The affinity between the United States and India is frequently cited: both countries have democracy, a western legal system, the English language, and free markets in differing degrees. Nonetheless, these similarities can be largely symbolic when it comes to India’s foreign policy. At times to the dismay of Washington, India will act in its self-interest — and it will appear that the strategic partnership is in question, or that our ties are weakened.
By not condemning the barbaric invasion of Ukraine by Russia, critics say that India has disappointed the West. Moreover, India’s intention to acquire the sophisticated S-400 “Triumph” air defense system from Russia has caused debate in Congress and the Biden administration about whether to apply sanctions. Of note, Turkey, a member of NATO, was sanctioned by the Trump administration in late 2020 and suspended from the F-35 program for its acquisition of the S-400 system.
A possibility for India to speak out, yet possibly maintain its good relations with Russia, would be to line up behind China and express the need for a ceasefire and negotiated solution.
India’s relationship with Russia extends to the Soviet era and the 1950s, when India was officially non-aligned, although a recipient of Russian military, agricultural, and economic aid, particularly in the heavy industrial sector of steel and oil. At that time, U.S. aid to India consisted mainly of commodities shipments under Public Law-480, and development of high yielding seeds for wheat and rice production.
Today, India’s military equipment is still about 60 percent of Russian or Soviet origin, with the U.S., Europe, and Israel having gained recent market share. Sanctions by the West on Russia are expected to impede India’s sourcing of the weapons systems and spares, such as the S-400, frigates, assault rifles, diesel-electric submarines, and MiG and transport aircraft. India also operates the Russian Sukhoi-30, made under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and the country would additionally like to have a stealth version of the Su-35.
Additional dependence is evidenced by the Indian Army’s several thousand Russian T-72 and T-90 battle tanks. Further, the Indian Navy operates a Soviet generation aircraft carrier, the 45,000-ton INS Vikrmaditya, formerly the Admiral Gorshkov. The Indian Navy also leased an Akula class nuclear-powered submarine from Russia, which was returned due to an accident on board.
With this history and reliance on Russia in mind, it should not be surprising that India has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its barbaric battle tactics that have outraged the U.S. and NATO. India is the second largest arms importer in the world, although it was the leader in 2018. And since 2010, India has been Russia’s number one arms purchaser, buying almost one-third of Russia’s military exports. (Source: Congressional Research Service 2021.)
As I have written in The American Spectator, India and the U.S. have three strategic interests in common: concern over the ascent of China, fear of Islamist jihad, and opportunities for trade and direct investment.
In recent years, China’s conduct toward India has become increasingly belligerent, with intensifying border disputes in the Lakakh territory of the Kashmir region, and in Doklam, a part of Bhutan in the northeast. Early last year Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the disputed mountainous area of Kashmir. India has refused to subscribe to the Beijing-dominated effort to replace the U.S.-led rules for trade and investment that have prevailed since the end of World War II. China has deployed its military along its borders with India, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy has a presence in the Indian Ocean — diluting its ability to deploy resources in the Western Pacific. In short, India is a critically important U.S. ally.
India has approximately 190 million Muslims, mainly secular, however external forces such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS would like their allegiance. While America’s presence in Afghanistan turned out to be a military and political disaster, India was nonetheless helpful to the U.S. and NATO by training the Afghan National Security Forces.
The U.S. has invested much in India. The U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement of 2008, also known as the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, provided for the supply of nuclear reactors and fuel for commercial purposes, as well as collaboration in outer space. Although impeded by attribution of potential liability as well as the 2017 bankruptcy filing by Westinghouse, this agreement was a major enhancement of the U.S.-India relationship — which had already developed during several U.S. and Indian administrations, starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union and India’s commitment to free markets and economic deregulation made in 1991.
U.S. aggregate direct investment in India is significant and increasing: from 2000 to 2020 (at historical cost, not at equity) it was approximately $42 billion, compared with $124 billion in China and $100 billion in Mexico. In 2021 alone, such investment was $13 billion. (Source: Statistica, German data firm.) In spite of India’s dependence on Russia, U.S. joint ventures with major Indian firms in the aerospace and defense sector include Boeing and Lockheed Martin with the Tata Group and Mahindra & Mahindra for the manufacture of the Apache helicopters and fighter aircraft.
India is balancing its economic affinity for trade and investment with the U.S. and Europe, with its need for armaments. Although the U.S. and others would welcome a strong statement of condemnation from India, it is not likely to be explicitly forthcoming. A possibility for India to speak out, yet possibly maintain its good relations with Russia, would be to line up behind China and express the need for a ceasefire and negotiated solution. While collaboration with China may initially seem distasteful, there is the 19th century expression, “politics makes strange bedfellows.”
For decades, India has symbolized moral authority derived from Gandhi’s satyagraha (truth force) and ahimsa (non-violence) movement that brought down the British Raj, which was a catalyst for further decolonization in the world. The irony of India’s reticence to speak out is that it is a country that knows well the indecencies and immorality of foreign occupation. Let us hope that its foreign policy establishment encourages Russia to moderate its position on Ukraine. As for the continuing supply of weapons — Russia needs the money.
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.