India's balancing act in the Ukraine war: Implications for EU-India relations

India's balancing act in the Ukraine war: Implications for EU-India relations


29 | 11 | 2022


The European Union has expressed its discomfort with India's attitude, but it does not want to cool the mutual ties as benefits are great

En la imagen

A meeting between Presidents Putin and Modi in India


Following the recent “special operation” of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, the European Council and the Council of the European Union[1] established a regime of economic sanctions as coercion against what the EU considered a violation of international law and the sovereignty of a state. The sanctions are thought to target the specific individuals and entities involved on the conflict[2]. Before the sanctions regime was officially established, a special session was held in the United Nations Security Council on the situation with Ukraine, which led to a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) emergency meeting from which three resolutions where passed. However, a concern for the EU was the position of the Republic of India on this issue in relation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Human Rights Council and United Nations General Assembly. Something important considering that it is not only the democratic state with the greatest demographic weight in the world, but also one of the most prominent international agents in Indo-Pacific. However, India's position was the abstention. Similarly, India has shown no intention of joining the regime of economic sanctions against Russia by members of the EU and NATO or its main allies, which includes other democratic states of the Indo-Pacific such as Japan or South Korea.

The objective of the essay is to analyze and understand the European Union’s response towards the position that India has taken with the Russian Federation on the context of the occupation of Ukraine. Especially in its non-collaboration with EU’s sanction regime. In order to do this, after highlighting India's significance in this matter, the rationale behind India's decision to opt out of the sanctions regime will be discussed. The dependence of India on Russia will then be examined. The European response will next be looked at in detail.

The emergency meeting was held in the United Nations Security Council on the situation with Ukraine which resulted on the proposed UNSC Resolution 2623[3]. This resolution called for the 11th emergency special session of the UNSC and got a mayor approval of the members except from India, China and United Arab Emirates, which abstained, and the opposition of Russia (as being a procedural resolution it couldn’t use its veto power). This was the 13th time UNGA Resolution 377, also known as Uniting Peace Resolution, has been invoked. The resolution permits that whenever the UNSC fails to take the necessary action to maintain international peace and security due to a lack of agreement among its five permanent members, the UNGA shall immediately consider the situation and may recommend to UN members appropriate collective measures, including hard power[4]. At UNGA’s emergency meeting three resolutions where passed: Resolution ES-11/1 “Aggression against Ukraine” (March 2, 2022)[5], Resolution ES-11/2 “Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine” (March 24, 2022)[6] and Resolution ES-11/3 “Suspension of the rights of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council”, (April 7, 2022)[7]. The three resolutions were passed by majority although some abstentions and minor opposition.

One of the concerns for the EU about the voting procedure of the resolutions, both the UNSC and the UNGA resolutions, was the position the Republic of India would take on this issue. This is a relevant aspect, both from an EU and global perspective, considering that India is not only the democratic state with the greatest demographic weight in the world, but also one of the most prominent international agents in Indo-Pacific and a member of the BRICS. India's position on the UNSC special session and the three UNGA emergency meeting resolutions was the same as the one it took in 2014 UNGA resolution 68/262[8] after Russia's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, which consisted of abstention. Similarly, India has shown no intention of joining the regime of fiscal sanctions against Russia by members of the EU and NATO or its main allies, which includes other democratic states of the Indo-Pacific such as Japan or South Korea.

Reasons for India’s abstention

India's abstention and non-cooperation against Russia has left the EU frustrated and disappointed. The West expected India's unwillingness to denounce Russia, and there was a lot of backlashes against it. EU and its allies placed India under considerable pressure to speak up[9]. Indian officials were questioned about their refusal to back Western viewpoints on Ukraine. But far from antagonizing India, EU has agreed to disagree. This is mainly, on the one hand, because the EU understands reluctantly the circumstances that have led India to seek more for its own national interest. On the other hand, to act otherwise would imply deteriorating the interests of the EU towards Indo-Pacific.

