India-Russia Relations The War in Ukraine and Asia’s Rising Superpower

India’s presidency of both the G20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation provides it with a significant opportunity to shape the dialogue at a time of great challenges including war, climate, and recession. The recently concluded Raisina Dialogue, India’s premier multi-lateral conference on geopolitics, in New Delhi captures most aptly the dilemma facing India in simultaneously hosting foreign secretaries from the US, Russia, Japan, the EU, Australia, and various military, former and current heads of state. Headlines were made by comments from Blinken, Lavrov, Borrell, Bill Gates, Aquilino, and Blair, and its own cutting Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar. The event swung between a measured dialogue of geopolitical affairs and a stormy and combative argument on matters of national power and pride.

Thirteen months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world’s biggest democracy has not yet publicly condemned Moscow. While virtually every other major democracy in the world has cut ties with Russia, enacted strict sanctions, and provided increasing levels of support to Ukraine, India has doubled down on a friendship with Russia that India Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called “unbreakable”. While Europe scrambles to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, India has increased its fossil fuel imports ten-fold and placed new orders for Russian arms.

In the face of the first interstate war in Europe in nearly three generations, with a death toll already estimated to have crossed 300,000,i the West inability to sway India has been a cause of confusion and dismay among many Western leaders, and left many grasping for the underlying reasons for this. While some point to India’s deep historical ties with Russia extending back to Soviet days, others see India’s neutrality as a reflection of deeper indifference across the Global South to this conflict with the war perceived as a distraction from their more pressing issues like climate change, inequality, inflation, and sustainable development. Both sides are right, and India’s position is in fact the result of multiple interacting historical, security, political, economic, and social factors. But India’s position also reflects the country’s increasing agency in international affairs, the result of proactive choices being made by an emerging superpower that is beginning to find its feet as an independent actor on the world stage.

This month’s Sign of the Times looks to shed light on the history behind India’s evolving relationship with Russia and examines the importance of this relationship to India’s future path as an emerging superpower, as well as whether the choices it makes in relation to this relationship today might affect India’s relations with the rest of the world in the decades to come.


A World Apart: India’s Diverging View of Russia

The international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been unprecedented in terms of its speed and decisiveness, incorporating a combination of diplomatic, economic, and military measures aimed at supporting Ukraine. The United States and its allies have imposed severe sanctions on Russia, seeking to paralyse key sectors including energy, finance, and defence, often at a significant cost to the sanctioning countries themselves, and have provided over US$60 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the start of the war,ii and deployed troops and equipment to Eastern Europe as a show of deterrence. While most of the heavy lifting in this regard has been done by the United States and Europe, the support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia has been nearly unanimous across the world with the UN General Assembly adopting a resolution demanding the Russian Federation immediately end its invasion of Ukraine and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces from Ukraine by an overwhelming majority of 141 against 5, and with 35 abstentions.iii

And yet the abstaining states include some of the world’s most important countries from a geopolitical, geo-economic and environmental perspective. Among these, China has emerged most visibly as Russia’s most important geostrategic ally, and India too is increasingly at odds with the West on the topic. Since the start of hostilities India has maintained what it considers an independent position, calling for a cessation of violence while failing to condemn the invasion and increasing energy purchases from sanctions-hit Russia.

India’s refusal to condemn the indefensible is a source of frustration for the West and beyond, with its leaders left questioning why the world’s biggest democracy is not rushing to uphold what they see as the international liberal order alongside them.

To simplify it to why is a democracy not upholding the right to self-determination of another democracy is highly tempting. However, the answer, and India’s relations with Russia and the West, is much more complex than western leaders appear to give credit to, rooted not just in history, economics, geography and geostrategy, but also increasingly determined by India’s self-conception as a rising power and potential superpower of the 21st Century. What makes it even more complicated are the values of non-violence that the world appreciates India has stood for since its struggle for independence from British imperial rule.


Key Considerations of Indo-Russian Relations

Looking at the key considerations driving Indio-Russia relations, India’s decision not to join the West in supporting Ukraine and ostracising Russia become increasingly clear.


1. Independence of India’s Foreign Policy

“I would still like to see a more rules-based world. But when people start pressing you in the name of a rules-based order to give up, to compromise on what are very deep interests, at that stage I’m afraid it’s important to contest that and, if necessary, to call it out.”

