India must be conscious of the changing geo-political dynamics. Vladimir Putin is no Brezhnev and Russia of today is not the Soviet Union of 1971

India’s abstention vote both in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly with regard to Russia’s action in Ukraine has raised eyebrows on the international stage and even invited censure at home. Instead of applying a simplistic black-white binary logic to India’s decision and dubbing it as a carte blanche endorsement of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is important that we delve deeper into the issue to obtain a broader understanding of India’s delicate balancing act.

In the hard world of realpolitik decisions are hardly straightforward and simple; rarely do they adhere strictly to moral axioms. They carry with them the baggage of the past, the predicament of the present and the anxiety of the future—with underlying self-interest playing the pivotal role.

To better understand India’s decision, we need to go back in time to get an intelligent overview of India’s long standing and robust relations with Russia (the Soviet Union in its previous avatar)—a relationship that has been fostered over the years by defence, cultural and economic ties and dates back to the time of Nikita Khrushchev who was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 1958 to 1964.

The high point of Indo-Russian relationship was undoubtedly the 1971 Bangladesh war (December 3-December 17, 1971). But for the Soviet Union’s steadfast support of India, the outcome could have been significantly different—India’s spectacular victory could have been dented by an ugly ending, with the United States and China playing the villain.

With the Pakistan Army on the brink of defeat in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, the anti-India duo of US President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger ordered the US Seventh Fleet led by the USS Enterprise nuclear powered aircraft carrier to sail into the Bay of Bengal, “ostensibly for the evacuation of Americans but in reality, to give emphasis to our warning against an attack on West Pakistan” (White House Years. Henry Kissinger. Little, Brown and Co. 1979. Pp905).

Additionally, they intended to trap India in a pincer grasp, with China adopting an aggressive posture on India’s northern front as this excerpt from declassified US State Department documents indicate:

“Later in the conversation Nixon asked when Kissinger planned to meet with the Chinese. Kissinger replied that he was meeting with them that afternoon at 5:30. Nixon asked what would be discussed and Kissinger replied: ‘I’m going to tell them what forces we’re moving.’ Nixon said: ‘Could you say it would be very helpful if they could move some forces, or threaten to move some forces.’ Kissinger said: ‘Absolutely.’ Nixon added: ‘They’ve got to threaten or they’ve got to move, one of the two. You know what I mean?’ Kissinger replied: ‘Yeah.’ Nixon continued: ‘Threaten to move forces or move them, Henry, that’s what they must do now. Now, goddammit, we’re playing our role and that will restrain India. And also tell them this will help us get the cease-fire.’ He indicated that he did not want to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union that China would reject. Kissinger agreed and added: ‘If we stay strong, even if it comes out badly, we’ll have come out well with the Chinese, which is important’.”

Less well known is the fact that the UK too, was a part of this crafty conspiracy: its aircraft carrier HMS Eagle headed into the Arabian Sea in a move that would encircle India on all sides.

A few months earlier on August 9, 1971, India and the Soviet Union had inked a “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation”. Article 9 of the Treaty stated: “In the event of either Party being subjected to an attack or a threat thereof, the High Contracting Parties shall immediately enter into mutual consultations to remove such threat and to take appropriate effective measures to ensure peace and security of their countries.”

Accordingly, the Soviet Union stepped in to thwart the United States. A Naval fleet of the Soviet Union consisting of cruisers and nuclear submarines headed from Vladivostok on December 13 under the overall command of Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov, the Commander of the 10th Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet). The nuclear armed submarine was given instructions to deliberately surface to make its presence felt to the Americans.

And to prevent any Chinese misadventure in the Himalayas, the Soviet Union deployed 40 division along its border with China.

Needless to say, that the United States backed off, allowing India to complete its military operations.

Today, as India mulls over its stance on Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia, it must also be conscious of the changing geo-political dynamics. Vladimir Putin is no Brezhnev and Russia of today is not the Soviet Union of 1971. Much water has flowed under the Volga since then. While the bond between the two countries remains strong with a fair proportion of India’s military supplies coming from Russia, it is nowhere near the levels of bonhomie reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed bearing mainly China in mind as indicated by Nandan Unnikrishnan, a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF, New Delhi: “But then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China (via Pakistan) in July 1971, and his subsequent conversation with the Indian ambassador to the US, L.K. Jha, on July 17 tipped the balance. Kissinger told Jha that the US would not get involved if China intervened in a war between India and Pakistan…..Alarm bells rang in Delhi. PM Gandhi shed her hesitations and authorised Indian officials to proceed with the treaty. Thus, the treaty was signed on August 9, exactly one month after Kissinger’s Beijing visit.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the treaty elapsed. India did sign a new Treaty of Friendship and cooperation with Russia in 1993 but without the crucial Article IX of the 1971 treaty.

Conversely, Russia’s relationship with China has undergone a change from the 1960s and 1970s when ideological differences and a serious border dispute pitted the two nations against each other. Vivek Katju, ex-Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs (The Tribune August 9, 2021) writes “Meanwhile, Sino-Russian relations have become fundamentally transformed in this century. Article 9 of Sino-Russian treaty of friendship of 2001 is almost identical to Article IX of the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971. The two countries recently decided to extend the treaty by five years.”

It is unlikely that Russia will rush to our aid with the same alacrity and application that it demonstrated in 1971, especially if China is involved. Accordingly, India must re-calibrate its relationship with Russia.

In his abstention statement, T.S. Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the UN remarked: “India is deeply concerned at the recent turn of events in Ukraine. The contemporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, international law, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. All member states need to honour these principles in finding a constructive way forward. Dialogue is the only answer to settling differences and disputes, however daunting that may appear at the moment. It is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up. We must return to it. For all these reasons, India has chosen to abstain on this resolution.”

When analysed carefully, India’s UN statement on the Ukrainian crisis is not a total cop-out. In fact, it exhibits due prudence and essential pragmatism without being confrontational; a stance that emphasises our respect for “sovereignty and territorial integrity of states” and our reservation on forsaking the path of dialogue.

An unnamed Indian source rightfully remarked: “By abstaining, India retained the option of reaching out to relevant sides in an effort to bridge the gap and find the middle ground with an aim to foster dialogue and diplomacy.”

Nevertheless, the abstention vote carries a hint of vulnerability (India’s overwhelming dependence on Russia for military equipment) that is difficult to deny. Changing geo-political equations warrant a recalibration of our relationships with both friends and foes to safeguard our interests and adhere to our principles. Minimal dependency on others can make that task easier.