In the current Ukraine Russia crisis, it is visible that India currently stands with Russia indirectly. By abstaining from voting in the UN security council (UNSC) as well as the General assembly, India appears to stand with its time-tested partner. Western countries especially the United States (US) and its allies now questioning India for not morally supporting Ukraine at the time when it is invaded by Russia.
United Nations General Assembly on March 2, 2022, brought resolutions to reprimand Russia for invading Ukraine and demanded that Moscow stop fighting and withdraw its military forces. In the voting process with 193 member states, 181 participated in the vote. Of those, 141 countries supported the resolution condemning Moscow and five were against it — namely Russia and a tiny group of its allies — Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea. 35 countries abstained, including India, China, Pakistan.
In the interests vs principles dilemma, India has chosen the interests owing to the current tense south Asia geopolitical environment as well as the dependency of its defense equipment on Russia. While after the 2000s there have been significant improvements in India-Western relations, India still maintains an age-old policy of strategic partnership with Russia. There is not much change in the policies followed concerning Russia from Nehru to Modi.
Kashmir Veto & Russian strategic support
After the 1948 Kashmir war, Both India and Pakistan were searching for partners in UN councils to support them, for their respective Kashmir stance. During the initial decades, the US aligned with Pakistan and asked both India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir problem mutually. From in US geopolitical view, resolution of the Kashmir issue can bring India and Pakistan together, these both countries latter can be used as frontline states against communist China. For nearly 40 years, all the American presidents tried to resolve the Kashmir problem in a way India opposed. During the period of American presidents Harry Truman & John F Kennedy, efforts were most serious. Prime minister Nehru once told in frustration “I am tired of receiving moral advice from the United States.”
Due to above mentioned American maneuvers in favor of Pakistan, Nehru’s India started tilting towards the Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In 1955 USSR Chairman Khrushchev and Prime minister Bulganin visited India and they traveled across the length and breadth of India including states like Punjab, Jammu, and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu. When these leaders traveled to Srinagar, Khrushchev proclaimed in a public meeting that “Moscow was just across the border and if there is any trouble in Kashmir, Delhi should just give a shout”. This remarkable visit was the foundation for India-USSR Relations. This foundational moment was akin to the moment when Pakistan transferred Shaksgam Valley to China paving way for Sino — Pakistan strategic relations.
Though Russia exercised several vetoes in UNSC, its 100th veto in UNSC was in support of India’s position on Kashmir. When Western countries brought “Irish resolution” which urged India and Pakistan to enter negotiations for settlement of their dispute on Kashmir, the Soviet Union exercised 100th veto to block the resolution helping for India’s position.
When Sino — the Indian war happened in 1962, USSR stayed neutral maintaining “India is our friend, but China our blood brother” stand. USSR was diverted and distracted by the “Cuban Missile Crisis” in 1962. During the India — China conflict, the Soviet Union could not contribute much, as the two superpowers themselves were involved with potential nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, John F Kennedy, US president, informed Nehru that US military assistance can be possible only if India talks with the Pakistan military regime for the Kashmir resolution.
During the India-Pakistan war of 1965, when Pakistan was using the latest shiny weapons of US origin (including the F104 Starfighter fighter jet), India was left to use generations-old British weapons on the battlefield. Though the war ended in a stalemate and more favorable towards India, there was a complete change in foreign policy with India coming out of non-aligned policy. Lessons learned during the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the India-Pakistan war of 1965 enabled India to establish strategic relations with USSR during Indira Gandhi as Prime minister. Defense modernization & reforms during the years after 1965, paved the way for stellar performance in the 1971 war for India. The Soviet Union has an important role in it.
Though India in the last two decades had steadily moved towards western countries, a significant fraction, nearly half, of arms and ammunition in Indian defense inventory are still of Russian origin with a significant portion that are decades old of soviet origin. Nearly 60% of the Indian defense equipment is of Russian origin, more of vintage USSR origin. Close to three-quarters of the Indian Air Force depends on Russia for its war equipment including, but not limited to Fighter jets SU-30MKI, MIG 29, Helicopters Mi-17 & recently acquired Air defense missile system S400. Russia played important role in the building of India’s nuclear submarines like INS Arahant. With INS Arahant abilities, India’s nuclear triad capability was accomplished in August 2016.