India's abstention doesn’t mean it supports the Russian intervention in Ukraine. As expressed by Tirumurti, Indian UN representative: “the contemporary global order is built on the United Nations Charter, international law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States”. Following the declaration of India's Minister on Foreign Affairs Subramanyam Jaishankar: “principles and interests are balanced”. Relations between Russia and India have a long historical root dating back to the governments of Jawaharlal Nehru and Nikita Khrushchev and are mainly based on mutually beneficial agreements at the economic level and at the same time balance of powers, specially towards weapons sales and a possible counterbalance to the Peoples Republic of China and Pakistan. Also, Russia is a main supporter of India on intergovernmental organizations. Best example when vetoing resolutions over Indian-administered Kashmir in the UNSC. For that reasons India can't be considered in equal terms to act as the EU does although its position in the international arena being more proximate to the EU than Russia. Also, it must be considered the non-alignment tradition that India has followed since its independence from the UK in 1947. Despite that it can be found that India’s public opinion is more divided on this topic. For example, opposition parliamentarian P. Chidambaram expressed on twitter: “The Government of India should stop its verbal balancing act and sternly demand that Russia stop immediately the bombing of key cities in Ukraine”. So, through its reaction towards the conflict in Ukraine India is trying to follow a three pilar strategy: non-interference, keep up strategic alliance with Russia and prevent any kind of retaliation from any of the sides through neutrality.

India’s dependency towards Russia

India's dependence on Russia is based mainly on the economic and commercial relations that unite both states and on the mutual collaboration with the porpoise of maintaining a stable balance of powers in the Indo-Pacific region. Both aspects are correlated and cannot be studied as different cases.

Regarding the commercial aspect, India is a state with huge economic diversification and bilateral commerce with Russia accounts for only 1.19% of total Indian trade, with imports (fertilizers, natural resources, precious metals, and precious stones) being $6,9 billion and exports (pharmaceuticals, tea, coffee, and auto parts) totaling $3,33 billion. As a result, it could be taken into account that possible India sanctions towards Russia wouldn’t have such a huge impact towards its economic situation. But it must be considered that significant industries in the energy, steel, or even automotive sectors may be negatively impacted. This would also affect many citizens working for these sectors. Also, some significant Indian energy corporations, including ONGC Videsh, Indian Oil Corporation, Oil India, and Bharat PetroResources are believed to have spent over $13.6 billion in Russian oil and gas projects that could be lost in case of sanctions regime. This also makes India the only one of the QUAD members that continues to buy fossil fuels from Russia.

However, one of India's main ties to Russia would be the purchase of weapons, since it is estimated that approximately 50% of India's weapons capacity comes from Russia[10]. Without that capability, India could be at a severe disadvantage against its next geopolitical rivals (Pakistan and China), from which is pressured from its Himalayan and Line of Actual Control (LAC) border disputed territories. As much as India sought a diversification in the field of weapons, this is very difficult to achieve considering that it would be a complete change. All the weaponry of a state must complement itself. For example, all the bullets that India uses should be used for all its weapons of the same type. Currently Russia and India use the same types of weapons in these cases, while the NATO countries had to go through a whole process to be able to make their weapons compatible even with their allied states. The question is not only about the incredible economic cost that this would entail (which is affordable), but also the moment in which it occurs. In a context of strong geopolitical tensions on the border with China over the disputed territories located in the Himalayas (Arunachal Pradesh) and the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, from which no normalization is achieved and there is more tension since Taliban victory over Afghanistan. According Cernin Yoldi, professor of the University of Navarra, time management is the most scarce economic resource. The procedure of diversification requires a time India doesn't have.

