Since the beginning of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the Indian government, and large segments of the Indian public, have firmly been on Putin’s side. Hashtags like #IStandWithPutin and #istandwithrussia trended on Indian social media, and the Indian government demonstrated – perhaps most notably by refusing to support UN resolutions condemning the invasion – that it is not willing to jeopardise its strong ties with Russia over Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
India’s approach to the situation in Ukraine is hardly surprising or atypical. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties following India’s independence in 1947, relations between Moscow and New Delhi have been shaped by a “high degree of political and strategic trust”. Across the years, Russia and India routinely took similar stances and supported each other on contentious international issues.
From the very beginning, Moscow saw its alliance with India as essential for offsetting American and Chinese dominance in Asia. And India always enjoyed the leverage that support from a major power like Russia provided in international politics. In 1961, after India used its military to end Portuguese colonial sovereignty over Goa, Daman and Diu, for example, the US, the UK, France, and Turkey put forth a resolution condemning India and calling upon its government to withdraw its troops immediately. But the Soviet Union opposed the proposal. In 1971, India and the Soviet Union signed the “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation”. The treaty formalised India’s alliance with what was then a superpower and arguably ensured its preeminence in South Asia.
The Soviet Union and later Russia’s support for India on the issue of Kashmir has also been unrelenting and politically significant. In 1955, declaring support for Indian sovereignty over Kashmir, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said, “We are so near that if ever you call us from the mountain tops we will appear at your side.” Since then, Moscow has been a bulwark against international intervention in Kashmir. The Soviet Union vetoed UN Security Council resolutions in 1957, 1962 and 1971 that called for international intervention in Kashmir, insisting that it is a bilateral issue that needs to be solved through negotiations between India and Pakistan. And it took a similar stance on the Indo-Pak conflict in general. Such a stance was appreciated across the political spectrum in India.
In 2000, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and then Prime Minister Vajpayee signed a “Declaration of Strategic Partnership”. In 2010, marking a decade of this strategic partnership, both countries signed the “Special and Strategic Partnership”. As part of this special partnership, Russia reaffirmed its pro-India stance on Kashmir. In 2019, when India scrapped Article 370 of its constitution that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, the Modi government faced severe criticism in the international arena, but Russia once again deemed this to be an “internal matter” for India.
The relationship between Russia and India, however, is not dependent only on UN vetoes and favourable political statements. The decades-old Indo-Russian alliance is also underpinned by a long history of bilateral collaboration on economic and strategic issues. The Soviet Union was India’s largest trading partner until its collapse. Soviet economic contributions and technical know-how were essential in the establishment of India’s domestic industries, including oil and gas and mining. The Soviet Union also helped ensure India’s energy security. The first Indian citizen to travel to space, Rakesh Sharma, had done so through the Soviet Union’s Intekosmos programme.
Of course, the most enduring aspect of the Indo-Russian ties has been the military cooperation between the two countries. The Soviet Union is said to have supplied India during the years with enough military hardware to equip several fleets. This has included “aircraft carriers, tanks, guns, fighter jets, and missiles”. The Soviet Union was also central to the creation of the Indian navy and, in the 1980s, it even leased a nuclear-powered submarine to India. This Soviet-era legacy has persisted post-1991. Russian-origin weapons are believed to account for 60 to 85 percent of the hardware of the Indian armed forces today.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia was the second-largest global arms exporter to India between 2016 and 2020. As its largest importer, India received 23 percent of Russian hardware. Admittedly, compared with 2011-2015, exports to India dropped by 53 percent. However, there are several recent deals in the works. This includes a deal to buy state-of-the-art air defence systems, a Russian proposal to build AIP-powered conventional submarines, as well as a plan to lease two Russian nuclear-ballistic submarines.
In light of this long history of strong diplomatic, military, cultural and economic ties, it is hardly surprising that the Indian government and the public at large, chose to stand with Russia as it faced condemnation from the international community. India wants to maintain a positive relationship with Russia because it needs Moscow’s support in resolving its territorial conflicts with its neighbours, especially China. It also wants to continue to enjoy economic and military support from Russia. Furthermore, as Russia repeatedly supported India at the UN on issues like Kashmir, many Indians feel as if it is now their turn to return the favour. Maintaining support for Russia is not going to be easy for India in the coming weeks and months – especially as Moscow, facing crippling sanctions, comes closer to officially becoming a pariah state. India, however, is experienced in maintaining a needs-based partnership with pariah states. It did so with Iran, for example, despite mounting pressure from the US. Furthermore, under Modi’s leadership, India cultivated strong relationships with other authoritarian leaders like Putin, who had received much criticism from the international community because of their rhetoric and actions, on issues like human rights, democracy and migration, in recent years. Modi famously enjoyed a “bromance” with populist right-wing US President Donald Trump. Under Israel’s far-right leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel laid the foundations for a robust economic and strategic alliance with India. In 2020, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was a guest of honour at India’s annual Republic Day celebration in New Delhi.
But all this does not mean India will maintain its support for Russia whatever it does. In recent years, New Delhi has been rapidly strengthening its ties with the West, and it may soon become too costly for it to maintain its traditional ties with Moscow.
Indeed, if Russia fails to score a decisive victory in Ukraine, or struggles to maintain its economic and military influence in Asia due to sanctions, the Indian government may feel the need to reassess its stance on Putin. But, at least for now, no one should be at all surprised that India is “standing with Russia” and “supporting Putin”.