By James Chiriyankandath (Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London)[1]

It is four months since Russia launched its offensive against Ukraine, the start of the bloodiest war in Europe since the Second World War, a conflict that has turned Russia into a pariah for the western world. The war has dominated the airwaves in Europe as millions of Ukrainians have left their embattled homeland with Poland, and Russia itself, each hosting over a million refugees and hundreds of thousands more spread across the European Union (including 70,000 in the UK). It is therefore hard to comprehend from a western vantage point how the war maybe perceived and why some western observers have expressed disappointment and surprise at the reaction of India, often described as the world’s largest democracy and since the end of the Cold War growing closer to the US and the European Union and regarded by the United States as an ally in checking the global rise of China. I shall consider the apparent continuity in Indian foreign policy reflected in the Modi government’s restrained approach to the Ukraine conflict in relation to the past (history), the present (realpolitik) and the unchanging imperative of geography.

Richard Haass, president of the US Council of Foreign Relations tweeted that India’s initial response shows that “it remains unprepared to step up to major power responsibilities or be a dependable partner”. This indicated not only a lack of appreciation of the nature of India’s approach to foreign policy, past and present, but also a broader insensibility to how the world beyond Europe and North America view NATO and Russia and the post-Cold War world. President Biden’s initial statement on Russia’s attack held echoes of George W. Bush’s challenge to the world after 9/11 – “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” He declared, “Putin will be a pariah on the international stage. Any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.”

“Realpolitik”[2] should be understood as meaning the diagnosis of international political behaviour realistically and in context instead of on the basis of normative assumptions. A state’s foreign policy is influenced and shaped in different ways – by its history and how it is seen by policymakers and their publics; the dominant state ideology and the habits (common sense) pervading the mentality of those tasked with implementing it; the quality of the policymaking apparatus; geographical, economic and power dynamics; and the personal relationships and sympathies of its leaders.

After reviewing India’s approach to the Ukraine conflict since the Russian invasion, I shall consider the apparent continuity in Indian foreign policy reflected in the government’s restrained approach in relation to past history, present interests and geopolitical imperatives.

India’s response to the Ukraine war

As Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, to stress the importance of a “strong collective response” to condemn what the US called Russia’s “premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack”. As one of the ten non-permanent member of the UN Security Council until December 2022, India could not delay in taking a position. When the UNSC met the following day it joined China and the UAE in abstaining on a US-sponsored resolution, vetoed by Russia, strongly deploring Russian aggression and calling for the unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces. The Indian representative, T.S. Tirumurti, explained the abstention by saying that dialogue was the only way to settle disputes, expressing regret that diplomacy had been abandoned and calling for a return to that path.

Having spoken two days earlier with Russian President Vladimir Putin and reiterated his longstanding conviction that the differences between Russia and NATO could only be resolved through honest and sincere dialogue. That Modi referred to Russia’s differences with NATO rather than its conflict with Ukraine was significant as it reflected a perception of the war as an outcome of the former rather than simply in terms of Russia attacking its neighbour. On 26 February Prime Minister Narendra Modi also spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling for an immediate cessation of violence and a return to dialogue, and expressing India’s willingness to contribute in any way towards peace efforts.

India again abstained in the UNSC vote on 27 February to hold an emergency session of the UN General Assembly (on this occasion Ambassador Tirumurti also expressed deep concern about the situation of Indian nationals, including students, in Ukraine). On the next day it abstained in a vote in the UN Human Rights Council to hold an urgent debate on the human rights situation following the Russian invasion.

On 1 March Modi for the first time publicly spoke of the need to respect the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations” during phone conversations with prime ministers of two of Ukraine’s land neighbours, the Slovak Republic and Romania, in which he thanked them for their assistance in evacuating Indian nationals from Ukraine (18500 Indian nationals, mainly students, were evacuated by India in “Operation Ganga”).

When on 2 March the General Assembly voted 141-5 for a resolution deploring the Russian aggression and calling for the unconditional withdrawal of its forces, India was among the 35 states that abstained, along with China and its South Asian neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as its BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China and South Africa) and IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) partner and fellow Commonwealth member South Africa. On the next day it also abstained, again like Pakistan and South Africa, in a 26-2 (Russia and China) vote by the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency calling for Russia to “immediately cease all actions against, and at, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and any other nuclear facility in Ukraine, in order for the competent Ukrainian authorities to preserve or promptly regain full control”.

