For India, the affordability of Russian military equipment comes with lower quality and coercive leverage, and that is too high a price. The solution is to diversify towards suppliers such as the US. Signalling such an intention at the coming Quad meeting would make clear to the world India’s implicit criticism of Russia

The next meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, is scheduled for May 24 in Tokyo. There, the like-minded democracies of Japan, Australia, India and the United States will rededicate themselves to keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open.

Achieving this goal will require respect for liberal principles, including deliberative dispute resolution, territorial integrity and sovereignty. These are all principles being violated on a massive scale in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Three of the Quad members have unequivocally condemned Russia, and are punishing it through measures ranging from economic sanctions to military support for Ukraine. The outlier is India, which has maintained a studious neutrality, abstaining on every United Nations resolution condemning Russia and refusing to criticise it in any way.

Close to 70 per cent of India’s defence inventory is of Russian origin. New Delhi is thus hesitant to antagonise Russia, particularly given the ongoing Sino-Indian border confrontation.

India’s silence has caused consternation within the Quad, with US President Joe Biden calling India “somewhat shaky” on Ukraine. Nonetheless, other Quad members have expressed understanding.

The Australians, for example, indicated that different states will approach the Ukraine problem based on their own situations and interests, according to Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla. This has, so far, averted open disagreement between members of the grouping.

Even if this difference is papered over, however, it remains significant. The Quad countries’ shared purpose of establishing a free and open regional order is explicitly liberal. If one state evinces indifference to major violations of liberal principles of international behaviour, even if that violation occurs far away, it undercuts the purpose of the grouping.

Also, if the principle is established in Europe that territorial disagreements can be settled by force, China could decide to realise its revisionist ambitions in Asia through similar means. This endangers all members of the Quad and especially India with its long-standing border dispute with China, the latest flare-up of which happened in 2020.

The solution is for India to diversify its defence acquisitions. During much of the Cold War and even beyond, when India was at odds with the US, it made sense to rely on the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia. That is no longer true. Diversification now makes sense for three compelling reasons.

First, Russian equipment is often subpar. To be sure, some weapons, such as the S-400 air-defence system, are of high quality. But many others, such as Russian tactical aircraft and precision-guided munitions, are of lower quality than India could get elsewhere. Over the long term, diversification, a process that India has fitfully undertaken, will make its military more effective.

Second, relying on Russia gives it too much leverage over Indian foreign policy. In the Ukraine case, India has been forced into silence over an egregious violation of international norms. India can’t speak up, even if it would like to. This is unacceptable for a country that seeks to play a major role on the world stage.

Third, buying more from the US and other partners would increase India’s military integration with them, as well as other like-minded customer states. And greater interoperability would tighten political connections between these countries, which include members of the Quad.

Sceptics, no doubt, will say that Russian military equipment is more affordable and familiar to the Indian military than weaponry from the US and others. Furthermore, they are likely to argue that the US has been an unreliable defence partner. Both arguments are flawed. The affordability of Russian equipment comes with lower quality and coercive leverage. That’s too high a price.

And the Indian military, famously respectful of civilian authority, will get used to new, non-Russian equipment if the political leadership mandates it. Finally, while it is true that the US has not been a wholly reliable military supplier, the vicissitudes that haunted the relationship are, for the most part, historical artefacts.

Over the past two decades, India and the US have carefully constructed a robust strategic partnership, which includes measures to facilitate technology transfer. The US-India defence trade, which stood at zero in 2005, exceeds US$20 billion today.

India could use the Quad meeting to square the circle of distancing itself from Russia without being too critical. It could announce its intention to diversify its weapons acquisitions and buy more from the US and other partners, so as not to be too dependent on any one state.

This wouldn’t denounce Russia directly, but the international community in general, and the Quad members in particular, would understand the implicit criticism.

Such a statement would be a significant step in the right direction – it would enable India to do the right thing normatively, acquire more high-quality military equipment, and strengthen its relationships within the Quad. Partner states should make equipment readily available, and ensure that technology-transfer barriers don’t get in the way.

This approach might not make anybody entirely happy; some would want India to do more to distance itself from Russia, and some would argue it should do less. But this is a realistic way of starting to address the problem of India’s approach to Ukraine, and its friendship with Russia. In doing so, it can elevate India’s international standing, and strengthen the unity of the Quad.