The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

India wants to have its cake and eat it to.

Enjoying a strategic alliance with Russia, India has veered away from diplomatic allies like the United States and the European Union by refusing to participate in UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The world’s fourth-largest oil importer, India persists in drawing oil from Russia, flouting sanctions imposed by Washington and Brussels on Russia’s oil and gas sectors. This stance toward the war has raised eyebrows and drawn criticism from allies, leading to calls for India to either join the sanctions against Russia or bear the consequences on trade and investment ties.

Several factors underpin India’s position. First, India and Russia share a trusted, decades-long relationship dating back to the Cold War era, when Moscow stood by New Delhi on various issues, including Kashmir, nuclear weapons, and non-alignment. Being India’s largest arms supplier—accounting for 49% of its arms imports between 2016 and 2020—Russia also offers India a number of inducements not to abandon it. These elements shape India’s reluctance to endanger its strategic alliance with Russia by openly criticizing or sanctioning it over Ukraine.

Secondly, India’s heavy reliance on energy imports to fuel its burgeoning demand for oil and gas weighs in. India imports approximately 85% of its oil and 53% of its gas. With the onset of war in February 2022, India increased its oil imports from Russia considerably, exploiting Russia’s fire sale. In fact, India’s imports of Russian oil skyrocketed tenfold in 2022, according to India’s state-controlled lender, Bank of Baroda.

Nevertheless, this position on the war presents challenges and risks for India’s foreign policy. On one hand, India faces isolation and pressure from allies opposed to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The U.S. and the EU have expressed discontent with India’s oil purchases from Russia, insisting it undermines the economic sanctions and reduces pressure on Moscow to halt its aggression against Ukraine. They have also alerted India about the risks associated with relying on Russian energy, including supply disruptions, price volatility, and security threats.

Furthermore, the U.S. and EU have implored India to join the sanctions against Russia or endure implications for its trade and investment relations. Conversely, India grapples with uncertainty and volatility from its strategic ally engaged in a conflict that threatens regional and global stability. Russia has neither consulted nor informed India about its actions or intentions in Ukraine, and by backing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, poses further challenges to India’s interests.

India’s oil imports from Russia are concerning to allies and partners, particularly the U.S. and the EU. They have imposed sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas sectors and urged other nations to lessen their dependence on Russian energy.

In efforts to restrict the revenue Russia garners from its oil exports, the U.S. and EU have introduced a price cap plan set at $60 a barrel. The EU has also halted imports of Russian oil by sea and banned refined oil product imports from Russia. Despite these measures, India defends its oil imports from Russia as a matter of energy security and economic interests, asserting that, as an energy-dependent nation with millions in poverty, it cannot afford to pay higher prices for oil.

The EU, along with Japan, have expressed concern over India’s oil trade with Russia, insisting it undermines the international community’s unity in condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. They have also urged India to join the sanctions against Russia or face implications for its trade and investment relations.

This situation presents a foreign policy conundrum for India. On one hand, India wishes to uphold its strategic alliance with Russia encompassing diplomacy, defense, nuclear energy, and technology transfers. Yet on the other, India strives to safeguard its relationships with allies opposed to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Consequently, India faces a tricky decision: whether to continue or cut down its oil imports from Russia. Continuing could risk alienating allies pressing for joining sanctions against Russia, while reducing might upset its strategic ally supplying cheap oil and valuable cooperation. Neither choice is straightforward or appealing for India.

Laraib Khan holds a graduate degree in Strategic Studies and currently serves as a researcher and a lecturer at the University of Peshawar.