This established Indian position has been reiterated, with slightly varying emphases, in Indian  pronouncements on the war ever since. Their task was eased by the broad domestic consensus. Former union minister Anand Sharma, chair of the foreign affairs department of the biggest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, said “The path of diplomatic negotiations must be embraced in all sincerity for a negotiated resolution of all issues between Russia and Ukraine, respecting the Minsk and Russia-NATO agreements and earlier understandings”. Although a few Congress MPs demurred there was no significant dissent. When Shashi Tharoor, another former minister and onetime UN under-secretary-general, commented that “After our abstention, many regretted that India had placed itself on the ‘wrong side of history,” Anand Sharma said his colleague’s views “are personal” and remarked that strong language should not be used. Another Congress MP and ex-union minister, Manish Tewari tweeted that he wished India stood with Ukrainians against this “unprecedented & unjustified aggression” and former finance minister P Chidambaram also tweeted: “The Government of India should stop its verbal balancing act and sternly demand that Russia stop immediately the bombing of key cities in Ukraine.”

The position taken by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was more critical of the west. While calling Russia’s military action “unfortunate,” it went on to add:

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States led NATO has been steadily expanding eastward, contrary to the assurance given to Russia. The efforts to get Ukraine to join NATO would pose a direct threat to Russia’s security…The refusal by the U.S. and NATO to meet the Russian security needs and the belligerence of the US in sending troops to the region have further escalated tensions. For peace to be established, the genuine concerns of all the peoples, including of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, should be  addressed.

Coverage in the Indian press and television news channels was generally appreciative of the Indian government stance. Though NDTV, a target in the past of the ire of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party because of its more critical coverage of the government and the activities of Hindu nationalist  groups, did send one of its chief news anchors, Vishnu Som, to Ukraine to cover the first weeks of the war, the airtime devoted to the conflict was in the main far less than the saturation coverage it had on television channels in Europe and North America, especially in the first weeks. In television talk shows such as that of the aggressively Hindu nationalist Arnab Goswami of Republic TV and other media comment the application of double standards in international relations was often raised, it being recalled that western powers had in the past also disregarded norms in invading states and been responsible for war crimes and human rights abuses without facing the kind of international sanctions they sought to apply to Russia. The western reaction was also criticised as irresponsibly raising the stakes in a military conflict with one of the two powers in the world possessing a nuclear arsenal capable of devastating the planet. The Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s foremost commentators, writing in the Indian Express, lamented: “An America losing capital outside the west because of its hypocrisy, a Europe still speaking in forked tongues, a Russia that would rather see the world and its own citizens suffer, and India and China using western hypocrisy as a cover for displaying an outright cynicism, is not a good portent for a world order.”

As far as it is possible to judge public opinion mirrored the political consensus. A poll  at the beginning of March found that out of 29,000 Indians surveyed, 62 percent supported India’s abstention from condemning the invasion.

On 4 March India was again, together with China and Pakistan, among the thirteen countries that abstained from voting on a resolution of the UN Human Right Council condemning the human rights abuses and violations in Ukraine stemming from Russian aggression, calling for it to end and establishing an international commission of inquiry. The resolution passed 32-2.

While not joining in condemning Russia, India also did not vote with Russia on any occasion. On 23 March it joined twelve other members in abstaining on a Russian resolution in the UNSC demanding civilian protection and unhindered assistance for humanitarian assistance in Ukraine, a resolution that only received the support of China. This was followed by the General Assembly passing, by 140 votes to 5, a resolution drafted by Ukraine entitled Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine. India, again like China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (but this time not Bangladesh) and South Africa, was among 38 abstentions (10 absent). That India also abstained in a 67-50 vote (36 abstentions, 40 states absent) not to consider an alternative South African draft that did not refer to Russia – Humanitarian situation emanating out of the conflict in Ukraine – was perhaps indication of its extreme caution in not taking sides.

