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No longer bhai bhai. Despite Kremlin's last-ditch efforts, India is distancing itself from Russia

Extensive sanctions and international isolation have forced Russia to seek allies in the East. The Kremlin is keen to show that India and China can replace the EU and the U.S. as its core partners, but despite all the assurances of friendship, both countries are keeping their distance: China only uses Russia to bargain with the West, while India increasingly rejects Russian arms and did not support Moscow at the UN Security Council in October for the first time during the conflict. Fearful of losing one of its few major allies, the Russian government is trying to increase its influence in India by all means available, from bots on social media to “handling” politicians and the media, just as its Soviet predecessors did. Despite all efforts, the weakening of Moscow and its dependence on China are driving New Delhi further and further away from what was once its crucial strategic partner. 

  • Brethren in the right wing

  • Pro-Russian activities to attract allies

  • Kremlin propaganda on Indian channels

  • Bot factories and “face stealing” for Putin

  • Reasons for justifying the invasion

  • Journalists on the Soviet government's “payroll”

  • India's rapprochement with the US

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Brethren in the right wing

“Indian Hindus are with Putin and Russia in establishing the Soviet Union. Praise be to an undivided Russia. Praise be to India!” Such posters appeared on the monument to Alexander Pushkin in New Delhi just a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine. They were installed by members of the ultra-nationalist movement Hindu Sena (“the Hindu army”). Widely covered by the Indian press, this action met sharp criticism from the Indian opposition. The police removed the posters and called the defacing of the monument unacceptable. However, no one has ever been brought to justice, although Vishnu Gupta, the head of the Hindu Sena, took responsibility for the action in Putin's support.

“We pray [for] and support Russia getting back their old Soviet Union, and the country taking all necessary action to safeguard their borders,” declared Gupta. “If we have to choose between good and better, we would stand in support of Russia, as Russia has always been a true friend of India.”
Posters in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine
Posters in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine
Twitter /

The political group Hindu Sena is present in sixteen Indian states and has more than a million supporters on social media. The movement promotes right-wing radical and Islamophobic ideas. Its supporters advocate the creation of a “united India” based on the ideology and religion of Hinduism. According to their plan, this empire should incorporate almost all of South Asia, including even such Muslim-majority countries as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indian politician and social activist Kavita Krishnan believes that right-wing supporters strongly influence public opinion in India and promote a pro-Russian stance.

The Hindu Sena holding a pro-Russian rally
The Hindu Sena holding a pro-Russian rally

“The Hindu Sena adores Trump and Putin because the politics of Hindu supremacy have had similarities and relations with fascist and far-right movements around the world throughout their history,” says Krishnan, who has studied public opinion in India in the context of the Russian invasion. It is unclear whether Hindu supremacy groups have direct ties to the Russian government, but they certainly share ideological affinities, according to The Insider’s interviewee:

“Russian fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin uses the Indian term Kaliyuga in its classical caste sense to refer to the anarchic and apocalyptic overthrow of established hierarchies.”

Pro-Russian activities to attract allies

As The Insider learned, some Hindu Sena supporters were invited to the Congress of the so-called “International Russophile Movement”, founded by a former Bulgarian MP accused of espionage. The Kremlin uses joint socio-political forums as a means to broaden the ranks of its supporters, which is especially important for a country in international isolation. They don't invite only right-wingers, though. Russian diplomatic missions often try to talk foreign journalists and politicians into attending pro-Russian events.

As the Russian ambassador to India states in an invitation letter (available to The Insider), “Participants may be asked to speak publicly in defense of their position, which is expected to meet the objectives of the forum.” Some Indian journalists are known to have ignored such invitations. “They got very angry when I said no. But I'm so tired of all this,” one of the journalists invited to the forum complained to The Insider.

In India, the Russian side invites Indian journalists and officials to events at consulates, cultural centers, and other organizations of Rossotrudnichestvo, a governmental structure that promotes the Russian position on the war with Ukraine. Rossotrudnechstvo has been very successful, as the Indian authorities do not prohibit such events.

In March, the Russian House in Chennai launched an exhibition titled “Nine Years in the Home Harbor”, dedicated to the “accession” of Crimea to Russia. India authorized the exhibition, although the country is known for a hard line regarding its own disputed territories: for example, it is forbidden to import maps on which Kashmir forms a part of Pakistan.

A few days before the first anniversary of the invasion, the same center hosted an exhibition entitled “Ordinary Nazism”, provided by the Moscow Victory Museum. According to this project, Ukraine is controlled by the successors of Ukrainian nationalists from the era of World War II, which justifies the Russian invasion as a means to “liberate” Ukrainian lands.

