As the United States and its allies continue to pressure India to abandon, or at least maintain its distance from Russia till the Ukraine invasion is over, the Indian government has ignored the Western powers. Instead of condemning Moscow, New Delhi has instead bought more Russian oil largely due to huge discount offered by the Kremlin. The Modi government can easily justify its action.
India said what it buys from Russia in a month is less than what Europe buys from Russia in an afternoon. So, Washington is barking up the wrong tree and it should first lecture the European Union before telling India what to do or what not to do. As the world’s third largest consumer of oil, India is indeed helping the Russian economy at a time when the U.S. wanted to cripple it.
However, while India imports 80% of its much needed oil, the country bought just 12 million barrels from Russia in 2021, representing only 2% of its total imports. Imports from the Middle Eastern countries account for 52.7% of India’s import basket, whereas Africa and the U.S. account for 15% and 14% of oil imports respectively. Everything changes after the Ukraine invasion.
It did not import any oil from Russia in both January and February. But after the Ukraine invasion, India bought a staggering 14 million barrels from Moscow based on March and April 2022 contracts alone. The decision was no-brainer. Assuming the average oil price was US$100 a barrel, a 30% discount means India has saved a cool US$420 million.
In the pre-pandemic 2019-20, India had spent US$101.4 billion on the import of 227 million tonnes of crude oil. It then spent US$62.2 billion on the import of 196.5 million tonnes of crude oil in the 2020-21. India is expected to almost double its import bill to US$110-115 billion by the end of the fiscal year 2021-2022. Clearly crude oil is a massive expense to the nation.
Theoretically, if India could buy half of its crude oil from Russia, it could save a jaw-dropping US$16 billion. That’s a lot of money for a country that is poor compared to America, Europe or even China. The populations of China and India are almost the same – 1.4 billion people. But China’s GDP (2020) was US$14.72 trillion, more than 5 times of India’s GDP (US$2.62 trillion).
Unless the U.S. can sponsor or subsidize US$420 million or more, there’s no reason why India should obediently sanction Russia. Not only Moscow offers huge discount, Russia also incurs the costs and pays the freight, including insurance charges. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said – “I would put my energy security first. If the fuel is available at a discount, why shouldn’t I buy it?”
It’s quite embarrassing that the U.S. could not convince India, the largest democracy in the world, to join its orbit. But cheap energy is just one of the factors why India has abstained on every United Nations resolution to either condemn or punish Russia. There are military and diplomatic considerations which the U.S. cannot fix. No amount of threats from the U.S. can make India abandon Russia.
Thanks to the British Empire, after British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, ending 300 years of colonial rule, the region saw both nations fought at least three major wars over Kashmir. Unlike China, India does not have veto power. Hence, whenever there is a United Nations Security Council resolution against India on Kashmir, Moscow will use its veto to help New Delhi.
Over the years, the Soviet and Russia’s veto power has rescued India on at least six occasions – Feb 1957 Kashmir crisis, Dec 1961 Goa crisis, June 1962 Kashmir issue, and three issues in Dec 1971 involving India-Pakistan border crisis, India-Pakistan refugee issue and withdrawal of troops resolution. In all the six resolutions brought against India in the Security Council, the U.S. supported all of them.
In truth, it was the U.S. who was instrumental in forcing India to enter the Soviet orbit when America announced on Feb 25, 1954 its intention to embark on a major program of military aid to Pakistan, India’s bitter enemy. In the same year, Pakistan joined the U.S. alliance called SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) as part of Washington’s strategy to contain the Soviet Union.
In fact, just two months after Pakistan was established in 1947, the U.S. became one of the first nations to establish relations with Pakistan. Since 1948–2016, the U.S. has provided nearly US$78.3 billion to Pakistan in military aid. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Washington and New Delhi began to cooperate in areas such as trade, foreign policy and military exercises.
Still, like U.S.-Pakistan’s roller-coaster relationship, the bilateral ties between the U.S. and India often run into choppy waters. For example, India’s nuclear test in 1998 saw America slapped sanctions on India – until President Bush lifted it in 2001. In the same breath, the distrust between Pakistan and the U.S. still exist today due to Islamabad’s harbouring of terrorists, most notably Osama bin Laden.