On 7 April, the UN General Assembly voted 93-24 for a US-initiated resolution to suspend Russia from UNHRC. Unlike China, India was once again one of the 58 abstentions (18 member states were absent), this time along with 19 other members of the Commonwealth, among them its South Asian neighbours and South Africa. This was despite a reported Russian warning that a vote for the resolution or abstention would be seen as an unfriendly gesture and hurt bilateral ties. Ambassador Tirumurti said his delegation abstained in the vote for reasons of both substance and process. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, India had stood for peace, dialogue and diplomacy. Voicing deep concern about the worsening situation and reiterating his call for an end to all hostilities, he declared:  “When innocent human lives are at stake, diplomacy must prevail as the only viable option.”  He also condemned recent civilian killings in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, calling for an independent investigation, adding that it was in the global community’s collective interest to work constructively — both inside the United Nations and outside — towards an early resolution to the conflict. He stressed that all decisions should be taken with full respect for due process, adding that this principle also applies to international organizations such as the United Nations, an oblique reference to the unease among a large number of member-states about expelling Russia without waiting for the outcome of a probe into the alleged human rights violations.

On 12 May India abstained for the tenth time in eleven weeks in voting on a draft resolution or a procedural matter related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at a major UN body, this time on a resolution approved by the United Nations Human Rights Council updating the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry previously established to also probe alleged war crimes in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces. The UNHRC resolution passed by 33 votes to 2 with twelve abstentions.

The Modi government, and its Congress-led predecessor, has not been shy of maintaining good relations with states regarded by western powers as international pariahs . It has long done so with Iran, for example, despite mounting pressure from the US and notwithstanding its cultivation of close ties with Iran’s archfoe, Israel, as well as with Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, under Modi’s leadership, India has cultivated strong relationships with authoritarian leaders like him criticised for their rhetoric and actions, on issues like human rights, democracy and migration. In his eight years in office Modi appeared to get along well not only with Putin but also former US president Donald Trump, and Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2020, Brazil’s controversial president Jair Bolsonaro was the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day celebration. How deep all this goes is hard to say, after all Modi appeared publicly to also enjoy a good rapport with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and others such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s assertively nationalist prime minister until 2020. The criticism of the treatment of religious minorities and rights activists under the Modi government, notably by prominent international human rights NGOs, and even UN rapporteurs, is also pertinent in understanding its attitude to governments and leaders facing international obloquy.

India’s stance on Ukraine and refusal to join in condemning Russia has hitherto had insignificant impact on its international relationships. Although the US Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh, visiting India at the end of March, appeared to warn of potential “consequences” for countries that attempt to undermine U.S. sanctions, this was subsequently underplayed. In April Prime Minister Modi held a virtual meeting with US President Biden coinciding with the visit of the Indian foreign and defence ministers to Washington for the 4th India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, after which the ministers urged an immediate cessation of hostilities … unequivocally condemned civilian deaths [and] underscored that the contemporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, respect for international law, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. Modi himself described the killing of innocent civilians in the city of Bucha as very worrying, condemning it and demanding a fair probe.

Modi attended two meetings of the leaders of the Quad group of Australia, India, Japan and the USA, a virtual one in March followed by an in person summit in Tokyo in May. Although US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu, said in March that “all of us have been working to urge India to take a clear position, a position opposed to Russia’s actions”, the joint statements on both occasions only referred to discussing the Ukraine conflict. This was also case in the joint statement following UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s talks with Modi during his visit to India in April.

When Modi visited Europe in May, meeting with the leaders of Germany and France and attending a summit with the prime ministers of the Nordic states in Copenhagen, the joint statements on the talks all followed an identical formula in relation to Ukraine. India joined in expressing serious concern about the ongoing humanitarian crisis, unequivocally condemning civilian deaths, reiterating the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities and emphasising that the contemporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, international law and respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states while Germany, France and the Nordic states separately repeated their strong condemnation of the unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russia.

Even though India held back from joining in any condemnation of Russian actions, it does appear to have subtly sought to express its unease. Apart from not actually joining Russia in any vote relating to the conflict in a UN forum, no Indian ministers have visited Russia since the invasion. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did meet Modi on 1 April during a 2-day visit to India during which he told his Indian counterparts that Russia was willing to discuss any goods that India wanted to buy and urged that payments be made in roubles. At a virtual meeting of BRICS foreign ministers in May, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar reminded his counterparts that the group had repeatedly affirmed respect for sovereign equality, territorial integrity and international law, adding “We must live up to these commitments”. Given the ongoing Sino-Indian border disputes, the remark was primarily intended for the Chinese foreign minister but its significance would not have escaped Foreign Minister Lavrov.