India’s UN abstentions
After 2000, When western nations brought resolutions against Russia in various UN councils, India remained neutral and abstained mostly on all occasions. On some occasions, they embraced Russia’s interests. Some of the instances include when UNHRC tried to adopt resolutions against Russia for exceeding the use of disproportionate force in the Second Chechen War, India voted against it. In May 2008 when a resolution was brought up in UNGA to recognize the right of return by refugees who were displaced in a Moscow-backed secessionist campaign in Abkhazia, India sided with Russia along with nine others including Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela. India again abstained in the March 2014 UNGA voting which was to uphold Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and denounce Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In 2016, when Syria’s Assad regime was bombing Aleppo mercilessly with Russia’s support, a Canada-led resolution was brought up in UNGA, India followed a similar traditional approach(abstaining) this time too saying, it does not mix humanitarian issues with political issues.
In some instances, Russia too voted against India or remained neutral. Those few instances include when the security council brought a resolution against India & Pakistan for a nuclear test. Russia under Boris Yeltsin supported this resolution saying, “India has let us down with its explosions”. He just stopped calling strong action against India with these remarks. Another instance happened in 2019. when China brought a UNSC resolution against India for removing article 370 in its state Jammu & Kashmir, Russia remained neutral without issuing a veto, thus safeguarding its interest with China and Pakistan. US and France had brought down the resolution with their veto power.
Geopolitical situation & Thucydides Trap
Thucydides Trap — a popular term coined by American political scientist Graham Allison, frames the current relationship between US and China. As per the term, the current emerging power is China and it seems to challenge the existing superpower US as an international hegemon. To contain China, the US has framed several initiatives like the Asia Pivot policy (which is obsolete from the Trump era), QUAD. Currently, India is one of the most strategic allies for the US and its active participation in strategic groups like QUAD had increased tensions between India and China in the last several years. Galway Valley skirmishes and the loss of soldiers on both sides were the tipping points of India — the China confrontation in recent years. In case of any immediate conflict between India and China, it needs USSR equipment that includes maintenance and spares for the war equipment. Western nations cannot address this shortcoming in foreseeable future.
Pakistan Russia relations were also increasingly becoming more stable and closer in the last few years. Russia maintained an anti-Taliban stance similar to India until 2012. Now in the last few years, Russia has maintained a Taliban’s sympathetic stance aligning with Pakistan’s stance. When Sergei Lavrov(Russian Foreign Minister) visited Pakistan in April 2021, he told his counterpart “I came with a message from my president that tells Pakistan we are open for any cooperation; whatever Pakistan needs, Russia is ready for it”. Pakistan foreign policy analysts and commentators observed this as a blank check offered by the kremlin towards Pakistan. Russia can use this as a trump card with India if India moves away from Russia opposing it in the Ukraine front. India is aware of this sensitivity.
These Geopolitical limitations might have turned out to be another thorn in the last few years concerning Russian relations. It would have made India not oppose Russia in UN councils, from the time it invaded Crimea to the current Ukraine crisis.
Putin’s plan in Ukraine hasn’t gone as planned. Kyiv didn’t fall in a week as expected by many international experts. Russia is not able to achieve what the US achieve in the 1991 Gulf war or 2003 Iraq war, where the US swiftly was able to topple the governments in a few matters of days. War is still raging on the outskirts of some main cities including Kyiv. Western pressure may increase on India in the coming days with no cessation of fighting between Russia and Ukraine. India following the traditional approach for the last several decades has reached an inflection point. It should introspect whether it should follow a similar fence sitter approach in the coming years or embrace more western countries for its defense and technological needs. For India, Russia is a time-tested friend and partner, but these factors alone should not stop India from taking a principled stance on international laws & sovereignty. India’s western allies are growing exasperated day by day on India’s silence and approach. US president Biden’s recent displeasure that “Washington is in still unresolved consultations with India” is one proof of that. India’s strategic partnership with the US in the last few years has increased a lot. Exports to western countries including from traditional textile-based products to software exports had increased in the last few decades. The US may use this as a trump card to force India to fall by its side in the coming days. India requires deft diplomacy in need of the hour, to balance defense needs from Russia with western countries’ support for any future Chinese conflict. India after evacuating its citizens can open a humanitarian corridor to support the Ukrainian citizens who are currently suffering from war. This can improve the moral image of India in the long term.