Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

India: Keeping Russia on the Network 

Three questions to Nandan Unnikrishnan

India: Keeping Russia on the Network 
 Nandan Unnikrishnan
Distinguished Fellow, heading Eurasian Studies at Observer Research Foundation (ORF)

In the fifth installment of this series, we peer into India’s position on the war in Ukraine. India has vested interest in contributing to the advancement of a multipolar world. According to regional expert and Distinguished Fellow of the Observer Research Foundation, Nandan Unnikrishnan, the country will benefit from maintaining commercial and diplomatic relations with Russia, despite the current crisis. 

Unlike other major democracies and US strategic partners, India chose a path of public neutrality towards Russia, abstaining from the March 2 UN General Assembly vote and refusing to join in on sanctions. What does this position entail ? How to explain it?

Two initial reactions come to mind. First, India is described through the narrative that it is an ally of the West - it is not there yet. India is a partner and wants to develop closer ties with the West but it is not yet in a formal alliance with it. Second, it should be underlined that India does not condone Russia’s military action in Ukraine. However, given India’s understanding of the situation and the way in which it may affect its national interest, it judged best to abstain at the General Assembly vote. It is often assumed that the primary reason behind this decision relates to Indian reliance on Russia for arms. This is a corollary reason. From India’s perspective "it takes two hands to clap": it does not agree with the Western perception of an unprovoked and unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine, but rather considered the situation to be preventable, according to confidential conversations with government officials.

To this day, if the "combined West" (i.e. US, EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand) intervenes, it is still possible to obtain a ceasefire, a cessation of hostilities and a restart of negotiations. India firmly maintained from the beginning that the path of diplomacy and dialogue should be the only viable option for addressing the conflict in Ukraine, reiterating its interest in a peaceful resolution.

A final dimension worth adding is that India views itself as a great power in global geopolitics. Being a geopolitical pillar implies keeping communication channels open with other world players - all leading nations have to be on the "network". This reason affected India’s decision to abstain and not join in on sanctions. It felt that its ability, if required, to intercede effectively with the Russians or the Americans (or anyone in the West for that matter) would be compromised from the beginning if it publicly took sides. 

How would you describe India-Russia relations? How will the relationship evolve due to the war? 

At the macro level, both India and Russia describe the bilateral relationship as "a privileged and special strategic partnership", meaning Russia is considered to be a consequential partner for Indian interests on the Eurasian landmass. In the Indo-Pacific, in contrast, the United States serves as the main partner. 

The US today is unquestionably more important to India than Russia is, but India cannot ensure its security and pursue its national interests without solid ties to Russia. This is notably the case in Afghanistan and in Central Asia. Geopolitically speaking, Russia is seen as a great power. The desire for multipolarity is a shared concern by both Russia and India. The two believe they must maintain a close relationship because it allows room for maneuverability on both sides.

The desire for multipolarity is a shared concern by both Russia and India. The two believe they must maintain a close relationship because it allows room for maneuverability on both sides.

On a more practical level, there are multiple pillars on which this relationship rests. The primary one is military and technical - India acquires a large amount of arms from Russia. It also develops jointly with Russia multiple defense platforms. One of them is the BrahMos joint-venture between the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Russian Federation's NPO Mashinostroyeniya, who together developed the BrahMos missile (a medium-range stealth ramjet and the world’s first supersonic cruise missile). It is also known that Russia consults India on its indigineous nuclear submarines program. India is expected to lease a third Akula class submarine from Russia, to be known as Chakra III.

So far, this is the only relationship of its kind globally - no other nation leased a nuclear submarine to another. Of course, India may have to recalibrate this cooperation given how Western sanctions damaged Russia’s military-industrial complex. Going forward India will make its own independent assessment on the state of the Russian arms industry before embarking on any recalibration.

Apart from the military aspect, India and Russia have preserved a robust civil nuclear energy partnership. Following the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal, and the removal of sanction against India following the 1998 nuclear tests conducted in Rajasthan's Pokhran area, Russians are the only ones that have been able to operationalize nuclear power plants in India. In fact, their latest delivery took place just a few days back, after the Ukraine war broke out. There is an ambitious program to acquire more. France is also looking to sell nuclear reactors to India. So far they are only in the negotiations phase and work on the plant projects have yet to materialize. 

Finally, India and Russia have a mutual interest in cooperation in the energy sector, which has come into focus as a result of the Ukraine war. India’s purchase of Russian crude oil has jumped, going from less than 1% to double digit percentages since the beginning of the war. India is one of the biggest refineries of crude in the world, its main export is refined petroleum products. Private producers are buying Russian crude oil in large amounts, which comes with a significant discount.

Going forward, India will not join the Western attempt to isolate and weaken Russia, it will keep being committed to its relationship with Moscow. What will be important to consider going forward is the effect of sanctions on Russia in a year or two. So far, effects are not entirely felt, despite some harm. Depending on the economic state of Russia, India’s relationship with Moscow will evolve to reflect that change in the country’s status. 

What are the current and expected economic, diplomatic and security consequences of the Ukraine war on India?

The war in Ukraine is having far reaching consequences, especially coupled with sanctions. The situation evolved into a humanitarian crisis, turned food security volatile and raised questions about the architecture of global trade. 

In a first instance, the combination of war and sanctions is disrupting world trade and severely impacting developing economies. In India specifically, fuel prices have sharply increased in Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai, and India has turned to buying considerable quantities of cheap Russian oil. 

A second aspect relates to the chaos in the $120 billion global grains trade. Grain trade has been affected and reports already underline risks of famine in Africa and the Middle East. India is facing several problems because the temptation to export grain from India is very high given that the global market price is significantly higher than domestic price. India has right now put a restriction on export and is doing sales through government approval to countries which are facing dire humanitarian crises due to the lack of grains. 

In India specifically, fuel prices have sharply increased in Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai.

The third aspect, unsurprisingly, is the disruption in normal trade. India does not have the ability to pay Russia for security purchases in dollars or euros anymore. India and Russia are considering new payment technologies so that India can meet its basic security requirements. There are arms critical to India’s security that it needs to purchase, such as the 2018 $5 billion deal to buy five units of the S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia. India only received one so far, four more units are in the pipeline.

On the diplomatic front, India is not joining Western ambitions to isolate Russia. We can expect multiple areas on which Russia and India will meet bilaterally. Cooperation in Afghanistan for instance is one, as India and Russia both consider that terrorism can spill out of Afghanistan and into the neighborhood. This is perceived as a direct security threat and will reinvigorate bilateral anti-terror cooperation efforts. Joint collaboration is also expected in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which encompasses all the Central Asian countries - an extended neighborhood for India. India is also part of the BRICS, which include several important economic initiatives including the New Development Bank (NDB). The diplomatic relationship with Russia is thus unlikely to end. 

There are no serious impediments to the security cooperation with Russia as of today. Some of the sanctions affect Russian arms production capacity, and it is in India’s interests to anticipate setbacks in material delivery. In terms of military cooperation, India wants arms to be produced domestically. Directly achieving this goal will be difficult, but it can gain ground by indigenizing part of the production. Russia leads globally here and is already producing automatic rifles in India under Russian license. There is a certain experience and comfort-level developed between the two; it is likely that the government of India wants to build their own military industrial complex and will work with Russia on this. The war is an unfortunate event but Indian political elites are not going to give up their ties to Russia because of it. An important element moving forward will be to monitor the evolution of Western sanctions on Russia, and any resulting damage these could bring.



Copyright: Yuri KADOBNOV / POOL / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English