I shall turn now to explain India’s attitude to the Ukraine war with reference to history, interest and geopolitics.

Realpolitik: History

In the case of India, as with other post-colonial states, there is the history of the old Soviet Union’s professed support of the anti-colonial struggle and the sympathy for the Soviet experiment among left inclined nationalists, including India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru. However, it was more tangible factors that made the Indo-Soviet relationship the most important that India had with any of the  major powers through much of the Cold War, notwithstanding its position as a founder of the Nonaligned Movement. As Pakistan became part of the US-led anti-Soviet network of Cold War alliances as a founder of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) in 1955, Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai Bulganin’s visit to India at the end of that year marked a significant turning point. Declaring support for Indian sovereignty over Kashmir in the state’s capital, Srinagar, Khrushchev said, “We are so near that if ever you call us from the mountain tops we will appear at your side.”[3]

Ever since, Moscow (whether as the USSR or the Russian Federation) has proved an important and reliable bulwark against international intervention in Kashmir. The Soviet Union wielded vetoes in the UN Security Council on India’s behalf on six occasions between 1957 and 1971. It rejected international intervention in Kashmir, insisting that it is a bilateral issue that needs to be solved through negotiations between India and Pakistan. It is a stance that the Russian Federation has continued to take. For instance, in January 2020, following a China-led push for international, Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative to the UN, tweeted, “UNSC discussed Kashmir in closed consultations. Russia firmly stands for the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan. We hope that differences between them will be settled through bilateral efforts.” In the same month, after envoys of several countries including the USA visited Kashmir, the Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev refused to do so. He said, “I do not feel there is a reason for me to travel. This is an internal matter belonging to the Constitution of India … This is not an issue for Russia. Those who believe that this is an issue, those who are concerned about the situation in Kashmir, those who doubt the Indian policies in Kashmir can travel and see for themselves. We never put it in doubt.”

The strong ties  between the two states found institutional expression with the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed in August 1971, which specified mutual strategic cooperation. It came before the creation of Bangladesh that India supported. By contrast, President Richard Nixon, who called Indians “slippery treacherous people”[4], ordered a US task force to the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War in what was seen as a warning to India to back off its military advance.

This was not forgotten in Delhi and that did not just apply to Congress leaders. In 1978, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then External Affairs Minister in the short-lived post-Emergency Janata government, and two years later a founder of the Hindu nationalist BJP,  put aside his ideological differences with the Soviet Union, and greeted a Soviet delegation saying, “our country found the only reliable friend in the Soviet Union alone”. As India’s first BJP prime minister, Vajpayee signed a “Declaration of Strategic Partnership” with President Vladimir Putin in 2000. At the 6th BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) Summit in Fortaleza in July 2014, his BJP successor Narendra Modi toldPutin “If you ask anyone among the more than one billion people living in India who is our country’s greatest friend, every person, every child knows that it is Russia”.

Apart from being India’s main advanced military equipment supplier in the decades of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was India’s largest trading partner until its collapse. And Soviet economic contributions and technical expertise were essential in the establishment of India’s domestic industries, including oil, gas, and mining. The USSR also helped ensure India’s energy security.

Echoing the USSR’s backing for India on its 1974 “peaceful nuclear test” and its annexation of Sikkim in 1975, both denounced by the west and China, the Russian Federation backed India on its second nuclear tests in 1998, in contrast to near universal condemnation by western states. It also supported India during the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999 and, more recently, refused to back China in the 2017 Doklam standoff and supported India’s abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. In September 2020 Russia played a mediatory role in the wake of the Sino-Indian border clash at Galwan, helping defuse tensions at a Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation session in Moscow.

Over the past seven decades India has reciprocated. It backed the USSR at the United Nations when need be, such as on a General Assembly resolution calling for the Soviet withdrawal from Hungary in 1956. When Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring in 1968, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made a disapproving reference in the Lok Sabha but refrained from criticising Moscow on an international platform. When the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the new pro-Soviet regime, many in India – including caretaker Prime Minister Charan Singh – strongly opposed this but India once again abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Soviet Union. More than two decades later, under the last BJP-led government, it  voted against a 2003 UN Human Rights Commission resolution that condemned Russia’s “disproportionate use of force” in the second Chechen war. In 2008, it also voted against a UN General Assembly resolution that declared the “right of return” of those displaced by Russia’s campaign in Abkhazia, regarded by Georgia as Russian-occupied territory. In 2014, under the same Congress-led government of Manmohan Singh, India abstained on a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Crimea, acknowledging “legitimate Russian and other interests” and, in 2020, India voted against an Ukraine-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution condemning human rights violations in Crimea that was adopted by 64 votes to 23 (83 abstentions).

