An Indian government official told NBC News that one consideration is that India needs Russia’s help to evacuate about 20,000 of its citizens, many of them students, who were in Ukraine at the start of the conflict.
India has raised the issue with Russia directly, the official said, pointing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call with President Vladimir Putin in which the Indian leader stressed the need to cease hostilities and return to a path of diplomacy.
The Indian air force uses both Russian and U.S.-made military transport planes, but notably chose to send a Russian Ilyushin-76 instead of an American C-17 to pick up Indian citizens who had fled Ukraine to Russia, Indian media reported.
Indians view the U.S. and Russia similarly, with 49 percent having a favorable view of America, compared to 47 percent who have a positive view of Russia, according to a 2017 Pew poll.
Akhil Bery, the director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said it’s significant that India’s public statements have “become more critical of Russia” in recent days.
“Even though India does not support what Russia is doing, it cannot completely cut ties with Russia due to concerns that Russia will use this as an opportunity to further bolster ties with India’s adversaries, and India is concerned about the deepening Russia-China ties,” he said in an email. “India’s military is still dominated by Russian equipment, though in recent years, India has sought to diversify.”
New Delhi also sees Moscow as a critical ally in countering China, a powerful neighbor with whom India has been involved in a series of border skirmishes in the disputed Kashmir region, including a 2020 incident that left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
India joined the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the recent Beijing Winter Olympics after China selected one of the soldiers involved in that deadly clash to be a torch bearer at the Games.
And while India has begun importing military equipment from the West and building up its own defense industry, it remains reliant on Russia for military hardware and cannot afford a disruption as it faces down China and Pakistan on its borders.
Behind the scenes, Washington has been pushing New Delhi to do more against Moscow, noting that even Nepal, a small country sandwiched between India and China that abstained from a 2014 U.N. resolution condemning Russia for annexing the Crimean Peninsula, voted in favor of the more recent one.
“The president, other senior officials in the State Department have been relentlessly conducting very serious high-level dialogue with our Indian counterparts over months now, culminating in the past week,” Donald Lu, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, testified at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
India has for years faced the possibility of American sanctions for purchasing a high-tech Russian air defense system it wants to deploy along its border with Pakistan, and while most assumed Washington would waive those sanctions, Lu made it clear a decision has not yet been made.
Lisa Curtis, the former senior director for South and Central Asia at the White House National Security Council, said India’s decision to stay out of the conflict was a short-term calculation.
“India is caught in a contradiction,” said Curtis, who is now the director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “If India thinks by supporting Russia now, that that will somehow gain it Russian support when China starts putting pressure on its borders — I think New Delhi might be mistaken.”