Indian journalist and publisher Narasimhan Ram speaks at the opening of the Ordinary Nazism exhibition, Russian House in Chennai
Indian journalist and publisher Narasimhan Ram speaks at the opening of the Ordinary Nazism exhibition, Russian House in Chennai
Twitter / Russian House, Chennai

Kremlin propaganda on Indian channels

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes no pro-Russian statements and refrains from publicly supporting Putin on Ukraine. Nevertheless, his supporters are mostly pro-Putin, says Kavita Krishnan.

While Western countries are shutting down Russian propaganda resources, new ones are emerging in India, such as RT Hindi and RT English India, which began broadcasting in September 2022. Russian diplomats, embassy officials, and cultural center employees make statements for the Indian media – again, unlike in Western countries, where the Russian state has virtually no platforms for disseminating its ideas. Even Modi's opponents, primarily leftist forces, broadcast a similar point of view, Krishnan says:

“One of India's highest-ranking and most respected journalists, Narasimhan Ram, known for his left-wing views, visited the Ordinary Nazism exhibition. He gave a speech, repeating Putin's words that the history of the Russian Orthodox Church (in particular, the baptism of Prince Vladimir) proves that Ukraine is connected to Russia, and Zelensky is trying to sever this connection.”

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former Chief of the Naval Staff of India, who opposes the Hindu supremacy policy, according to Krishnan, has consistently defended the view that Ukraine is a puppet of the United States and NATO, painting it as the real aggressor that left Russia no choice but to make a “strategic intervention”, as he referred to the invasion a month after it began. Former Indian ambassador to Russia, career diplomat Venkatesh Varma, has made similar statements. He has interpreted the Ukrainian conflict as an “example of a proxy war between Russia and the West”.

The Russian authorities traditionally accuse the West of neocolonialism, and it’s the main thesis they are promoting in India, a country with a strong colonial legacy. Russia's tactics include calls for BRICS solidarity, Euroskepticism, and criticism of NATO, as well as other anti-globalization narratives.

However, not everyone in India is susceptible to Kremlin propaganda. In its Twitter, the Russian embassy in India tried to force Indian mass media to use the term “special military operation” instead of “war” when referring to the war in Ukraine (a mandatory euphemism for Russian media). This remark caused a scandal, as Indian Twitter users ridiculed the embassy in response.

“With regard to the crisis in Ukraine, the Indian media is requested to be accurate so that the Indian public receives objective information,” the Russian diplomatic mission tweeted.

“Lol, this is a fantastic example of Propaganda.” “Russia... Please stop advising us.” “How tf an embassy is sending advisory to a foreign land?” some users wrote back.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has experienced the pushback against Russian propaganda firsthand. At the Raisina Dialogue security conference in New Delhi, he was publicly ridiculed when he tried to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to “end the war”. When Lavrov stated: “You know, the war which we are trying to stop and which was launched against us using the Ukrainian people...”, the audience roared with laughter. The reaction infuriated the Russian minister. “I hope next time we meet in Raisina, we meet in less contentious times. Are you going to promise that?” the moderator inquired. Lavrov retorted: “The Americans would certainly suggest some questions which you can use.”

Sergey Lavrov at the Raisina Dialogue conference
Sergey Lavrov at the Raisina Dialogue conference

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price interpreted the “uproarious laughter” as evidence of Moscow losing the information war surrounding its invasion of Ukraine. But the Centre for Analysis of Social Media in London disagrees, arguing that the international community underestimates the Russian threat, at least on social media.

Bot factories and “face stealing” for Putin

Having invaded Ukraine, Russia engaged “troll factories” to launch information campaigns on Indian social networks. The London-based Centre for Analysis of Social Media exposed one such campaign. The rapid and aggressive spread of the hashtags #IStandWithPutin and #IStandWithRussia on Twitter was registered on two days, March 2 and 3, 2022. Nearly 11% of all posts were made by Indian accounts. Only 0.3% were Russian and 1.6% were based in the United States.

The researchers collected 23 million tweets with pro-Putin hashtags and identified 10,000 associated accounts, focusing on those that had sent five or more tweets. Studying the languages of the accounts, they identified three major clusters: Hindi, Tamil, and English.

The Hindi-language group includes 566 accounts that unexpectedly published or reposted 4 million pro-Russian posts in English. This group is responsible for the majority of retweets. Judging by pre-war posts in support of Narendra Modi, his BJP party, campaign materials, and calls to attend local pro-government political rallies and events, the group is loyal to the current Indian government.

“On March 2 and 3, there was a sharp spike, and then down, and now there is very little Russia-related activity,” says CASM director Carl Miller.

The second cluster is Tamil-language accounts: a total of 228 users who sent 1.7 million tweets. In the pre-war messages, the account holders spoke out against Modi and his party. “It looked like engagement with Tamil politicians who are anti-BJP [the ruling party],” Carl Miller explains. But on March 2 and 3, these accounts also began to share, on a massive scale, the same posts justifying the Russian invasion as the Hindi cluster users. The third cluster is the largest, with 1,314 Indian accounts in English and loyal to Modi.