Realpolitik: Defence and economic interests

Moving from history to the defence and economic relationship between India and Russia, a central factor in the relationship is the longstanding cooperation in defence. India remains heavily dependent on Russian military hardware.

In 2010 the Indo-Russian tie up was upgraded to a “special and privileged strategic partnership”. Since then, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute cited in a 2021 US Congressional Research Service report, “Russia has been the source of nearly two-thirds (62%) of all Indian arms imports and India has been the largest Russian arms importer and has accounted for nearly one-third (32%) of all Russian arms exports.” This includes a wide range of key weapon systems critical to India’s military capabilities: main battle tanks, naval aircraft carrier, fighter jets, guided missile destroyers, frigates, nuclear-powered and conventional submarines, and air force tankers. The Indian defence production industry relies heavily on Russian technology, while core operational and training modules are attuned to Russian frameworks.

India’s dependence on Russian weapons is systemic not product-specific. It is therefore not likely to disappear any time soon. In 2018, India signed a US$5 billion deal with Russia to buy S-400 air defence systems — a significant addition to India’s deterrence capabilities, delivery of which appears to have continued despite Russia’s war in Ukraine. In December 2021, India and Russia signed another ten-year program for military cooperation during the latest summit between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi.

Notwithstanding New Delhi’s nascent attempts at diversification and indigenisation, Indo-Russian strategic cooperation possesses a lingering depth that should not be underestimated. While the US might be eager to replace some of India’s existing defence orders with Russia, it has hitherto been unwilling to co-produce and co-develop advanced defence technologies in the way that Russia has, for example, on nuclear submarines, fighter jets and missiles. A decision is pending from President Biden on whether to impose sanctions on India for its S-400 deal with Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Senior US lawmakers have warned that unless he finds a way to allow a waiver for India, he will risk serious disruption to US-India ties and therefore the probability is that he will.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the USA has established itself as India’s biggest trading partner, closely followed by China. Russia is languishing in 25th place (the UK is 17th) in bilateral trade in 2021-22. However, at a time when world energy prices are reaching new heights, the availability of cheap energy from Russia is important for an Indian economy barely recovering from the impact of the Covid pandemic. Russia was reportedly offering discounts to India of as much as $30-35 per barrel on its flagship Urals grade crude oil. Between the start of the Ukraine war on February 24 and May 8, India’s purchases of crude oil from Russia jumped 393% to $1.86 billion, while those of petroleum products surged 175% to $560 million. Similarly, imports of coal, coke and briquettes, etc., climbed 277% to $630 million, and fertiliser purchases saw a jump to $376 million from just $43 million. Russian oil arrivals into India for May were at 740,000 barrels a day, up from 284,000 barrels in April and 34,000 barrels a year earlier. Mechanisms for sustaining trade income flows in the face of western financial sanctions imposed on Russia are being explored by India and Russia but whether the barter rupee-rouble mechanism that was used in the Soviet era proves as feasible in the more globalised 21st century environment is uncertain.

India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, has rejected criticism of India on Russian oil imports, noting that India’s total oil purchases from Russia in a month would probably be less than Europe’s in an afternoon. According to datacompiled by the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Russia exported fossil fuels worth $58 billion in the first two months of the Ukraine conflict, with most going to the EU. The largest importers of Russian coal, oil and gas were Germany, the Netherlands, Italy  and China.

