Since Russian forces launched their titanic military assault on Ukraine on February 24, India chose to remain an abstainer on both the Russian-vetoed bids by the United Nations (UN) Security Council to respond to the spirailng crisis: first, on the U.S.-sponsored resolution to condemn Moscow’s astounding turn to war, and then, the procedural vote to shift deliberations on the issue to the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA).
India’s permanent representative to the U.N., TS Tirumurti, substantiated New Delhi’s position by clarifying that it is “deeply disturbed” by the situation, and urged “immediate cessation of violence” along with a return to “the path of diplomacy.” Winning praise merely from the Russian embassy in New Delhi, India’s double abstentions, however, placed it in a minority club of diplomatic discomfort, where it stood accompanied only by China – an aggressive neighbor – and the United Arab Emirates.
On Wednesday, India likewise found itself in a minority of countries when it abstained from a UNGA resolution condemning Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. India was one of 35 countries to abstain from the vote – along with its bitter rivals China and Pakistan – while 141 nations voted to support the resolution.
Yet, this tightrope act would not have stunned those familiar with India’s voting behavior at the U.N. on questions involving Russian interests.
After the UNGA convened its 11th ever Special Emergency Session (SES) to address the burning conflict in Ukraine, it may be useful to rewind to the sixth such session. When armored columns of the Soviet Union pierced Afghanistan in December 1979, India’s then-prime minister, the staunchly anti-socialist Chaudhary Charan Singh, condemned the invasion while castigating the Soviet ambassador in New Delhi. In a dramatic turn of events, the summoning of the sixth SES by the UNGA to demand a ceasefire coincided with Indira Gandhi’s return to power in India by landslide in January 1980. Swiftly instructed by her to adjust the course, India’s delegation to the U.N. abstained on the UNGA resolution and even expressed concerns about the American, Chinese, and Pakistani views on Moscow’s relationship with Kabul.
Over a decade earlier, amid Gandhi’s first elected term as India’s prime minister, New Delhi’s reaction at the U.N. to the Soviet-led quashing of the Prague Spring in August 1968 had not been too different either. Much like we saw in the U.N. debate on the Ukraine crisis today, when the U.N. Security Council moved a resolution to condemn the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Soviets vetoed it after citing the West’s overreach as the casus belli. Then as now, India found itself amongst the only three abstainers alongside an aggressive neighbor, Pakistan. Then too, the abstention had come attached with an appeal from India to Moscow and its Warsaw Pact allies to withdraw from Czechoslovakia “at the earliest possible moment.”
The 21st century witnessed an undeniable continuity in New Delhi’s aversion to irritating Russia. India went to the extent of voting against a resolution adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Commission in April 2001 to condemn the “disproportionate use of force” by Russian troops in the Second Chechen War. Likewise, in May 2008, instead of tucking itself among 105 abstaining member states, India sided with Russia and nine others – including North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar – to vote against a UNGA resolution validating the “right of return” for those displaced by the Moscow-backed secessionist campaign in Abkhazia that anticipated the Russo-Georgian War. On each occasion, New Delhi had a different Prime Minister: Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001 and Manmohan Singh in 2008.
More recently, India has been seen reverting to its more cautious ways. It turned abstainer in December 2016, for instance, when the UNGA demanded a ceasefire in the Syrian Civil War by adopting a resolution that the U.S. permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power, hailed as a step to “stand up and tell Russia and [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad to stop the carnage.” In doing so, the Narendra Modi government sustained the approach of the Manmohan Singh government, which had similarly abstained from a UNGA resolution critical of the Russian-endorsed Assad regime in May 2013. Accordingly, India featured on the list of abstainers during the UNGA’s March 2014 vote to uphold Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and denounce Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
While India’s voting patterns at the UNGA remain consistent, the geopolitical backdrop is changing. Upgraded to the status of a “major defense partner” by Washington in 2016, New Delhi has rapidly deepened its strategic engagement with the United States since, securing its commitment for hardware sales worth $20 billion and forging a set of watershed agreements to enhance the bilateral sharing of bases and geospatial data, transfer of high military technology, and interoperability. The U.S. has recently emerged as one of India’s top crude oil suppliers too.
Moreover, India is “Ukraine’s largest export destination in the Asia-Pacific” and, in turn, a client of Kyiv’s Antonov enterprise to source spares for its sizable fleet of An-32 military transport aircrafts. The Modi government is also engrossed in a massive operation to evacuate nearly 8,000 Indian students still stuck in a Ukraine ravaged by a war waged on it by Russia.
Despite these factors, India was still found on the fence when the dust settled at the 11th Special Emergency Session of the UNGA. Old habits, it seems, die hard.
A pair of entrenched Cold War-era legacies primarily drives India’s deliberate – even defiant – policy of staying at an arm’s length from international efforts to corner an aggressive Russia, even at the risk of isolation. First, Moscow has been consistent and vociferous in its reciprocal support for India’s territorial integrity, especially having opposed the internationalization of the disputes pertaining to Kashmir since the days of Nikita Khrushchev. Between 1957 and 1971, the Soviet Union vetoed six resolutions of the U.N. Security Council that sought to impinge upon India’s larger sovereign and security interests. Vladimir Putin’s Russia was also the “first P-5 country” to accept the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution – which had conferred certain long contested autonomies to Kashmir – in August 2019 as an “internal matter.” Within a year, in June 2020, Russia reiterated its backing of India’s candidature for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council in China’s presence at a trilateral summit.
Second, even though an energy-thirsty India buys negligible volumes of oil and natural gas from Russia – one of the world’s top two exporters of both – it is the military strand of the trade between them that carries a decisive heft. Between 60 and 85 percent of India’s military equipment continues to be of Soviet vintage or Russian origin, despite New Delhi’s recent push for indigenous substitution and diversified procurements. Sukhoi Su-30MKIs and Mil Mi-17s respectively constitute the largest share of the combat aircrafts and utility helicopters flown by the Indian Air Force. Almost half the submarines of the Indian Navy are Kilo-class, its only operational aircraft carrier is Kiev-class, and all of its combat aircrafts are MiG-29s. Only “about three percent“ of the Indian Army’s battery of tanks is non-Russian, while all of its infantry fighting vehicles are upgraded, license-manufactured BMP-2s. Further, India is currently co-producing its first hypersonic cruise missile (BrahMos-II) and its latest assault rifle (AK-203) with Russia. Of the $54 billion spent on defense purchases by four successive Indian governments between 2000 and 2020, 66 percent went to Moscow. Given India’s accelerating tilt toward the United States, even if Washington were to edge out Moscow as the chief P-5 trustee of Indian interests at multilateral forums, New Delhi will, in all likelihood, require considerable time to fully replace the aging portions of its Russian-origin military hardware with pricier Western – or suitably advanced indigenous – alternatives.