Some of the account clusters identified by CASM
Some of the account clusters identified by CASM
CASM / The Wire

Hardly any accounts across the three clusters had many followers. Nevertheless, their pro-Russian tweets received hundreds and thousands of reposts. “There definitely are signs of automation in the network, snapping into English-language pro-invasion memes and then snapping back into Hindi suggests that,” Miller believes. “This is inauthentic for sure, and coordinated. It may be a series of campaigns interlocking with this aim in mind.”

The pro-Russian campaign could have been timed to coincide with the UN vote on a resolution condemning Russian aggression, Miller suggests. And it aimed to create the illusion that Indian society’s support for the Russian invasion is higher than it actually is.

Some accounts used the photos of Indian bloggers and influencers as their avatars. For example, the popular Indian instablogger ER Yamini found her picture on the avatar of a Twitter account that disseminated hashtags in support of Putin and Russia. “#IStandWithPutin. True friendship,» read one of the posts with a video of two men hugging, apparently symbolizing the friendship between India and Russia.

Nicole Thorne is an Australian social media influencer with 1.5 million followers on Instagram, who only occasionally uses her Twitter profile. She found her photo on the avatar of a pro-Putin account under the name Preety Sharma. The bio read: “model and entrepreneur” originally from India, now in Miami. The profile was set up on February 26, 2022, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine. “Putin is a good person,” says one of the retweets.

Another account tried to impersonate the Indian singer Raja Gujjar. The first tweet was published on February 24, and all of the account’s 178 posts are retweets. According to the experts, this is a telling sign of a bot. The BBC contacted the real musician, who confirmed the account wasn’t his.

According to the BBC, Twitter executives have deleted over 100,000 accounts since the war began and blocked dozens of accounts associated with the hashtags #IStandWithRussia and #IStandWithPutin.

Reasons for justifying the invasion

In the Indian collective consciousness, Russia is a very friendly country, so many struggle to believe it’s capable of any atrocities, explains social activist Kavita Krishnan:

“The reasons lie partly in India’s perception of the Soviet Union as its benefactor during the Cold War and also in the tendency to associate Russia with the USSR. Ukraine, on the other hand, has historically occupied a very small place in the Indian imagination.”

Some media went even further, taking an aggressively pro-Russian stance, Krishnan says. These are primarily conservative Hinduist YouTube channels, TV channels, and online publications that advocate the nationalist policies of Narendra Modi and more radical movements. But even relatively independent YouTube channels are spreading conspiracy theories, for example, about the U.S. producing biological weapons in Ukraine.

“One TV channel, broadcasting in Hindi and several other Indian languages, boasts of ‘round-the-clock coverage’ of the invasion,” Krishnan says. During Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, this channel broadcast garish headlines in Hindi, such as “Beijing and Moscow – stop them if you dare!”, “Judgment Day for Ukraine and America”, “Xi met Putin with atomic salute”.

Certain media outlets may be doing this out of ideological affinity or simply because they lack content. Whether any other incentives are offered remains to be seen, Kavita believes. However, the practice of bribing Indian channels goes way back, to Soviet times. In 1977 the KGB financed ten newspapers and a news agency, which published over 5,500 stories and articles with the KGB’s assistance.

Journalists on the Soviet government's “payroll”

The penetration of Soviet intelligence into Indian political life was extensive starting from the 1950s, when the Soviet Union trained Investigation Bureau (IB) officers after India gained independence.

“The size and dynamics of Moscow's political apparatus in India are such that it is unlikely to be easily incapacitated,” argued the authors of a 32-page CIA report on Soviet intelligence involvement in the country, which was declassified in 2011. It also read that board members and journalists of many media outlets were “on the Soviet government’s payroll”.

This is further evidenced by the archives of Vasily Mitrokhin, the former head of the archive service of the KGB's First Department. In 1992, Mitrokhin defected to the UK, handing over six suitcases of papers on Soviet intelligence efforts, including in India.

According to these archives, the number of KGB agents in India in the 1970s was the largest outside the Soviet Union. In 1978, over 30 Soviet agents were working there; ten of them were also Indian intelligence officers. In 1977, Soviet secret services financed the election campaigns of more than twenty politicians. Several Indian ministers and regional leaders were in the KGB’s pocket.