India has had territorial disputes with its neighbors Pakistan and China since its formation as a state, however, something that not well known in the Western press due to the Covid-19 pandemic is that these tensions have re-emerged more than ever due to skirmishes between China and India in 2020 in the Line of Actual Control disputed territory (this also happened in 2017), from which many soldiers from both sides in all the border extension between the two states lost their lives, especially in the region of Aksai Chin. These tensions quickly spread to the LAC. The People's Republic of China is taking a more expansionist policy than ever in recent years and this can be seen in Xi Jinping's dialectic on the recovery of de facto sovereignty over Taiwan. Added to this is the fact of the recent re-election of Xi Jinping as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, which has allowed him to combine greater authoritarianism over the territory. In addition, the collaboration between China and Pakistan is evident, as the plans of the Belt and Road Initiative show how this route would pass through Pakistan, including the disputed territories of the LAC and excluding India. In this balance of powers, India's greatest ally is Russia, since it has historically stood on India's side against Pakistan, providing it with the aforementioned weapons and diplomatic support.

Thus, Russia, seeking to attract one of the largest agents of the Non-Aligned Movement, has also supported it from supra-governmental institutions such as the UNSC. Through the strength of Russia as a veto state in the UNSC, India has managed to avoid sanctions due to situations arising from its dispute in the LAC as well as a strong diplomatic advantage over Pakistan. Russia has also supported BIMSTEC by forming part of it as an observer state. On the other hand, it should be noted that Russia has always maintained a close relationship with both China and India among its main priorities of its foreign policy towards Indo-Pacific. It has never managed to get China and India to settle their disagreements, but Russia has viewed China with some mistrust since Stalin's death and good relations with India allow it to be the interest in the balance of power that fosters these good relations. On the other hand, India benefits from this by having a possible counterweight with which to put pressure on China.

Added to all this is the fact that the United States does not offer as many security guarantees to India as regards the intracontinental sphere, its defense cooperation being mainly based on the QUAD that focuses on the maritime sphere. It must be remembered that this is emphasized by the fact that the United States has maintained good relations with both India and Pakistan, not giving the unconditional support to India that Russia does. Also, for India the abandonment of Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban has served as an indication of the lack of greater interest or loss of strength by the United States in the innermost area of ​​Asia.

Another very important aspect to consider is India's perspective towards economic sanctions in general. Since 1970 India has been the target of such sanctions by Western states. The main reason was that according to these India was in breach of customary law by developing nuclear weapons. The initial sanctions are intended to prevent India from achieving a further increase in nuclear weapons production, which, if it had worked, would have left it highly vulnerable in the eyes of China or Pakistan. However, this regime increased in the 1990s when the US and Japan used sanctions as a method of blocking international aid and lines of credit to India. This prevented further liberalization of its economy. To this is added sanctions imposed by the US Department of the Treasury on individuals and companies that have maintained commercial relations with Iran, especially in relation to the purchase of fossil fuels. A little more than half of all OFAC sanctions placed on Indian designees were secondary penalties meant to facilitate dealings with other sanctioned parties, such as those related to Iranian oil shipments like the case of Ruknooddin Bhore on May, 2019[11]. India believes that these sanctions regimes have not served their intended purpose, not to stop, for example, maintaining nuclear weapons, and have only served to inflict harm on its state and its citizens. Another reason that India argued against the use of a sanctions regime against Russia would be the damage it could have on its civilian population, remembering that it is not responsible for the actions of the Kremlin. Thus, India considers that economic sanctions should only be used in specific cases where the benefits for the affected population are greater than the costs and where it is seen that there may be a clear effectiveness. Note that one of the few cases where India has used the sanctions regime has been against Apartheid in South Africa. The relationship with Russia also allows it to have a buttress against Western sanctions, since it is an ally that offers it fewer ties. For this reason, officials from India and Russia have been attempting to finalize a rupee-ruble payment system that could be used to increase trade between the two nations while also lowering the danger of being subject to US sanctions. Also, India has been exploiting the system to purchase Russian oil below market rates and The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) made the announcement on Monday, July 11th, allowing domestic importers and exporters to use the rupee to settle foreign trade transactions.[12]

