Why India Must Not Remain Silent on Ukraine

Why India Must Not Remain Silent on Ukraine

India cannot change Russia’s course in Ukraine. But it can end its acquiescence in Russian aggression.


While the world has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India has remained largely silent. Indian leaders have encouraged peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis and agreed to send Ukraine humanitarian aid after urgent appeals from Kyiv. But India has refused directly to criticize the Russian attack, abstaining from resolutions condemning Russia in both the United Nations Security Council and the UN General Assembly. Although rooted in realpolitik concerns, India’s reaction to Russia’s aggression has, on balance, damaged its strategic interests. Consequently, India should change course and publicly state its opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

India’s refusal to disavow the Russian invasion is grounded in several strategic calculations. India enjoyed close diplomatic and security relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Today, it continues to rely heavily on Russian military equipment, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of its inventory. If Russia were to cut off military supplies in response to Indian criticism, it could notably weaken India—an especially dangerous consequence given India’s ongoing standoff with China along its disputed northern border.


India’s growing arms trade with the United States could make up some of the potentially lost military supplies from Russia. But given the scope of India’s dependence on Russia, the United States would not be able to replace it quickly. Also, India does not wholly trust the United States, which has previously refused to sell India important weapons, including air and missile-defense systems, which Russia has gladly supplied.

Finally, India is most concerned with strategic developments in its immediate vicinity, where a revisionist China actively seeks to redraw the Sino-Indian border. The Ukraine crisis, however serious, is far off, and it is not of India’s making. India is hesitant to insert itself into such disputes, particularly when faced with urgent security challenges at home.

These are serious concerns, and India cannot take them lightly. Nonetheless, refusal to criticize Russia does India more harm than good. An Indian condemnation of Russia’s attack would not change Russian behavior. But India’s unwillingness to condemn the invasion gives Russia de facto support, reducing its diplomatic isolation and facilitating its aggression. Russian aggression has three significant costs for India.

First, Russian aggression makes a Chinese attack on India more likely to occur and succeed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine denies the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that undergird the nation-state system and protect weak states from predation. If Russia successfully defeats Ukraine, it will embolden an attentive China to similarly vindicate its revisionist claims against India. And, having quietly watched Ukraine being overrun, India will lose standing to criticize Chinese actions or to ask for help in resisting them.

Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to undermine India’s strategic partnership with the United States. Distracted by the crisis, the United States may divert attention and resources from the Indo-Pacific to Europe. India needs the United States to remain focused on the Indo-Pacific because it cannot resist a rising China alone. This fact has underlain India’s willingness to partner closely with the United States, despite a longstanding Indian preference for strategic autonomy. India must do what it can to keep the United States engaged in the Indo-Pacific region. War in Ukraine will have the opposite effect.

In addition, perceived Indian indifference to Russian aggression in Ukraine undercuts India’s normative appeal as a U.S. partner. U.S.-India cooperation is predicated primarily on the strategic need to balance Chinese power. Nonetheless, values are an important component of the relationship. Indeed, a shared liberal vision for the Indo-Pacific region is a major reason for the two countries to balance China in the first place. India’s refusal to condemn Russian aggression won’t undo the strategic logic of U.S.-India cooperation. But it makes India less attractive and strengthens the hand of skeptics in the United States, who believe that India will never be a reliable partner. As the invasion becomes increasingly brutal, with Russia now deliberately attacking Ukrainian civilian targets, these criticisms are amplified and more relevant.

Third, conflict in Ukraine can bring China and Russia together. An increasingly isolated Russia may have little choice but to seek Chinese support. And perhaps in anticipation of the day when it asks Russia to return the favor, China may provide assistance. The two countries’ recent thirty-year agreement to supply China with Russian gas through a new pipeline is a case in point. Sino-Russian cooperation could make China even more dangerous to India than it already is while also pressing Russia to be less aligned with India than it has traditionally been.

India cannot change Russia’s course in Ukraine. But it can end its acquiescence in Russian aggression. Indian participation in a full-throated condemnation in the United Nations was perhaps too much to ask, but other options exist. Even a relatively quiet public expression of disapproval, in a less symbolic setting, would be a significant step forward. It would still contribute to Russia’s isolation and put India on the right side of the Ukraine conflict.

Over the longer term, India should limit Russian leverage over its foreign policy by reducing its dependence on Russian military supplies. Numerous partners would be ready to help make up the difference, including the United States, Israel, and European states. India might resist this shift after decades of working closely with the Russians. But the Ukraine crisis makes clear that even a self-interested India may find such fundamental change to be its best option.

S. Paul Kapur is a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff from 2020-2021.

The views presented are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the Naval Postgraduate School.

Image: Reuters.