Russia cannot depend on India either.


India’s neutrality in the growing confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine is causing heartburn in Western capitals. But while the disappointment may be warranted, an excessive focus on New Delhi’s reluctance to condemn Moscow or impose sanctions misses an important detail: India’s apparent leniency towards Russia is largely symbolic. In practice, New Delhi is unlikely to help its “special and privileged strategic partner” to ward off Western pressure.

Take energy. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, India has placed orders for at least 40 million barrels of cheap Russian oil, more than double what it bought in 2021. This might seem to indicate a willingness to give Moscow the money it desperately needs by increasing energy imports. As the world’s third largest oil importer, India could make a big difference for Vladimir Putin. And the low price could make a big difference for New Delhi. According to a 2019 study by the Reserve Bank of India, each additional dollar per barrel paid by India for oil imports increases the country’s budget deficit by $1.25 billion.

But the dramatic increase in oil imports from Russia would pose several practical difficulties for India. Although Russian oil is not subject to official sanctions, it still carries reputational risks, which private companies covering insurance, logistics and payments may balk at. “They tried to mop up discounted prices on relatively small contracts,” Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a phone interview. “In fact, getting suppliers to bring this energy to India is proving to be quite a challenge.”

Russian oil represents only a small fraction of Indian oil imports – only around 2% in 2021. Despite its recent purchases, India is not among the top 10 importers of Russian energy. As Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar pointed out last month, that is unlikely to change. Most of India’s energy comes from Gulf countries that are friendly to America. In 2020, its top three oil suppliers were Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while its top gas suppliers were Qatar and the United States. Russia.

Indian companies are also much more deeply integrated with the West than with Russia. At around $150 billion a year, US-India trade alone is more than 12 times larger than Russian-Indian trade. Indian billionaires like Mukesh Ambani own vacation homes in London and raise their children in the Ivy League. For many of them, cheaper energy is simply not worth the potential risk of being cut off from funding or from American consumers.

Some might argue that even if New Delhi has no economic incentives to buy Russian oil, it could still offer Moscow a lifeline as the biggest customer for another key Russian export: arms. Just over a quarter of Russia’s arms exports from 2017 to 2021 went to India. (The second recipient of Russian weapons, China, accounted for about a fifth.)

India has compelling reasons to buy Russian weapons, says Tellis. Russian equipment tends to be cheaper to acquire than its Western counterpart, although long-term operating costs may be higher. Russia also offers India its most advanced weapons, such as the Sukhoi Su-30 fighter and the S-400 missile defense system, while the West often withholds its newest equipment.

Mr Tellis also notes that Russia has had more success than the United States in co-producing and co-developing weapons with India, including the BrahMos medium-range cruise missile, named after the Brahmaputra rivers. and Moscow. Russian arms manufacturers are closely tied to the government. Unlike US companies, they don’t have to worry about justifying co-development decisions in commercial terms.

Despite all this, India’s reliance on Russian arms has declined, from 69% of Indian arms purchases in 2012-16 to 46% in 2017-21. Western sanctions against Russia could accelerate this decline by undermining Russia’s ability to maintain a sophisticated defense industrial base. Russia’s battlefield losses could also force its arms producers to focus on replenishing their own stockpiles rather than expanding exports. And although Moscow has been a reliable strategic partner of New Delhi in the past, its growing proximity to Beijing makes it less reliable. Mr Tellis predicts a continued “slight decline” in Indian arms imports from Russia, at least compared to Indian imports from other countries such as the United States, Israel and France.

Another area of ​​Indian cooperation with Russia is its membership in non-Western groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), RIC (Russia, India, China) and the Organization of Shanghai cooperation. But these are really just talk shops with little political coherence or influence. Also, India’s involvement is largely to ensure that Russia does not get too close to China, which could be fruitless at this stage. None of these groupings will materially influence the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

As the conflict drags on, many Westerners will continue to lament India’s unreliability. They should feel encouraged that Moscow cannot rely on New Delhi either.

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