Mihir Sharma

Weaning India Away From Russia Will Take Time

India, the world’s largest democracy, has abstained in yet another United Nations vote to condemn Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Commentators in the United States are beginning to wonder how reliable an ally India can be. The White House and Congress should handle any frustrations carefully, however. Weaning India off its dependence on Russia is a long-term project that will require patient efforts from both New Delhi and Washington.

India wasn’t alone in the General Assembly vote on Wednesday. Russia’s ally China and several of its client states, including Pakistan, not surprisingly abstained as well. But so, too, did countries just as worried about Chinese ambitions as the US and India are — for example, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The reasons aren’t hard to discern. Both Vietnam and India have longstanding diplomatic ties to Russia, and both continue to be interested in Russian weapons platforms. While they have sought to diversify defense purchases recently, military links run deep. Around 84% of Vietnam’s weapons imports since 2000 have come from Russia. A roughly similar proportion of India’s major weapons systems rely on Russian equipment. Indeed, Vietnam has expressed interest in buying the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which is produced jointly by India and Russia.

It would be unrealistic to expect decision makers in either New Delhi or Hanoi to sever these ties at short notice. Indian and Vietnamese leaders can also be pretty confident that the West’s need for them to serve as bulwarks against China will moderate any blowback from their conspicuous neutrality on Russia.

Indian policy makers may even see some value in snubbing the US on this issue. Those close to the ruling establishment point out that Russia — unlike the US — can be depended upon to veto any Security Council criticism of controversial decisions by the country’s right-wing government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows that appearing to defy powerful countries in the West in defense of Indian national interests will only enhance his political position at home.

The last thing the US should do is give him that chance, for instance by imposing sanctions on India for its recent purchase of Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system. If the US and Europe are serious about seeking to isolate Vladimir Putin globally, they will have to recognize that weaning many influential countries away from Russia will take time and quiet effort.

To start, potential partners such as India and Vietnam will need to be given affordable alternatives to Russian weapons platforms and better opportunities to access the latest military technology. This may require building manufacturing facilities in those countries, which the quasi-mercantilist Joe Biden administration might not be very pleased about.

The West should also work diplomatically to reshape India’s sense of those strategic interests. A more forward-looking view of the national interest in India, for instance, would recognize that the US and Europe are more committed to supporting India against a much more powerful China than Russia will ever be. It would understand that a chaotic Russia growing ever closer to its eastern neighbor is hardly a trustworthy partner.

For its part, India needs to make greater efforts to pull its weight in the emerging coalition of maritime democracies aligned against China in the Indo-Pacific. It will need to spend more on its manpower-heavy military, investing in particular in its underfunded navy. It should do so through a more diverse range of suppliers, focused on countries such as the US, UK and France that share its strategic concerns.

India also shouldn’t take the West’s support against China for granted. Just as Western capitals underestimate the power that history has to shape decisions in New Delhi and elsewhere, Indian policymakers must recognize that Europe and the US will find it more comfortable historically, ideologically and economically to name Russia their primary threat and attempt to wean Beijing away from support of Moscow than vice versa.

Richard Haass, president of the Council for Foreign Relations and a former US diplomat, has argued for precisely that, urging the Biden administration to restart strategic dialogue with China and to find avenues for cooperation. Haass also said on Twitter that India’s response to the Ukraine crisis has shown it is “unprepared to step up to major power responsibilities or be a dependable partner.” That is not an impression policy makers in New Delhi should want to encourage.

Increasing the Putin regime’s international isolation is a worthy goal. But it won’t happen overnight. The best chance is to speed up efforts to ensure that countries such as India and Vietnam can find useful and affordable alternatives to Russian weaponry, while encouraging them to take the broadest possible view of their national interest. You won’t get them off the fence otherwise