Leonid Brezhnev and Indira Gandhi in Moscow
Leonid Brezhnev and Indira Gandhi in Moscow

It was the Soviet secret services that persuaded Indian Defense Minister Krishna Menon to buy Soviet MiGs rather than EE Lightnings, and his 1962 and 1967 election campaigns were financed by the KGB, according to the papers. In 1975, the USSR spent 10.6 million rubles (~$14.5 million at the time) on boosting support for Indira Gandhi and undermining her political opponents. Inside the KGD, Gandhi received the operative alias “Vano”. Although she never was recruited as a Soviet agent, the KGB's influence on her and her party, the Indian National Congress (INC), was total. Leonid Shebarshin, the KGB chief for India, personally delivered the secret gift of 2 million rupees (~$240,000 at the time) for the INC. A newspaper supporting Indira Gandhi received another million rupees. Soviet intelligence also sponsored the Communist Party of India (CPI), which enjoyed proximity to Gandhi's party in the 1970s. Money for the CPI was sometimes passed “in packs through car windows on the streets of New Delhi”.

The KGB did everything it could to fuel Indira Gandhi's distrust of Washington. The archives suggest that the Soviets regularly planted evidence of ties between the opposition and U.S. intelligence services for Gandhi and her team to find. Eventually, Gandhi developed a real paranoia in this regard. Not a single decision made by India contradicted the interests of the USSR.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Russian secret services changed their approach to India. Instead of interfering in political life, the agents used the country as a springboard to work in other areas, notably Afghanistan, where there was fighting between Ahmad Shah Massoud's Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and the strengthening of al-Qaeda.

India's rapprochement with the US

In the meantime, India began a rapprochement with the United States. In 2020, Washington and New Delhi signed a foundational defense agreement: the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). Experts suggest that this “rapprochement with the enemy” forced Russia to activate GRU agents. New Delhi is now monitoring Russian spies and assessing the likelihood of their interference in India's domestic affairs, including elections, the Sunday Guardian wrote citing sources in the Indian government agencies. The impact, they say, is likely to be through social media. There is no information about any arrests or charges in connection with the Soviet or Russian secret services.

“Russia has highly capable infrastructure and units to launch cyber campaigns with deep ramifications. We are aware of the challenges that can come in the near future due to recent developments that we are witnessing between India and the US (referring to BECA),” the Indian official stated to the newspaper.

Another factor that has put a dent in Russian-Indian relations is Moscow's growing dependence on China, primarily in technology. This has made Russia a highly unreliable partner for India, says former Indian Foreign Minister and current Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor:

“The war highlighted and reinforced Russia's reliance on China as its principal global partner – a relationship that would intensify as Russia grew weaker... China and Russia do indeed seem to be deepening their ties, which augurs ill for India's relationships with both countries.”

India's reliance on armaments was the main obstacle to rethinking relations with Moscow, Tharoor said. But in recent years, India has diversified its supplies and switched to weapons from other countries, mostly due to Russia's systematic failure to fulfill its contracts. The Indian Defense Ministry wrote in a report for the parliament that Moscow had failed to fulfill its arms supply obligations.

“We had a major delivery in this year, which is not going to take place. They have given us in writing that they are not able to deliver it. That is why the major part of projection has been reduced”. According to CNN, the delivery in question could have been S-400 Triumf missile systems worth $5.4 billion. Three sets of these systems had been delivered earlier, and two more are expected. The supply of spare parts for Su-30MKI and MiG-29 may also be suspended. Moscow and New Delhi signed another contract, a $1 billion intergovernmental agreement to supply 200 helicopters, in 2015, but India, which is yet to receive even a single helicopter, has suspended negotiations – despite Russia's willingness to transfer technology and set up the production of 140 Ka-226T helicopters in India. The deal to supply Su-30MKI is also at a standstill. Russia has offered India $1.4 billion worth of fighter kits to produce fighters on its territory, but the contracts, which were scheduled to be signed in 2020, are yet to be concluded.

T-90 Bhishma tanks in India
T-90 Bhishma tanks in India

As a result, while Russia accounted for about 75% of India’s weapons in 2006-2010, this share dropped to less than 50% in 2016-2020, reaching 45% or so today, notes Tharoor. Currently, its key suppliers are the United States, France, and Israel. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the export of Russian weapons to India has plunged by 37% over the past five years.

In addition, New Delhi saw Moscow as a force capable of deterring Beijing from encroaching on the Indian borderland. But now that Moscow has become China's prized partner, India cannot rely on it anymore. So New Delhi is forced to cooperate with other countries to curb China's “overweening ambitions”. Tharoor also warns of the possibility of a new Pakistan-China axis that will be extremely hostile to India. At best, Moscow will occupy a dual position and at worst will join this axis.

“The Russia of the foreseeable future, severely weakened by its Ukrainian misadventure, is not a Russia on which India can rely,” remarks Tharoor. At the same time, Moscow's ties with New Delhi are likely to remain historically strong, and the public perception of Russia as India’s major partner will continue to play a prominent role in maintaining the relations. However, calling them strategically important would be a stretch.

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