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Foreign Minister, India, January 3, 2023

Perhaps most obviously, it is worth asking why India’s foreign policy should be assumed to align with the West in the first place? India is an independent nation whose fate is not bound to that of the West and the international order that it currently dominates. Unlike most of America’s allies, it is not a member of NATO or otherwise dependent on the US for security, nor is it a member of the G7, despite being the world’s sixth largest economy. Moreover, it remains underrepresented in multi-lateral institutions like the IMFiv and the UN Security Council, where it continues to lack a permanent seat. Given this lack of alignment with the ’West’ and its institutions, it is unsurprising that India’s foreign policy priorities do not map onto those of America, and indeed are sometimes at odds with them.


2. Historical Considerations

“India places top priority on ties with Russia. In today’s fast-changing world, our relationship assumes heightened importance.”

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, India, October 5, 2018

India and Russia share a long-standing relationship that dates back to the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union was a major source of development aid and arms for India. Since India’s independence both states have maintained close political and strategic ties, as well as a strong economic partnership, consistently supporting one another in various international forums, including the United Nations, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Russian historical support for India stands in stark contrast to US favouritism for India’s rival Pakistan, and the resulting deep reservoir of goodwill in New Delhi for Russia (and to some degree distrust of the US) shapes India’s foreign policy to this day.

Very importantly, between 1957 and 1971, the Soviet Union used its veto power six times in India’s favour regarding UN Security Council resolutions against India. These were in 1957 on the deployment of UN troops in Kashmir, in 1961 when India took back Goa from Portugal, in 1962 on Kashmir, and three times in December 1971 during the India-Pakistan war. The United States on the other hand proposed or supported every one of these resolutions, and countries like the UK and China each supported several of them.v


3. India’s Tradition of Non-Alignment

“I know that today’s era is not the era for war. We’ve spoken to you many times on the phone before on this, that democracy, diplomacy, and dialogue — these things help the world.”

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, India, September 16, 2022

Another historical factor is India’s former role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a forum of countries that sought to remain neutral during the Cold War and advocate for their interests on the world stage in which it was a founding member in 1961. While India's foreign policy has evolved over the years, and the relevance of the movement itself has declined since the end of the Cold War, the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries continue to influence foreign policy thinking in New Delhi.


4. Russia is Not a Threat to India

“There is a popular saying in India, 'Dosti se zyada kuch bhi nahi hota' (there is nothing more important than friendship). A very precise characteristic of the trusted and friendly character of Russia and India`s strategic partnership.”

Denis Alipov, Russia’s Ambassador to India, November 22, 2022

Unlike in NATO headquarters, Russia today is not perceived as a threat in New Delhi, and its interests are seen as orthogonal to India’s rather than being diametrically opposed to them. Since the end of the ‘Great Game’, the 19th century rivalry between the British rulers of India and the Russian Empire over influence in Western Asia, the two countries have had little geographic overlap and even less power projection in each other’s direction, with their regional interests often aligning in fact, for example with regards to Iranian nuclear security or radical Islamic terrorism. The existence of shared and perceived lack of opposing interests allows for a much more constructive relationship between the two countries.


5. Russia Offers a Security Buffer Against China

“I want to assure the nation that the sacrifice made by our soldiers will not go in vain. The country will be proud of the fact that our soldiers have been martyred while they were fighting.”

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, India, June 17, 2020
two days after a violent face-off with Chinese troops that left 20 Indian soldiers dead

While Russia may not be considered a threat to India, China most certainly is, having engaged in three military conflicts and multiple ongoing border disputes with New Delhi. While the rivalry between China and the US is set to be the century’s most important on a global scale, Beijing remains New Delhi’s fiercest competitor on a regional scale, economically, politically and over time perhaps militarily as well. Russia has consciously pursued relations with both India and China to create a club of Eurasian powers as a counterbalance to American and Western power, and thereby plays a potentially important role as a buffer maintaining a détente between the two regional rivals of India and China. However, to what extent Russia can continue to play this role in the face of its ever-closer ties with China and the deep fissures that have accompanied India and China’s border conflicts remains unclear.


6. Pragmatic Security Considerations

“What we realized in the last couple of years, based maybe on a direct fallout of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the pandemic situation…[was] that we need to become self-reliant. We also need to have more robust and secure supply chains … to better handle security challenges as we move forward.”