India also has a long-standing border dispute with China in the Himalayan region. Both nations, sharing 3,440 kilometres border, saw border disputes that have been ongoing for 80 years. From 1962 Sino-Indian War to as recent as 2020 violent clash, where both sides fought with sticks and clubs (a 1996 agreement prohibited the use of guns and explosives near the border), both nations have failed to settle the matter.
Fortunately, India and China – both nuclear-weapon states – have fought only one serious war in 1962 when India suffered a humiliating defeat. Chinese troops captured Rezang La in Chushul in the western theatre, as well as Tawang in the eastern theatre after an invasion in the disputed territory along the 3,225 kilometres long Himalayan border in Ladakh and across the McMahon Line.
The 1962 India-China war coincided with conflict between Soviet and China due to different interpretations of Marxism-Leninism. As the Sino-Soviet split heated up, Moscow made a major effort to support New Delhi by selling advanced MIG fighter-aircraft to India. Again, India turned to the Soviet Union after the U.S. and Britain refused to sell advanced weaponry to India.
The Russia-India-China triangle relationship is quite interesting. While India and China fight over borders, Russia is a good friend to both countries. China has publicly announced that Russia is its best friend. India, on the other hand, said “every child in India knows that Russia is our best friend”. Neither China nor India wants Russia to side with their respective rival.
The relations get complicated with the entrance of Pakistan to the equation. Both China and Pakistan share a common enemy – India – though Beijing’s reason has more to do with the fact that India and America are allies, who in turn has a common enemy – China. Of course, Moscow saw its alliance with India as essential for offsetting American and Chinese dominance in Asia.
In essence, India has been enjoying reliable support from a major military power like Russia to counter not only China and Pakistan (something that the U.S. cannot offer), but also to protect itself from an untrustworthy friend like America in international politics. But the most important factor is still military – Russia is the primary supplier of weapons to India.
Even till today, Russian-origin weapons are believed to account for 60% to 85% of the hardware of the Indian armed forces. Soviet or Russian has basically supplied everything to India – tanks, guns, fighter jets, missiles and even aircraft carriers. India wants the best weapons, but financial concerns mean a lot of sexy military hardware from the U.S. and Europe are beyond its reach.
BrahMos missile is a success story as a result of a joint venture between India and Russia. It is a medium-range stealthy ramjet supersonic cruise missile that can be launched from submarine, ships, aircraft or land. The name BrahMos itself was formed from the names of two rivers, the Brahmaputra of India and the Moskva of Russia. In January, the Philippines agreed to splash US$375 million for the missiles.
It took Australia decades of obedience and subservience before the U.S. allows it to play with nuclear submarines in 2021. But more than 30 years before the Aussie acquires nuclear submarine, India had already leased its first nuclear-powered attack submarine from Soviet in 1991. New Delhi then signed a US$3 billion deal to lease another Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine.
India now plans to buy three more Kilo-class submarines from Russia, in addition to the current arsenal of nine such subs in its navy. It also wants to add 400 more Russian T-90 battle tanks to its existing fleet of 1,100. At present, India also has more than 2,000 Russian T-72 tanks in three variants. Like it or not, it will continue to need Russia to supply spare parts and technical support.
In 2018, India signed an agreement worth US$5.43 billion for five S-400 defense systems with Russia. In November 2021, Russia began the delivery of S-400 missiles – vital to deter against Pakistan and China. Despite years of threats and warnings of sanctions for purchasing the S-400 Triumf missile defence system, the U.S. has yet to decide whether to impose any sanctions.
The U.S. and Europe certainly look like a hypocrite for criticizing China, but close both eyes on India. New Delhi knew it was a very important security partner of the U.S., so much it can get away with Russian crude oil, S-400 defence systems and refusal to sanction Moscow. To pacify the U.S., New Delhi has increased its purchase of American weapons to the tune of US$20 billion over the past decade.
Another reason why India will not betray Russia has everything to do with history. The anti-Western sentiment is still very strong due to three centuries of British colonial rule. It was because of the West that India lost a piece of their homeland called Pakistan. It was part of British’s policy of divide-and-rule, systematically promoting political divisions between Hindus and Muslims, after the Indian Rebellion in 1857.
Unlike the U.S., the Soviet Union was seen as sympathetic to India’s needs, with no strings attached, either in the form of weapons technology transfers or political and diplomatic aid. Soviet had even risked war with the U.S. by sending its navy to the Indian Ocean to drive back a warship that President Nixon had sent to intimidate India during its 1971 war with Pakistan.