New Delhi’s humanitarian aid to Kyiv counterbalances its disinclination to criticise Moscow

India’s decision to send additional humanitarian assistance to Ukraine this week reaffirms its neutral approach to the seven-month-old conflict, despite the widely-held view in the West about its pro-Russian bias.

On Monday, Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba and assured him that a fresh batch of Indian humanitarian aid would be sent to Kyiv soon.

India is among the few democracies in the world that have consistently abstained from resolutions in the UN Security Council, General Assembly and the Human Rights Council that condemned Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. Yet, the first batch of Indian humanitarian assistance was rushed to Ukraine within weeks of the war.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to both the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky several times to urge for the immediate cessation of hostilities and return to the “path of diplomacy and dialogue” to resolve the conflict.

Modi’s call to the two heads of state was primarily to ensure the safe return of nearly 20,000 Indian nationals, mostly students, from Ukraine, but it also highlighted India’s preference for peacefully settling conflicts.

Since hostilities broke out in February, India had sent several consignments of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian ministry of health, India has handed over 187 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Ukrainian healthcare facilities. The Indian aid included medicines, tents, blankets, tarpaulins, gloves, protective goggles, solar lamps, dignity kits (that contain hygiene and sanitary items for girls and women) and sleeping mats.

However, India’s stand on Ukraine has been disappointing for the US and European countries. For Washington, in particular, Delhi’s neutrality and refusal to be party to the anti-Russian resolutions and hold Moscow responsible for the invasion has been a signal of a sharp division among the two strategic partners.

The Joe Biden administration had wanted to send out a strong signal against Russia for its attempt to legitimise the use of force to change borders and occupy another nation’s territory through a blatant war of conquest.

But though India has refused to join the western bandwagon in condemning Russia, it has consistently spoken about the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, international law, and UN charters.

However, the Indian statements’ oblique criticism of the Russian action has mostly been ignored or lost in western commentaries that continue to see New Delhi’s stand of neutrality as a pro-Moscow position.

During interactions with western interlocutors, Indian officials have tried to explain that the country’s stand on Ukraine stemmed from its own national interest and prevailing security environment in its neighbourhood where China and Pakistan both pose “immediate and enduring” threats to India.

Under such a challenging security scenario, it would be foolish on New Delhi’s part to alienate Russia by joining the western effort to isolate it.

Since 1955, Moscow under both the Soviet Union and, subsequently, the Russian Federation, has been one of most valued and “time-tested” friends of India, coming to its support during any serious crisis that Delhi faced. It has also been a consistent supporter of India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir and has used its veto power or threatened to use it at the UN Security Council to bail India out from a tight diplomatic spot.

Moreover, despite India’s decision to diversify its source for weapons in recent decades. Russia continues to be India’s top arms supplier, accounting for nearly 50 percent of the Indian defence market. A large chunk of the Indian defence platform is also dependent on spares from Russia.

In addition, though many western countries, including the US in recent years, have agreed to share sophisticated technology with India, Russia has been consistent in transferring important technology in a whole range of areas with Delhi, often in the face of threats of sanctions from America.

Russia has also been one of the first countries to respond to India’s ‘Make in India’ policy and has engaged with it in co-production of sophisticated weapons like the BrahMos missile.

Though hardening of the US’ relations with both Russia and China have made the two countries work closely with each other in challenging Washington’s global hegemony, India has managed to maintain its strong and deep bilateral ties with Moscow.

This is even as Indo-US ties have strengthened of late, making it one of the most important aspects of international relations as Washington and New Delhi have expanded their cooperation in a large number of sectors of mutual benefit.

However, India has made it clear to the US leadership that this closer bond will not be at the cost of its relations with Moscow. This was hammered home by the Indian leadership in the past months during the Ukraine crisis as it ignored US-led western sanctions on Russia and maintained its strong ties with Moscow.

But India is among a handful of countries like China, Turkey and Israel that have access to both the Russian and the Ukrainian leadership. In the past, Modi had called both Putin and Zelensky to call for peace when asked to do so by the UN secretary-general, admittedly with little success.

However, with its regular supply of humanitarian supplies to Ukraine and by maintaining its strong ties with Russia, India only underlines its relevance in the Ukraine war. It could actually be part of a small group of countries that may finally succeed in bringing an end to the conflict.