Europe response

Bilateral relations between India and the EU prior to the Russian military occupation of Ukraine were mainly based on economic ties, which were fostered because of the benefits they brought to both international agents and by the links of international cooperation due to their shared values on international arena as being the two major world democracies in demographic terms. According to Garima Mohan, Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, on India's abstention in both the UNGA and UNSC: “European officials working with India are disappointed but certainly understand their position. The official line is business as usual with India. But for European political actors and publics unfamiliar with Indian foreign policy, it will be a tough sell.” Given this, it clarifies that "It is important to take into account that the position of India is evolving and, as the crisis accelerates, India will have to re-evaluate its response.” Also, the former Indian ambassador to Malta reinforces this saying that “The EU understands India’s position and its strategic autonomy. India’s position in the Indo-Pacific is critical.” To all those statements should be added the one told to Al-Jazeera by Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center: “EU pressure is unlikely to influence India’s foreign policy. The essence of India’s cherished principle of strategic autonomy is that it won’t cave to pressure from major powers to take a particular position or to align with a particular camp.”

When the resolutions were adopted in the United Nations, France held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and that’s why Emmanuel Macron opted for an open dialogue on the development of the conflict in Ukraine with both the other twenty-six leaders of the EU as well as others on a global scale. The intention was to seek a de-escalation of tensions in the crisis and for this reason one of the meetings was held with Narendra Modi. Following that it was done to “guarantee unhindered humanitarian access” to Ukraine and mutual coordination between the EU and India regarding the direction of the conflict in the UNSC.

Thus, the current EU strategy towards India as a partner is mainly based on the report on the future cooperation in trade and investment between the EU and India of June 6, 2022, which in turn derives from the strategy, already taken in June 2021, towards South Asia and embodied in the Fact Sheets on the European Union prepared by the EU Parliament.[13] In this document, reference is made to the fact that bilateral trade relations have not yet achieved their maximum potential and mention is made of India’s abstention:

“Reaffirms its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the illegal, unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation; acknowledges the neutral position of India since its independence; points out that the EU and India are willing to work together for a prosperous and peaceful world, yet regrets India’s hesitancy to condemn the Russian Federation’s military aggression against Ukraine; underlines the importance of democracies working together and aligning on core areas, and especially on fundamental values and open, rules-based and sustainable trade.”

The document calls on the Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European External Action Service to seek to enhance strategic cooperation, based on common values, between India and the EU. That is why one of the first steps applauded in the report would be the agreement on the Trade and Technology Council (TTC). The TTC represents a new significant mechanism to address the new challenges in the area of ​​trade, technology and security, whose relevance increases taking into account the cooperation in this aspect with other relevant states in the Indo-Pacific such as the United States or Japan.

It is also mentioned that the trade of goods and services between both international agents has increased between 2001 and 2019 by 70%, pointing out that India is a key agent for the diversification of the European market and that Europe means the same for India. Similarly, the relevance of the agri-food sector is emphasized, which accounts for 41% of employability in India, and the importance of SMEs, which account for 41% of industrial development in India. That is why the idea that the EU and India are prepared to initiate three projects based on mutual benefit and those common values ​​is emphasized. These are a mutually beneficial trade agreement, as well as a separate investment protection agreement and an agreement on geographical indications. In them, emphasis should be placed on the sustainable development goals (SDGs), especially with regard to the Paris agreement and the TSD review process.

“Considers that the existing negotiating mandate for a trade agreement, a separate investment protection agreement and an agreement on geographical indications is comprehensive and broad enough for negotiations to restart, and should be interpreted in line with modern standards; takes the view that it is necessary to ensure that the prospective comprehensive trade agreement has environmental and human rights standards as core elements and contains as integral parts thereof a dedicated chapter for SMEs, a dedicated digital trade chapter, a dedicated chapter on raw materials to increase market access, and an ambitious and enforceable TSD chapter aligned with the Paris Agreement; believes, furthermore, that the agreement should include provisions on sustainable food systems and on gender.”

