New Delhi — India is the only major U.S. ally that has neither condemnedin clear terms nor backed sanctions against the country, upsetting many of its Western allies. It abstained from recent U.N. Security Council and General Assembly votes on the Russia-Ukraine situation, arguing that sanctions are not a solution, but that the two warring sides should go back to the talking table.
India talked about the importance of "the UN Charter, international law, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states," while also offering medical assistance to Ukraine, but did not clearly speak out against Russia.
Now, the country is coming under pressure to condemn Russia — India's decades-old friend and its biggest arms supplier — directly and unequivocally.
Senior officials in Washington have asked India to "take a clear position" while others have demanded an end to the "balancing act" India is trying to do between Russia and the West.
"It's now time [for India] to further distance itself from Russia," the U.S. State Department's Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, said on Tuesday, hinting that the U.S. may reconsider its stance on waiving sanctions against India.
The U.S. did not invoke CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) provisions against India in 2018 when it signed a $5.43 billion deal with Russia to purchase the S-400 missile defense system.
"The Biden administration will consider CAATSA," Lu told U.S. lawmakers this week.
He also said, "India is a very important security partner," and that "all of us have been working to urge India to take a clear position, a position opposed to Russia's actions."
India's stance explained
India insists it is not supporting Russia's war on Ukraine and says its abstention from votes at the U.N. primarily means it wants the two sides to resolve the conflict through dialogue.
"It is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up. We must return to it," TS Tirumurti, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said at the last week's emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.
"India wouldn't describe its position as backing Russia because of the very fact that India abstained and didn't vote in favor of Russia and reiterated the importance of territorial integrity and sovereignty," said Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution and author of "Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations during the Cold War."
Some experts believe India is maintaining a healthy relationship with both Russia and Ukraine also because of the thousands of Indian nationals, mainly students, that the country is trying to evacuate.
Of the 20,000 or so Indians in Ukraine, 17,000 have managed to return home, but thousands are still finding it hard to evade the shelling and reach neighboring countries, where they could be flown back to India.
One Indian student was killed in Kharkiv last Tuesday in shelling and another injured in Kyiv on Thursday.
Since the fighting broke out, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
India's dependence on Russia
Russia is one of India's biggest suppliers of arms like tanks, fighter jets, ships and submarines, among a host of other defense equipment.
"In the history of the world, there has been only one time that a country has transferred a nuclear submarine to another country on lease," Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, told CBS News.
"It's Russia that has given it to India. ... That's the level of strategic cooperation that no other country is going to give India," said Unnikrishnan.
India's position on the Russia-Ukraine war largely reflects that it does have a broader relationship with Russia that it wants to maintain, say experts. Russia has helped India on the world stage, serving India's interests at the U.N. through its voting patterns, particularly on the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.
"It's not just the Russian military supplies but also the fact that India needs spare parts and supplies in the context of the China-India boundary crisis, which is still ongoing," Madan of the Brookings Institution told CBS News.
In recent years, New Delhi has reduced its imports from Russia and increased purchases from the U.S. But its dependence on Russia is still high. With new sanctions on Russia, it would become tougher for India to buy more defense equipment from Russia.
The China factor and impact on U.S.-India relations
India's stance may also be explained through New Delhi's concerns that the war may bring Russia closer to China.
"We have to be concerned about our interests in this part of the world because we have our own challenges with China," P. S. Raghavan, former Indian ambassador to Russia, told CBS News.
"With the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, the U.S. is not a significant player in Eurasia anymore. So, Russia is the only hope India has to ensure that China does not emerge as a hegemon in Asia," Unnikrishnan of the Observer Research Foundation told CBS News.
The U.S. views India as an important Asian ally to counter the growing influence of China. For this reason, some experts believe the U.S. would accommodate India's not-so-anti-Russia stand.
"I don't think the U.S. is going to essentially let the differences jeopardize the entire U.S.-India relationship. ... I think it will add some turbulence, but they will try and keep the plane steady," Madan said.
Other experts say that although India's silence on Russian aggression is not new, this time its stance is a "big gamble."
"India must walk a dangerous diplomatic tightrope in managing its close partnership with Russia with its growing relations with the U.S. and the West. India insists on sitting on the fence. But it's sitting on a fence that could well collapse," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington D.C.-based think-tank, the Wilson Center.
"In effect, India's position is becoming increasingly untenable," he said.
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