two of Russia’s allies, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Modi, also agreed with. India has thus distanced itself from Moscow on the Ukraine issue.

India and Russia are longtime allies

In the months following the Russian invasion, Modi’s government initially behaved opportunistically: India did not condemn the Russian invasion and only published vague statements calling for peace. Relations between Russia and India have grown historically.

The States are long-standing allies on the international stage. With its veto in the Security Council, Russia prevented the international community from interfering in South Asia, for example when India invaded East Pakistan in 1971. India, in turn, defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but also the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea.

Indian troops stand guard at a crossroads after taking the city of Jessore in East Pakistan in December 1971.  At the time, Russia prevented the international community from getting involved in the conflict after India invaded East Pakistan.

Indian troops stand guard at a crossroads after taking the city of Jessore in East Pakistan in December 1971. At the time, Russia prevented the international community from getting involved in the conflict after India invaded East Pakistan.

AP

Russia and India are also linked militarily and economically, because a large part of the Indian arsenal of weapons is of Russian design – depending on estimates, it is 70 to 85 percent. After invading Ukraine, India also bought cheap Russian oil.

The differences between India and Russia on the Ukraine issue did not first come to light at the G-20 summit. For months, Western diplomats in Delhi have been trying to influence India and wring a clear commitment from the government to the Ukraine war. India is working ever more closely with the West on security. It is part of the Quad with Japan, Australia and the US – a security dialogue launched in response to Chinese ambitions in the region.

In September, Modi opposed Vladimir Putin for the first time on the Ukraine issue. The two met at a summit in Uzbekistan for personal talks, the exchange took place in front of the cameras. Modi took the moment to tell Putin it was not time for war: “I know that our era is not the era of war, I told you that on the phone.”

Putin must have been surprised by the ally’s public rebuke, or at least he wasn’t pleased. He pursed his lips before replying that he knew Modi’s concerns and that everything was being done to end the conflict as soon as possible.

Concern about the cost of the war in Ukraine

“It is not the era of war” – almost the same words can be found in the G-20 statement against Russian aggression. Indian media take this as an indication that Modi had a strong influence on the statement. It is unclear whether the wording was what India wanted. However, it allows Modi once again to present himself to the Indian public as a strongman, one whom world leaders listen to.

Harsh V. Pant, a foreign policy expert at Indian think tank ORF, said after Putin and Modi met in September in his podcast, he does not believe that India has fundamentally changed its position towards Russia, “but India is concerned about the costs of this war”. The emerging country of India relies on a stable international environment for economic advancement, which was first affected by Covid and then by the Ukraine war.

It is not the case that India would push away long-term partner Russia. Indian and Russian diplomats met in Delhi shortly after the G-20 summit. In December, India will take over the presidency of the UN Security Council for a month. The Russian and Indian diplomats decided to increase their cooperation in the Security Council.

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