The regulatory environment and trade regime in India are still somewhat onerous, with significant barriers to entry and exit affecting a wide range of sectors. It would be ambitious to give an end to that problem as not only is India’s third-largest trading partner is the EU, which will conduct goods trade worth €88 billion (10.8% of total Indian trade) in 2021, but also 2.1% of the EU's total goods trade was with India, making it the tenth-largest trading partner. Also, EU represents largest India investor with €87.3 billion reached in 2020 and there are about more than 6,000 EU companies in India.

One last point which the report does not mention and is a focus of attention would be the sale of military equipment. The EU and India are striving to improve their security cooperation in order to diversify Indian defense capabilities and reduce reliance on Russia. India and the EU discussed the co-development and co-production of defense equipment, including India's potential participation in PESCO, at their first EU-India consultation on security and defense on June 10. Besides that, some of EU members are considered as main world military equipment exporters and because some of those states, from which France is remarkable, have expressed their intentions to increase the exportation towards India. Despite that India still continues talks with Russia about this topic.

The EU has also considered the possibility of including India as a substitute for Russia in the G8, thus filling the gap left by being expelled by one of the greatest democratic referents in Indo-Pacific. Since then, India has been invited to up to four G7 meetings. If it is included in the group, India could be persuaded to join itself with the group actions of that hypothetical G8. The relevance of this grows taking into account the recent special side meeting of G7, EU and NATO members in the context of the G20 summit in Indonesia due to the explosion of missiles in Poland.

Another aspect that should be taken into account would be the ‘EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025’ document which came out from the 15th European Union – India Summit on July 15, 2020. The relevance of that document is that, also following the ‘Fact Sheets on the European Union prepared by the EU Parliament’ it does not only focus on economic grounds but also on foreign policy and security cooperation:

“In a complex international environment, the European Union and the Republic of India, both "unions of diversity", sharing values of democracy, rule of law and human rights, are equally convinced of the necessity to preserve the rules-based international order and effective multilateralism. The EU and India have a common interest in each other's security, prosperity and sustainable development. They can contribute jointly to a safer, cleaner and more stable world. They therefore endeavour to develop further their Strategic Partnership, based on this Roadmap.”[14]

The highlighted security cooperation areas are non-proliferation and disarmament, maritime security, counterterrorism and cyber security. From all those a special attention should be put on maritime security due to the relevance of the Indian Ocean Rim, an area where cooperation among the international agents that compose it should be fostered. Counter piracy measures (especially in the horn of Africa) is a common ground of interest, but a special relevant concern is the fact that growing influence of China in the region is gradually transforming the area in a space of strategic competition[15]. One of the priorities of India and EU ocean strategy is the protection of international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which despite its ratification, China has shown to disrespect (especially on what concerns to it reclamations on the South China Sea). The region is the one where the EU has implemented one of its most functional military operations, called the European Union Naval Force Operations (EUNAVFOR) Atalanta. In the document the EU and India search to “Establish a maritime security dialogue replacing the counter-piracy dialogue and explore opportunities for further maritime cooperation” and for “Deepen cooperation between the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) ATALANTA and the Indian Navy.” It cannot be forbidden the fact that France has ultra-maritime possessions on the Indian ocean and as so EU territorial integrity extends also to that area. Some European states, such as recently the UK with Japan has fostered bilateral cooperation on mutual defense with other Indo-Pacific colleagues. Also, the EU in its ‘Joint communication to the European Parliament and the Council: The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ emphasized on the opportunity of cooperation between the EU and the QUAD due to its strategic shared objectives and values (also the ASEAN).

