India has thus far not condemned the Russian Federation, nor has it criticized President Vladimir Putin for the barbaric invasion of Ukraine, its sovereign neighbor and former republic of the Soviet Union.
Why is India on the sidelines making so little effort to intermediate or influence Vladimir Putin? The answer is the need for self-preservation, which Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher and author of Leviathan, said was a fundamental law of nature.
As a strategic partner of the United States and member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue along with Japan and Australia, India’s reticence has been viewed in some foreign capitals and in Washington as a serious disappointment. With India’s economic influence (2022 GDP ranking of seventh, just behind the U.K. and France), its commitment to a rules-based order for trade and investment, the country’s parliamentary democracy, Western legal system, and free markets, and its extensive English-language and global positioning in the IT and cloud sector, one would likely expect India to have a fundamentally Western perspective — and back NATO and the United States.
India’s history under colonial rule would seem to be another reason for abhorrence of what Putin has done: its expulsion of the British Raj through ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (truth force) gave the country a platform of moral authority as an early catalyst of postwar decolonization.
But not so fast. Including the Kargil campaign of 1999, India has fought four wars with adjacent Pakistan since independence in 1947. Tension with Pakistan continues over Delhi’s control of Jammu and Kashmir, the latter region being principally Muslim. And China’s increasing belligerence has dismayed India: disputed borders are a way of life in the Ladakh region of Kashmir, to the east in Arunachal Pradesh at the Tibetan frontier, and in the Doklam area near India’s state of Sikkim. And through its so-called string of pearls in the Indian Ocean region (refer to the image linked here for a map), China has sought to encircle India with maritime installations that may also have military use in time of conflict. Pakistan and India each have about 160 nuclear weapons, and China has over twice that number, according to a current estimate of the Federation of American Scientists.
With two well-armed adversaries on its borders, India has become the world’s largest importer of arms during the past five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as reported by the German data firm Statistica. And, as Russia’s largest military client, India represents over 11 percent of global arms imports from 2017–21. The antecedents of this relationship extend to the 1950s with the Soviet Union, which gave India much aid to the heavy industry, agriculture, and military sectors — while the U.S. supported Pakistan.
Nonetheless, India has diversified its military sources of supply in recent years: The Economist reports that the same Stockholm source advises that 69 percent of India’s military imports came from Russia from 2102 to 2016. But in the five years since then the share has dropped to 46 percent. The beneficiaries of this diversification have been France, the U.S., and Israel.
In view of Russia’s staggering losses in Ukraine, estimated by the U.K. ministry of defense as one-third of its combat force, and the poor performance of its military, India will need to accelerate even more reducing its dependence upon Russia as a supplier of arms. Russia will need to replace its own stocks, and with Finland expected to join NATO, Russia will need to deploy more of its military assets along an 800-mile border with that country. This reality, coupled with the West’s punishing sanctions across the board to impede Russian industry, means there will be uncertainty with regard to Russia’s capacity and willingness to continue to supply India. (READ MORE from Frank Schell: Ukraine: India’s Balancing Act)
There is a strategic opportunity for the U.S. aerospace and defense industry, as well as that of France and Israel, to rise to the occasion as they assess their ability to replace extensive Russian weapons systems, as detailed in DefenseNews. Doubtless India will emphasize local manufacture and assembly in conjunction with the “Make in India” policy announced in 2014 by the Modi government. Its own defense industry does not have the scale or agility, however, requiring increased imports from abroad.
For India, maintaining conventional military superiority with Pakistan is a continuing objective, and maintaining a military that makes the cost of Chinese aggression unacceptable is another one. Bearing in mind the more than 4,000 miles of borders it shares with Pakistan and China, one may understand the principle of self-preservation for India, and see the ghost of Thomas Hobbes.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.