Many countries rushed to pick sides following the outbreak of war in Ukraine last year, but India undertook a difficult balancing act and maintained the longstanding ties between New Delhi and Moscow. This despite the West's attempt to frame the war, which the Kremlin calls a "special military operation," as a conflict between democracy and autocracy.

But over a year after Russian troops drove into Ukraine, the geopolitical turbulence and alignments caused by the conflict raises questions on whether India, the world's most populous democracy, will be forced to move away from its traditional friend Russia over time.

India, which has a long history of non-alignment and close ties to Russia, maintained a neutral posture about the Ukraine war while countries like the US, UK, Canada, Australia and the EU, quickly slapped Russia with sanctions.

India has largely preserved its relationship with Russia since the Ukraine invasion and massively stepped up buying oil from Moscow. India has also abstained from voting on resolutions that condemn the war in Ukraine. But it could become increasingly complicated for New Delhi to maintain its close ties to Russia as India strengthens its ties with the West, and as the Kremlin and China, India's hostile neighbor, pull closer.

India's partnership with Russia was forged during the Cold War and gave rise to New Delhi's "strategic sympathy" towards Moscow, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"India had just come out of the long two centuries of colonialism. There was a lot of anti-imperialist sentiments within India at that point of time," Rajagopalan told International Business Times.

India "also became anti-West ... This, in essence, translated to some sort of pro-Soviet sympathies also. The anti-imperialism, anti-West sentiments also meant there was a certain strategic sympathy towards the Soviet Union."

These sentiments worked in Moscow's favor after Russian President Vladimir Putin's brazen aggression on Ukraine. While the West quickly denounced Russia and imposed sanctions, India and other developing countries remained neutral and said they had more pressing problems, like food security, energy needs, and pandemic-related issues, to deal with.

"The real cleavage over Ukraine is not between democracy and autocracy but between the global north and the global south," Jorge Heine, a former Chilean diplomat who now teaches at Boston University, was quoted saying by Foreign Policy.

India's response to the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine also reflects New Delhi's policy of upholding a needs-based partnership with countries that the West consider as "pariahs." Maintaining a neutral posture has allowed India to continue importing arms and oil from Russia while trade between Russia and other countries came to a near-standstill.

India's dependence on Russia for defense imports also runs so deep that the latter has supplied around $13 billion of arms to India over the past five years, Russian state news agencies revealed last month. Around 20% of orders for Russian weapons and military equipment are currently from India, NDTV reported.

But India's dependence on defense imports from Russia might be declining.

"India has been diversifying its defense trade for more than a decade now," Rajagopalan said. But "because of the legacy factor" and because of India's dependence on Russia for decades, "it is difficult to cut it off completely overnight. It takes time," she added.

A report this month from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) showed Indian defense imports from Russia falling in recent times.

"Russia was the largest supplier of arms to India in both 2013–17 and 2018–22, but its share of total Indian arms imports fell from 64% to 45%," the report said. "Russia's position as India's main arms supplier is under pressure due to strong competition from other supplier states, increased Indian arms production and ... constraints on Russia's arms exports related to its invasion of Ukraine."

The fall in India's share of defense imports could be a concern for Russia, which is losing trade partnerships and also running out of countries it can call "friends."

"Russians don't have too many friends in the world today. They cannot afford to lose India as a friend. They cannot afford to lose India as a defense market," Rajagopalan added.

Russia now exports 57% of its oil to India and China after the unprecedented sanctions imposed by the West.

Russian President Putin and Indian Prime Minister Modi meet in Samarkand

But While Russia maintains its relationships with India and China, it is clear that Beijing's voice would hold more power in Moscow than New Delhi's. China and Russia declared their "no-limits" partnership just before the Ukraine war started.

Meanwhile, India's security relationship with the U.S. is also growing amid the backdrop of U.S.-China and China-India tensions.

"China may even insist at one point that Russia significantly curtail or even end its arms sales to India," Rajan Menon, a nonresident scholar in the Russia and Eurasia Program and director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, wrote in a paper titled Russia and India: A New Chapter.

With time, it could become harder for both India and Russia to preserve their relationship with each other. India might consequently have to rework its Russia policy and seek out other options to fill the gap.

"India's defense ties with Russia are seen either as a liability, or a dependence that should be changed," wrote Vivek Mishra, a Fellow with ORF's Strategic Studies Programme. "Given the scale of dependence between Russia and India in the defense sector, the United States is perhaps the only country that can play the same role as Russia's in the near and long term. The other option for India — that of shifting its defense reliance to homegrown industries — will take time."

India's new security partners, such as the U.S. and other Quad members, "have shown certain amount of understanding of India's dilemma in managing their Russia relationship," Rajagopalan told IBT but noted that "there will be some sort of an expiry date" to this understanding.

"Today's Russia is more of a liability to India than a strategic partner," she added.

India, for now, continues its long-standing relationship with Russia but might not always be able to rely on Moscow, especially if hostilities with China escalate.

"Russia is not going to be the partner who can be helpful in managing the China threat," she said. "So if India continues to go down this path for a very long time, India's new security partnerships might run into some problems."