It is well known that there’s no full stop in defence and diplomacy in any era. India uses a lot of imported weaponry - traditionally mostly of Russian make, now increasingly American

The Indian government must be delighted after receiving an unexpected, tempting and entirely unsolicited proposal “to help… (get) defence supplies” from Washington from visiting US undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, but with a very major (and challenging) rider: that “India move away from dependence on Russian” weaponry.

It is well known that there’s no full stop in defence and diplomacy in any era. Any black-and-white formula is always anathema to the high table practitioners of realpolitik. Grey is the preferred colour for all who abhor being, or are reluctant, camp followers. India being a traditional non-camp follower, due to her national self-interest issues, this is indeed a tough call, especially at a time of global conflict.

India uses a lot of imported weaponry - traditionally mostly of Russian make, now increasingly American. The United States is a late entrant into India’s arms market, following the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, that created huge production-supply channel hurdles for both Moscow, as producer/seller, and New Delhi as consumer/buyer.

The American proposal is therefore a vexed question for India, and also for its timing, coming soon after US President Joe Biden called Russia’s Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and “butcher”.

This foray into uncharted territory has created turmoil. What does “war criminal” or “butcher” legally mean in international relations, whether or not President Biden was serious or just made off-the-cuff remarks. In one stroke, Mr Putin was “booked” on “four counts”, under separate provisions of international law. First: war crime: “Cruelty that violates international rules of law… devastation that’s not justified by military necessity”. Second, war criminal: A person who “commits an act violating international rules of war”. [It’s important to remember here that after the 1945-46 Nuremberg trials, it’s not a defence to maintain that the act was done under orders of a superior officer; implicating both the subordinate (soldier) who executes, and superior (state sovereign) who conducts the war.]

Mr Biden’s third implied count -- on the “laws of war” -- the rules and principles agreed on by most countries to regulate matters inherent in or incidental to the conduct of a public war. And the fourth -- the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which are actually four conventions: the earliest dating back to 1864. Subsequently revised, expanded and completed in 1949. The broad humanitarian law protection established in these was further amplified in 1977 by two additional protocols.

Mr Biden’s words have not only put Mr Putin on the backfoot globally, they have also added to the avoidable pressure on New Delhi, which has a six-decade seller-buyer relationship with Moscow. Will the West now raise questions about the sagacity of democratic India in continuing to buy armaments from a “war criminal”? But even an alleged war criminal has the right to be heard, at least in the “court of natural justice”, as with Germany and Japan after 1945, despite that in the eyes of some both the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials were transparent acts of vengeance.

India can’t afford to discard Russia as a defence partner overnight, after a six-decade history. The facts speak for themselves. Military Balance 2021 (International Institute for Strategic Studies, London) says India’s defence budget stood third in 2020. It still does, at $68 billion, as stated in the Lok Sabha on Budget 2022 day. Only the US and China are ahead.

In India’s military, except the Lockheed C-130J Hercules and the Boeing C-17A transporter, not a single fighter is US-made. All “768 combat capable” consist of mixed versions of Russian MiGs, Sukhoi-30, French Mirage-2000, Rafale and the 41-year-old Anglo-French Jaguar. Barring the 100-odd India-made Arjun, all the Indian Army’s main battle tanks are Moscow-supplied T-72s and T-90s. Russia supplied infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, armoured engineer vehicles, vehicle-launched bridges and a plethora of infantry weapons.

The most visible and prominent Russian contribution was to the Navy. While India started very well, conceiving a “builder’s navy” rather than a “buyer’s navy”, Moscow gave its best when India was ignored; fast attack craft, patrol, reconnaissance to corvette, frigate, destroyer, submarine to aircraft-carrier. Even as the USSR broke into pieces in 1991, leading to cost and time overruns for Indian arms, things moved on. Without doubt the Indian Navy stands out today in the sea due to Russia’s steely and sterling cooperation. That’s no mean an achievement for a nation lacking in a sustained naval tradition and history. One must recall the unique service to India by Russia’s legendary Adm. Sergei G. Gorshkov.

Some serious issues must be resolved. Can the US guarantee a sustained, long-term, uninterrupted defence partnership for at least five decades, as was done by Moscow for 60 years? Without any major obstacle cropping up out of the blue?

Hasn’t the treacherous geopolitics of our times led to some “changed priorities” already? At such points, the “over-riding national interest” of a superpower always takes precedence, leaving its smaller, weaker allies in the lurch?

The harsh reality of today’s world is that no superpower can ever be a long-standing partner due to its global interests. Even during the Cold War, Russia could never match the US as, despite its formidable Navy, Moscow didn’t have enough warm water ports, which severely restricted its armada’s operations.

At a time of extreme heat, is it right to resort to an act seen as avoidable provocation by non-aligned India? Can New Delhi just switch over from Moscow to Washington for fighters, frigates, tanks and tankers, that take decades to adopt and adapt? India should avoid “taking” or “switching” sides: its first duty is the safety and welfare of its 1.37 billion population.