(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

MUMBAI - India will struggle to occupy the Ukrainian middle ground. Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces mounting pressure from Europe and Washington to align against Russia, but quick-shifting geopolitical sands make the decision a more delicate one than for most countries.

In a diplomatic nod, New Delhi abstained in two votes against Russia’s interests at the U.N. Security Council last month. Instead, Modi signalled his discomfort with Moscow’s decision to roll its tanks towards Kyiv by offering to help broker peace. He is in no hurry to oppose a country that has been a mostly reliable partner for decades on Chinese matters and India’s tussle with Pakistan over Kashmir.

The case for preserving the Russian relationship is rooted in a mutual desire for strategic autonomy. It extends well beyond any Indian ambition to protect its biggest defence supplier, a legacy of the Cold War. Russia’s top trading partner is China, India’s adversary. India’s biggest trading partner is the United States, whose tension with China persists. Those dynamics mean India and Russia help each other curb the other’s dependence on a superpower.

What’s more, while India is a vital part of the so-called Quad that implicitly aims to check China’s economic and military regional expansion, the alliance with the United States, Japan and Australia is relatively new. After watching recent events unfold in Hong Kong and Afghanistan, it’ll be hard to convince Indians that the West would rush to their aid.

Before the Ukraine crisis, India was ready to deepen its $10 billion bilateral trade relationship with Moscow. Russian energy accounts for a tiny share of India’s oil and gas imports but the expected growing demand makes it particularly vulnerable to increasing price volatility from the worldwide transition to renewables from fossil fuels. Ramping up bilateral investment, as China has just done with Russia, looked like a sensible approach. 

Even if New Delhi sticks to its position on Ukraine, Western sanctions will complicate purchases of diamonds, arms, fertiliser and more, and force a rethink of the longer-term energy strategy. Pushing Moscow closer to Beijing also will make Vladimir Putin’s Russia a less reliable partner for the South Asian country. India’s perch on the fence is awkward.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered to help with peace efforts in the Ukraine crisis during a Feb. 26 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Modi expressed his "deep anguish about the loss of life and property due to the ongoing conflict" while reiterating his call for an immediate cessation of violence and a return to dialogue, according to a government statement.

On Feb. 25, India along with China and United Arab Emirates abstained from voting for a U.N. Security Council resolution to deplore Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, drawing criticism in the West but praise from Moscow with which it has long standing defence ties. India on Feb. 27 abstained from a related procedural vote calling for an emergency special session on the Ukraine crisis.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

(Editing by Jeffrey Goldfarb and Katrina Hamlin) ((For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on GALANI/ SIGN UP FOR BREAKINGVIEWS EMAIL ALERTS https://bit.ly/BVsubscribe | una.galani@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: una.galani.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))