“The EU has bilateral Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) with many of its partners in the region, and has finalised negotiations for a new Partnership Agreement with the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries. It intends to conclude new PCAs with Thailand and Malaysia and to start PCA negotiations with the Maldives in the near future. The EU will also aim to deepen its engagement with partners that already have Indo- Pacific approaches of their own - ASEAN, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. The EU would also be interested in engaging with the QUAD on issues of common interest such as climate change, technology or vaccines.”[16]

The Non-proliferation is also an important aspect, which reflects on the European Parliament resolution of 15 December 2021 on the challenges and prospects for multilateral weapons of mass destruction arms control and disarmament regimes (2020/2001(INI))[17] and India-EU Consultations on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation held on February 14, 2022.[18]


India's abstention in the three resolutions of the UNGA and the United Nations Security Council responds to state interests based mainly on non-interference, on maintaining the strategic alliance with Russia and avoiding any type of retaliation by none of the parties through neutrality. This is understood taking into account India's dependence on Russia, not so much in the commercial aspect but more in the market focused on the sale of weapons, and also the search for balance for the balance of powers against China and Pakistan. In the same way, the collaboration between Russia and India, with a long tradition that dates back to the independence from the Raj, extends both to the intergovernmental sphere and in mutual cooperation, something exemplified in its strategy against economic sanctions based on change of currency.  For the EU, India's position in these resolutions plays a fundamental role, taking into account that it is the state with the greatest demographic weight, a member of the BRICS and one of the main agents in Indo-Pacific. The European Union has expressed its discomfort with India's decision regarding the abstention, but nevertheless, both agents agree to disagree on this aspect. The EU on the one hand understands the circumstances that have motivated India to abstain and even knows that it is not capable of changing its mind under the current circumstances. India will maintain its position of non-alignment. In addition, the bilateral relations of both agents have historically been based on economic relations that provide great mutual benefits (among which market diversification stands out). As stated in the report on the future cooperation in trade and investment between the EU and India of June 6, 2022, there are multiple projects with advantages for the future. The EU does not want and should not cool its ties with India for this reason, as benefits are great. Finally, the EU and India should not lose the focus on the objectives derived from the EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025 as they share China as a common competitor.

[1] EU restrictive measures against Russia over Ukraine (since 2014) | European Council - Council of the European Union, November 28, 2019

[2] Consolidated text: Council Regulation (EU) No 269/2014 of 17 March 2014 concerning restrictive measures in respect of actions undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine

[3] Security Council resolution 2623 (2022) [on convening an emergency special session of the General Assembly on Ukraine]

[4] UNGA Resolution 377, Uniting peace resolition

[5] “Aggression against Ukraine” (March 2, 2022)#, Resolution ES-11/2

[6] Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly UN. General Assembly (11th emergency special sess. : 2022)

[7] Suspension of the rights of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly UN. General Assembly (11th emergency special sess. : 2022)

[8]2014 UNGA resolution 68/262

[9] Manischa Reuter, Why India’s silence on Ukraine is an opportunity for Europe, European Council on foreign relations ECFR (2022)

[10] Frédérick Grage, A question of balance: India and Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European Council on foreign relations ECFR (2022) balance-india-and-europe-after-russias-invasion-of-ukraine/

[11] US Department of the treasury Press realeses | Treasury Targets International Sanctions Evasion Network Supporting Iranian Petrochemical Sales, June 16, 2022

[12] Mathew Chemplayil, Why India Does Not Use Sanctions, Regulations Asia, 13th July 2022

[13] Fact Sheets on the European Union | Euopean Parlamet  10-2021

[15]  Samir Saran, Eva Pejsova, Gareth Price, Kanchi Gupta, John-Joseph Wilkins, Prospects for EU-Indian security cooperation (2016) http://www.iss.europa. eu/uploads/media/Brief_4_Indian_Ocean.pdf

[16] Joint communication to the European Parliament and the Council, The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. (Brussels, 16.9.2021)

[17] European Parliament resolution of 15 December 2021 on the challenges and prospects for multilateral weapons of mass destruction arms control and disarmament regimes (2020/2001(INI))

[18] India-EU Consultations on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation | Asia News Agency (Feb 14, 2022)