NEW DELHI – India's decision to abstain from voting on a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Russia cease its invasion of Ukraine does not mean support for Moscow, experts said, but reflects New Delhi's reliance on its Cold War ally for energy, weapons and support in conflicts with neighbors.
India on Friday regretted countries giving up the path of diplomacy but refrained from voting along with the United States on the resolution that would have meant altering its ties with Russia spanning over seven decades. Russia vetoed the resolution while China and the United Arab Emirates also abstained.
"We have not supported what Russia has done. We have abstained. It is the right thing to do under the circumstances,’’ said G. Parthasarthy, a retired Indian diplomat.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday appealed for an “immediate cessation of violence." Modi called for efforts to return to diplomacy, saying the “differences between Russia and the NATO group can only be resolved through honest and sincere dialogue.”
In the past, India depended on Soviet support and its veto power in the Security Council in its dispute over Kashmir with its longtime rival Pakistan.
The Himalayan territory is divided between India and Pakistan, but both claim it its entirety. India accuses Pakistan of supporting armed rebels in Kashmir in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and pushed the nuclear-armed rivals to fight two wars.
India warily watched as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan landed in Moscow as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Putin met with Khan for nearly three hours in the middle of the crisis.
The war in Ukraine not only added to challenges faced by New Delhi in Kashmir but also along its restive mountain frontier with China. Both Pakistan and China are seen to be on the Russian side, and India believes Moscow has leverage to change Beijing’s hard stance on the border issue.
A confrontation in June 2020 along the disputed China-India border dramatically altered their already fraught relationship as the rival troops fought with rocks, clubs and fists. At least 20 Indian troops and four Chinese soldiers were killed. Tensions have since persisted despite talks.
As the fighting continued in Ukraine, several organizations held protests in the Indian capital for a second day Saturday, demanding an end to the Russian aggression and pressing the Indian government to evacuate thousands of Indians, mostly students, stranded there.
Pratap Sen, a 20-year-old student, said India’s decision to abstain from the Security Council vote may not be ideal but it was a better option in the circumstances.
“International politics is like the wild, wild west. (India) has to balance between the U.S. and western world and Russia, a close ally of India for decades,” he said.
C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the problem was India's continued reliance on Russian weapons.
"This is not just an abstract question. But the fact is that India is in the middle of a war with China. India is locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with China over a disputed frontier,” he said.
India and Russia have set a target of $30 billion in bilateral trade by the end of 2025. India is also dependent on Russian oil and gas.
It imported 1.8 million tones of thermal coal from Russia in 2021, and accounts for about 0.2% of Russia’s natural gas exports. State-run Gas Authority of India Limited has a 20-year deal with Russia's Gazprom for 2.5 million tones of liquefied natural gas a year, which started in 2018, according to Indian media reports.
Modi and Putin met last year to discuss defense and trade relations, and signed an agreement to extend their military technology cooperation for the next decade.
India’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missile systems, which it considers to be critical in countering China, could also prove to be an irritant in Indo-U.S. ties. The S-400 is a sophisticated surface-to-air defense system and is expected to give India strategic deterrence against rivals China and Pakistan.
New Delhi has sought support from Washington and its allies in confronting China, a common ground for the Indo-Pacific security alliance known as “the Quad” that also includes Australia and Japan.
And India has been diversifying its weapons purchases with U.S. equipment as well. During the Donald Trump presidency, the U.S. and India concluded defense deals worth over $3 billion. Bilateral defense trade increased from near zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2019.
As the Ukraine crisis deepens, the real problem for India is how it navigates international sanctions against Russia.
The missile system deal with Moscow has put India at risk of U.S. sanctions, after Washington asked its partners to stay away from Russian military equipment.
"The problem for India has just begun. The urgent need for it is to break out of dependence on the Russian weapons,” Raja Mohan said.
Noor Ahmed Baba, a political scientist, said that Western countries will be unhappy with India, but they probably can’t afford to entirely alienate New Delhi.
"After all, countries balance principles with real politicking and diplomacy," he said. "It’s not only India’s advantage to be with the West, but they also need India."
Associated Press video journalist Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.