General Manoj Pande, Chief of Army Staff, India, January 14, 2023

Although India, the world’s largest arms importer, is diversifying its military procurement, (with France currently the largest defence exporter to the country), its military remains heavily dependent on Russian hardware, which represented nearly two third of total imports over the past With 70% to 85% of India's military platforms, including aircraft, helicopters, missile systems, battle tanks, and naval assets including a nuclear submarine and an aircraft carrier, of Russian origin,vii India is likely to remain dependent on Russia for replacements, parts and maintenance support for at least a decade to come until these platforms are fully replaced, creating a strong practical reasons to maintain good relations throughout this period.


7. Economic Interests and Considerations

“Europe has imported six times the fossil fuel energy from Russia than India has done since February 2022 and if a USD 60,000-per-capita society feels it needs to look after itself, they should not expect a USD 2,000-per-capita society to take a hit.”

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Foreign Minister, India, January 3, 2023

Russian arms exports also have an important economic consideration, as do energy exports. In the face of a crippling sanction regime and Europe weaning itself from Russian oil and gas imports, while India cannot replace the losses Russia faces in the West, India has become a more significant trading partner for Russia. And Russia has become the most dependable energy partner for India given it imports 85% of its oil and gas. Russia’s share of India’s oil imports increased from 2% at the start of the war to 23% by the end last year, becoming not just the largest exporter to the country, but also one offering significant discounts of up to 40% on global market prices,viii making Russia a critical motor for India’s continued economic growth. Just before the war in Ukraine, the Modi government was facing criticism due to the risk to its economy from the high percentage of energy imports it was dependent on, particularly as energy prices rose.


India in the 21st Century: Three Geopolitical Strategies

While India clearly has a long way to go before it can rival the US or even China economically or militarily, its sheer size, geography, and rapid economic development will make it the “geopolitical swing state of the future”. In terms of economic growth, it took 75 years for independent India to reach a GDP of US$3 trillion. By some measures it has the potential to achieve US$30 trillion to US$40 trillion of GDP in the next 25 years, by which time at its 100th birthday, its population is expected to reach 1.65 billion, while China’s contracts to c.1.3 billion. And while current projections do not foresee a rapid build-out of India’s military capabilities, increasing prosperity will provide it with the resources to do so, as and when it wishes to.

More importantly perhaps, India as an emerging superpower will have much more freedom in defining its role in the world (for the reasons laid out above) than almost any other country, providing it with the luxury to ‘dream big’ where others’ choices are increasingly constrained by economics, geography, and the weight of history. Recognising that this freedom allows for a multitude of desirable futures for India, there are broadly speaking three high-level strategies that India could successfully pursue on its path to superpower status, leveraging different assets unique to India. Each of these strategies will lead to a very different India and indeed a very different world by the middle of the century, when it emerges as a high-income country (with GDP/Capita levels on par with those of Portugal or Greece today). These strategies include:

  1. Economic Superpower Strategy. India leverages its demographic dividend and strong macro-economic growth to become the next ‘workshop of the world’ in the mid-21st Century, becoming the world’s largest exporter of goods and services, both physical and digital. Much like its regional rival China did in the generation that spanned the 1990-2010s, this strategy would focus on domestic development with high levels of investment, policies promoting exports and industrialisation and the prioritisation of absolute growth at the expense of equality.

    Implications for Foreign Policy. Such a strategy would see economic considerations driving India’s foreign policy, with biliteral relations focused on investment and development, and multi-lateral engagement focused on maintaining free trade and India’s continued competitiveness in the world, with matters of international security and governance, as well as longer term challenges like climate change taking a backseat in India’s priorities.

  2. Sustainable Development Superpower Strategy. India leverages its position as the world’s largest (rapidly) developing country becomes a sustainable development superpower. Using its current G20 leadership, India positions itself as a champion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), facilitating investment and across the North-South gap to fund growth and development globally, and revitalising the Paris Agreement goals combatting climate change by leading renewed commitments to achieving global Net Zero.

    Implications for Foreign Policy. Such a strategy would see India’s foreign policy focused on multi-lateral engagement and international institutions engaging with major issues of the global commons, as well as focused on South-South bilateral ties focused on inclusive growth and development, positioning India as the leader or leading partner of the Global South, in addition to being a superpower in its own right. Security and governance engagement is largely limited to non-proliferation and furthering human security for all, rather than competition between power blocs.

  3. Defender of Liberal International Order Strategy. India leverages its tradition as the world’s largest democracy to become an anchor of the liberal order in the 21st century, promoting democracy, economic liberalism, multilateralism, globalisation, and use of shared rules and values in international relations. Such a move would see India integrating more tightly into existing global governance structures, while also forming closer economic ties with countries with which it shares core values, facilitating increasing investment and trade flows into India that will drive growth and prosperity.

