The free nations of the world have draped themselves in the yellow and blue of Ukraine’s flag, in solidarity with the beleaguered European nation as it suffers relentless Russian bombardment, with one very notable exception: India, the world’s biggest democracy.
Along with a small minority of largely authoritarian nations, India conspicuously, twice abstained from condemning Russia at a series of United Nations votes last week.
President convened an awkward snap meeting of the Quad, that freedom loving quartet of nations, including Australia, drawn together to counterbalance China’s growing power.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India stood with Scott Morrison, Joe Biden and the Japanese prime minister at the White House only last September, to declare a collective commitment to “promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion”.
“The US has made its peace with India’s decision, but they are not enthusiastic about it,” says Mumbai-born Ashley Tellis, a former senior adviser to the Bush administration on Indian issues.
Why India tolerates the violence
What possessed this cricket-mad nation to tolerate Russia’s shocking violence in Ukraine? A mix of cold, geopolitical calculus, gratitude to Russia, resentment of the US, and fear of China.
When the world started exhorting Russia to send its troops back to their barracks in December last year, Indian prime Minister Narendra Modi was welcoming Vladimir Putin to Delhi, praising Russia’s “constant friendship”.
Putin, who didn’t bother going in person to the G20 or the Glasgow climate summit, declared Russia worked with no other nation so closely.
“It’s a deep relationship that goes back to the 1960s, really became solidifying in the 80s during the height of cold war,” Lisa Curtis, a senior analyst at the Centre for New American Security in Washington, tells The Australian.
Still poor, India was a lot poorer when it was finding its feet in the decades after World War II; and Russian military equipment was cheap and effective.
“At first India and Russia bartered to avoid spending hard currency. Indians gave things like textiles to Russia, and it got military hardware in return,” Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US, tells The Australian.
“Americans don’t want friends like India to buy from Russia, but they are not able to sell to India for a good price”.
Vital dollars, and threat of China
Decades on, the single largest buyer of Russian military equipment is India, which can’t afford arguments with its main military supplier and technician when China looms as a massive and growing threat.
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Putin and Modi