In the first days of Russian invasion of Ukraine, a particular section of Indian public commentators, while defending New Delhi’s neutral position on the war, argued that Kyiv’s foreign policy was not positive toward India. Such commentators criticized Kyiv for its selling of arms to Pakistan and Ukraine’s past positions on the Kashmir dispute and India’s nuclear weapons program.
Note that Ukraine was not openly criticized for any of this by the Indian government. And I am not suggesting that New Delhi refused to condemn the Russian invasion because of these aspects of past Ukrainian foreign policy. It is safe to assume that New Delhi remains neutral because of what Russia is offering to India, not because of what Ukraine was offering to Pakistan. This criticism of Ukraine appeared mostly on the margins of right-wing Hindu narratives, but was raised by a few influential people too and echoed in social media.
The context was that Ukraine’s ambassador to India declared he was “deeply dissatisfied” with New Delhi’s neutral position in the first week after the Russian invasion began, and appealed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “exert every pressure, every effort to stop this aggression.” The aforementioned comments seem to have largely been in response to this criticism. Such points against Ukraine were raised in tweets by one Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker, Tajinder Singh Bhagga, and one commentator close to the ruling party, Kanchan Gupta. In addition, Prakash Chand Katoch’s text in Firstpost stated: “Zelensky appealing to India help is a perversity of fate after Ukraine has opposed India at every opportunity in the United Nations and sided with and armed Pakistan.”
There’s much to disagree with in this line of argument. The issues of Kyiv’s stand on Kashmir and India’s nuclear weapons program will be dealt with briefly, allowing me to focus on the larger crux of the matter: military hardware transfers.
At the end of the 1990s India was criticized for pursuing a nuclear weapons program – and for testing its nuclear capabilities – by a number of countries, chief among them being the United States. It took much effort on both sides to move Indo-American relations from that low point to later cooperation. But since even Washington was against New Delhi at that time, it is rather absurd to single out Kyiv for doing the same, given that the American voice on the issue mattered much more than the Ukrainian one. Second, since the U.S. and India were able to leave this issue behind and focus on fields of mutual interest, the same should be, and could be, done in Indo-Ukrainian relations.
As for Ukrainian comments on Kashmir issue – many voices critical of Indian policy toward Kashmir have been raised in other European countries as well, and this has apparently not hindered New Delhi’s cooperation with those countries. The same conclusion applies to the question of defense cooperation.
First, although critics point to Ukrainian arms sales to Pakistan, Ukraine has sold arms to both India and Pakistan – and sold more in terms of value to India. This is based on SIPRI data for the past two decades. Ukraine was primarily selling turbines for Indian Navy ships and trying to offer other services, such as joint modernization of the An-32, transport aircraft in service in India. On February 24, in a commentary for The Wire Rahul Bedi summarized which deliveries of military hardware and services from Ukraine to India may be impacted by the invasion.
In recent years, Kyiv also sold engines for Pakistani tanks as part of their modernization drive and offered to sell Oplot tanks to Islamabad as well. But while the engines have been delivered, the fate of the latter tank deal is uncertain. Thus, for the past two decades Ukraine has been a minor source of military hardware and hardware services for both India and Pakistan.
Second, the above sources have singled out Ukraine now, but Kyiv has been selling to both India and Pakistan for decades. Over the years, Indian media has indeed noticed such events as Ukraine offering to modernize Pakistani tanks or trying to sell Islamabad its own tanks, but I have not found instances of Kyiv being outright criticized for this in India – until now.
Third, there have been a few other European countries that sold arms to both India Pakistan over the years – and most were not criticized for it in Indian media. It is not even clear if this affected their cooperation with India. The Netherlands sold a few patrol ships to Pakistan, and no outrage in India has been registered. Italy sold howitzers to Pakistan, followed by ammunition, and the outrage was equally missing. It should be noted that an Italian company, Finmeccanica, has been blocked on the Indian market, but officially, the reasons for that are connected to corruption charges, not Rome’s dealings with Islamabad. Sweden sold its Erieye platform to Pakistan; this, again was reported in Indian media but Sweden was not vehemently condemned for it, even when it was noted that Pakistan could have been using Erieye during tensions with India in 2019. At least one newspaper, the Economic Times, reported that India lodged a diplomatic complaint with Sweden for the transfer. While the fact of this complaint cannot be confirmed in open sources, the Swedish company Gripen is still in a race for a crucial deal to offer fighter jets to India.
Fourth, the countries who sell military hardware to Pakistan also include Russia – and to make matters worse, Moscow sells to Beijing as well. Russia has actually been the most important arms supplier to China, and sells more advanced platforms to Beijing than to New Delhi (and these facts are well-known in India). In comparison, it is true that in general, Russia’s cooperation with Pakistan has been growing slowly, and the transfers of military platforms have not been of immense scale. So far, these were limited to transfers of two types of helicopters. However, it does look absurd to condemn Ukraine for exporting military equipment to Pakistan while the country invading Ukraine has been doing the same.
Fifth and finally, New Delhi itself understands best the benefits and trappings of playing to various sides across political divides. In two of my previous texts for The Diplomat – here and here – I shared an opinion that the West should not press New Delhi to condemn Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine. My approach is that, whether we like it or not, in international relations national interests still matter first. It is in India’s own interests – as defined by New Delhi – to remain in good standing with both the West and Russia. This conclusion applies to all. It was in Ukraine’s national interest – as defined by Kyiv – to sell arms to both India and Pakistan. Thus, those who stress that India has a right to retain its position between Russia and the West should similarly accept that it was Ukraine’s right to sell military hardware to both India and Pakistan.