NEW DELHI — When India abstained from a United Nations vote and the chorus of Western condemnation against the Ukraine invasion, it appeared to be taking sides: offering tacit support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
After all, the two nations’ deep ties are decades old, and their leaders, who have met nearly 20 times since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India in 2014, share a similar vision of muscular nationalism.
But India was more subtle in its move, driven by its vulnerability in a hostile neighborhood that forces the country to play a constant balancing act between Moscow and Washington.
India needs both the United States and Russia to contain China, which is pushing up against its borders and gaining influence with its neighbors. And it has been trying to navigate both sides over the war with Ukraine.
The Indian government hasn’t offered outright support for Western positions or sanctions, because abandoning Moscow, a time-tested partner and its largest supplier of weapons, would leave India increasingly isolated in the region. But it has called for a return to diplomacy and engaged with Moscow’s adversaries, including Ukraine — seemingly a break from the past where India would keep discontent private.
“This particular decision is a product of the geopolitical circumstances that India is looking at this point in time,” said Happymon Jacob, who teaches India’s foreign policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Mr. Jacob described India’s situation in its immediate region of South and Central Asia as a “claustrophobia” that would get worse if India angered Russia. Chinese troops have been building up on the Indian border in the Himalayas, with the two countries on war footing for nearly two years after deadly skirmishes.
Russia’s mutual relations with India and China gives the Modi government a mediating force in the case of escalation. Russia is also close partner in places like Afghanistan, where the American retreat has left India out in the cold.
The United States provides defensive help for India, which has increased its purchase of American military equipment significantly in recent years. And the two, along with Australia and Japan, are cooperating on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific as part of the Quad alliance.
The balancing act on Ukraine does not entirely satisfy either side, and India could face scrutiny as Western nations increase sanctions on Russia.
Historically, India has continued bilateral trade during moments of tension through creative currency arrangements that date to the Cold War.
If India did set up such an arrangement this time, it wouldn’t help Russia much. The scale of two nations’ bilateral trade, about $9 billion, is less than one-tenth of Russia’s trade with its largest trading partner, China.
India also knows such deals can anger U.S. officials. India initially found ways to work around the American sanctions on Iran by importing oil and settling accounts largely in the Indian currency. But it had to seek oil from other sources after the Trump administration in 2019 closed that loophole.
“This is an evolving situation, and we have to see what kind of impact the sanctions will have on our own interests,” Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s foreign secretary, said at a recent news conference. “We have to study this carefully because any sanctions will have impact on our existing relationships. We have to acknowledge that factor.”
Indian leaders have been working the phone since the Russian invasion began, with Mr. Modi speaking to both his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, and his foreign minister engaged with diplomats around the world. The government is also occupied with an emergency that hits closer to home: trying to evacuate thousands of Indian citizens stuck in Ukraine.
Mr. Modi’s political opposition has been using emotional videos of stranded students appealing for help to criticize his government. But criticism of India’s position on the war has remained subdued, reflecting the reality that the opposition was also stuck in a similar balancing act when it was last in power.
After India became a republic following the end of British rule in 1947, the country had a neutral position — although its founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a soft spot for Communist Russia.
But India tilted toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s, when it saw the United States providing military and financial support to its archenemy, Pakistan. The Soviets came to India’s aid.
India now relies on Russia for more than 60 percent of its military equipment. And Russia has often voted to support India in international forums, including refraining from criticism of its nuclear weapons tests in the 1990s.
India’s bonds with the United States are the tightest they’ve ever been, increasingly connected by the shared threat in the rise of an aggressive China. India’s spending on military equipment from the United States has gone from nearly zero to about $20 billion in just a little over a decade.
That proximity has created challenges, notably in the abrupt way the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, where India was closely coordinating its interests. While the troubled exit created some hesitancy among government officials and outside advisers, it has not significantly dented what Mr. Jacob described a “growing sentiment of pro Americanism” on larger issues of strategic security.
Pankaj Saran, a former deputy national security adviser who was also India’s ambassador to Moscow, said that Russian relations have been tested in recent years by American ties. The Russians have expressed dismay at how closely India was working with the United States in Afghanistan, and both the Russians and the Chinese, he said, have seen the increased purchase of American weapons “in a magnified manner, extremely magnified.”
Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
“We have had to face a lot of fire from both of them about this growth in the relationship with the U.S.,” Mr. Saran said.
While American and European officials have been urging India’s support for their measures against Russia, they appear to understand India’s strategic needs.
Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesman, acknowledged in recent press briefings that “India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we have with Russia.” Even after India abstained from the U.N. vote on Ukraine, Mr. Price said the two countries had “a very close relationship” and were in regular discussion about “our shared concerns.”
American officials have previously acknowledged India’s complicated security environment
When India bought a $5.4 billion Russian missile defense system, Indian officials brushed aside suggestions that the deal violated American sanctions, saying negotiations started before the measure went into effect in 2017.
And the reaction from U.S. officials was muted in December 2021 after India announced during a visit to New Delhi by Mr. Putin that supplies for that system had started arriving.
Many in U.S. Congress echoed India’s position that the purchase was needed to counter the threat of China. James O’Brien, nominated by President Biden to oversee sanctions policy at the State Department, said in his confirmation hearing that the United States was discouraging the purchase, but any prospect of penalizing India would have to be weighed against the “important geostrategic considerations, particularly with the relationship to China.”
“I think there is sincere desire on India’s part to douse the fires a little bit, to not exacerbate, to not contribute to the ‘us vs them’ paradigm,” Mr. Saran, the former Indian security adviser, said about the continuing tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “When the dust settles down, people are going to take a more long-term and strategic approach to the role of India.”