    Implications for Foreign Policy. Such a strategy will see India’s foreign policy ‘move west’ in both economic and security terms, with India moving closer to the US and NATO on the one hand (e.g., by formalising participation in the Quad), and forming closer trade and investment links with countries that share its core values (i.e., OECD members). India’s multi-lateral engagement would focus on increasing its roles in existing institutions like the IMF or UN Security Council, with South-South engagement and participation in the new strategy of the World Bank while de-emphasising its role in institutions such as the New Development Bank.

    These three strategies are not totally mutually exclusive, of course, and India may well seek to pursue certain elements of these strategies in combination with one another, seeking out the complementarities between them. In New Delhi’s mind at least joining the Quad does not disqualify it from being an important member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) alongside China and Russia, nor does the presence of security concerns rule out the possibility of economic partnerships. Moreover, India has recently expressed its intentions to use platforms like its current presidencies of both the G20 and the SCO to push more ambitious foreign policy priorities, although any attempts to forge consensus on the war in Ukraine at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi, failed.

    What is clear however is that India will make its choices from a position of increasing strength in the world. From an economic perspective, India is the world’s fastest growing major economy, expanding at over 6% p.a. and expected to overtake Germany’s by the middle and Japan’s by the end of the current decade to become the world’s third largest, as secular growth drivers continue to push the country forward. With this growth also comes increasing leverage to set the terms of bilateral engagements that will continue to widen in both scope and scale, and increasing influence in multilateral engagements and organisations, too. From a political perspective, India stands to become an increasingly decisive ‘vote caster’ in a world that seems to be reverting to the bipolarity of the second half of the 20th century, important not just for its own vote but for its standing in the Global South as well.



Stepping well above the fray, the future of India-Russia relations need not continue to be one of India depending on Russia to save it from the Western powers, nor does India need to define itself by a resentment towards former colonial powers or by America’s support for its neighbour, Pakistan. Shaking off the insecurity of the past is part of the journey ahead, a lesson that China too will needs to digest. Indeed, this tragic war in Europe creates the perfect opportunity for India to leave the past behind and to make a difference to all involved. Clearly, the perfect step in the flow of its history with Russia is to help Russia step back from this disastrous and retrograde step by brokering a peace treaty between the two countries. Such a powerful and defining move for India, and particularly for Prime Minister Modi, would widely be seen as a catalytic step for India’s rise, a measure of its arrival on to the world stage, and a reinforcement of its non-violence values.

India has stressed the importance of diplomatic solutions since the start of hostilities and it has maintained open lines of communications with both Kiev and Moscow throughout the conflict, in contrast to its main rival for the role of peacemaker, China, which has largely followed Russia’s talking points about the war, and President Xi apparently has not spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky until earlier this month. However, despite holding the presidencies of both the G20 and the SCO, India has not yet managed to drive visible progress on a ceasefire.

A cynic may well ask whether India-Russian relations really matter for the outcome of the war. China buys more Russian oil than India does, and its support for Moscow is arguably more important politically than India’s. Similarly, most people believe that the current war in Ukraine will be ultimately resolved by way of a peace deal, with or without India leadership.

However, a world leader is required to step forward. And the reality is that, for all the reasons of its history with Russia, there is perhaps no better candidate than India on the horizon that as well placed to help solve a global crisis which increasingly seems like an intractable problem, with daily tragedies and the risk of escalation and expansion beyond boundaries hanging over the world.

Rising to the challenge of helping actively to create peace would not only significantly raise India’s and its prime minister’s international standing, it would also be a powerful reaffirmation of Gandhi’s legacy and the values upon which modern India was founded, a legacy and values for which it is respected across so much of the world.


  1. Source: EC, UK Ministry of Defence

  2. Source: Kiel Institute for the World Economy

  3. Source: UN General Assembly Resolution, Eleventh Emergency Special Session, 2 March 2023, see

  4. Based on special drawing rights granted relative to GDP

  5. Resolution S/3787,20 Feb. 1957; Resolution S/5033, 18 Dec. 1961; Resolution S/5134, 22 Jun. 1962; Resolution S/10416, 4 Dec. 1971; Resolution S/10423, 5 Dec. 1971; Resolution S/10446, 13 Dec. 1971, See

  6. Source: SIPRI Arms Transfer Database

  7. Source: Stimson Center

  8. Source: Bloomberg