Realpolitik: Geopolitics

A key element in understanding the attitude taken by India and other states outside Europe towards the Ukraine war is geopolitics. Even in the globalised 21st century world the truism that a state cannot choose its neighbours remains valid. Yet political geography is more about perception shaped by history than what appears on maps. For instance, why is it that in this discussion there is so much more about India and Russia than India and Ukraine? Russia has long figured in modern Indian foreign policy thinking, from the days of the British Raj and the Great Game with Tsarist Russia and, subsequently, the communist threat from the Soviet Union to the reliable friendship between independent India and the USSR. Relative proximity was important in this and even though this was less the case after the breakup of the USSR, the Russian Federation’s assumption of the position of successor to the Soviet Union internationally, especially at the UN, compensated in some measure in terms of Indian perceptions. Ukraine, by contrast, despite being the second most populous post-Soviet state, remained peripheral to the Indian foreign policy vision. Indo-Ukraine trade amounted to less than a third of Indo-Russian trade and, unlike with Russia, there was not much else to connect the two countries beyond a few thousand Indian students attracted by the cheap university degrees, especially in medicine, on offer in Ukraine.

Preoccupied by its longstanding concerns about its border conflicts with Pakistan and China, India does not feel it can afford to alienate Russia and thereby risk the latter’s growing intimacy with China translating into Russia abandoning its historic close ties with India. India’s desperate outreach to the Kremlin during the 2020 Galwan clashes showed how conscious New Delhi remained of Russia’s utility in keeping a check on China.

Comments made by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a veteran former diplomat who began his career in Moscow and went on to serve successively as ambassador to China and the USA and then foreign secretary, are useful in understanding India’s global viewpoint on the Ukraine conflict. At the annual Raisina Dialogue hosted by the Ministry of External Affairs in April, he observed that the Ukraine crisis would naturally pre-occupy Europe at this time

to the exclusion of almost everything else, but there is also a world out there … I am very glad that you are sitting in India because it would remind you that there are equally pressing issues in other parts of the world… (Let me say) quite candidly, (that) we have been hearing for the last two months a lot of argument from Europe saying that things happening in Europe should worry (us) … because these could happen in Asia… Guess what, things have been happening in Asia for the last ten years. Europe may not have looked at it. So you know it could be a wake-up call for Europe, not just in Europe, but it could be a wake-up call for Europe to also look at Asia.

He added that Europe’s invocation for global unity in protecting the rules-based order in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was selective, with no such visible outrage when Afghanistan was “thrown under the bus.”

Jaishankar elaborated on this theme at a GLOBSEC 2022 Forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, in early June.

In terms of the connection you are making, we have a difficult relationship with China and we are perfectly capable of managing it. If I get global understanding and support, obviously it is of help to me … But this idea that I do a transaction — I come in one conflict because it will help me in conflict two — that’s not how the world works. A lot of our problems in China have nothing to do with Ukraine and have nothing to do with Russia… Somewhere Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.

(In this connection, it is worth noting that when the opposition Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi was asked about Ukraine when speaking at the Ideas for India Conference in London in May, he elided the issue by drawing a parallel with China’s border incursions in Doklam and Ladakh.)

Shivshankar Menon, one of Jaishankar’s predecessors as foreign secretary, provides an insightful non-European perspective on the Ukraine conflict:

When Europe was the central fault line in the superpower contest, no wars were fought in the region; borders stayed frozen, lest any change provoke conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers. But after the Cold War, conflict in Europe – in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and today in Ukraine – became neither unthinkable nor fraught with the same risks of annihilation or escalation, despite some alarmist panic about these apocalyptic possibilities today. Europe is a sideshow to the main theatre of geopolitical drama: Asia.

Today, the centre of gravity of the world economy has moved from the Atlantic to east of the Urals. Geopolitical disputes and security dilemmas that could affect the global order are concentrated in maritime Asia. And the world seeks a new equilibrium to account for China’s rise. The complex political dynamics in Asia don’t lend themselves easily to the kind of stark confrontation underway in Ukraine. Policymakers in western countries should not think that their actions on the new frontlines in Europe will shape the contours of a wider struggle to come.


Those who might criticise the Indian position from a normative perspective tend to conflate western opinion with global opinion. What they do not consider is how such opinions are perceived in India (and elsewhere in the Global South) where they are usually read as sermons and seen as selective and hypocritical. Democratic governments have a track record of not condemning others and disregarding differences in approach when it suits them. India’s response to the Russia-Ukraine War – and the reaction to it of western governments which have responded very differently – seem to illustrate this.


[2] Bew, John, Realpolitik: A History (Oxford University Press, 2016)

[3] Abdullah, Sheikh Mohammad, Flames of the Chinar (translated from the Urdu, New Delhi, 1993), p. 134.

[4] Bass, Gary J., The Blood Telegram. Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide (New York, 2013), p. 177.