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Difficult Choices~II

Two days later, the MEA spokesman said that India was not supporting or opposing anyone and was trying to ascertain whether the Soviet assertion that they responded to the request of the duly constituted Afghan authorities for help, was correct

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

One of Indias major concerns in the conflict was the safety of Indian citizens living in Ukraine and their evacuation a-nd for that it needed the support of both Ukraine and Russia.

New Delhi called for temporary cessation of hostilities for the evacuation of those who were trapped – Indian citizens and Ukrainians, as well as others ~ and by 15 March, the government through its Operation Ganga brought back 22,500 Indians, thanks to the help extended by European countries bordering Ukraine, particularly Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

Indias diplomatic tightrope walk in the current crisis has two dimensions: (1) maintaining neutrality in the conflict, which in effect has benefitted Russia, and (2) withstanding pressure from the West, particularly the US, to condemn Russia, while maintaining diplomatic dialogues with all major stakeholders, including the US, the UK, France and the EU to discuss means for resolving the conflict. Russia has expressed its appreciation for Indias stand, while the West has been disappointed. India has friendly relations with both Russia and Ukraine.

Apart from Russia, Ukraine has also been a major supplier of spare parts for some Russian-made equipment, particularly the AN-32 transport aircraft that played a vital role during the India-China border stand-off in Ladakh in 2020, and the critical R-27 air-to-air missiles for the multi-role Sukhoi Su-30 MK1 fighters. Indeed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may derail several projects that India has initiated for upgradation of the IAFs fleet, and for securing engines for Indian Navys four guided missile frigates.

New Delhi has been criticised for not taking a principled stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in talks with the Indian External Affairs Minster called for a strong collective response to Russian aggression while the latter emphasised the need for diplomatic negotiations for ending the conflict; even President Joe Biden mentioned in a press conference on 24 February that there were differences between the Indian and US positions on how to respond to the Russian invasion, and added that any nation that countenances Russias naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.

In the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Linda ThomasGreenfield, while introducing the resolution condemning Russia and calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops stated, almost in the language of Dulles, that those who voted against the resolution or abstained from voting on it would be failing to uphold the Charter. Let us consider a different scenario.

If under Western pressure, India had voted against Russia in the UN Security Council or in the Human Rights Council, while Pakistan and China abstained, would it have benefitted India at a time when she faces a security threat in its neighbourhood?

On the contrary, that would have alienated Russia and opened up the possibility of a Russo-China-Pakistan entente ranged against India, particularly in the context of recent bonhomie in Russia-Pakistan relations, strengthening of Sino-Russian ties and, Indias evolving relations with the US in strategic and security matters. Russia has been vociferously critical of the Quad and has not been happy with Indias membership. Indias policy in the current crisis, has been influenced by these considerations. New Delhis stand is quite consistent with the position it had taken on the Soviet Unions armed intervention in Hungary (1956) to suppress a nationalist uprising; in Czechoslovakia (1968) or, the invasion of Afghanistan (1979). In that sense, there is not much difference between the policy of Modi in 2022, and the policies of Nehru in 1956 or that of Indira Gandhi in 1968, or in 1979, although the nuances may be different. Nehrus sharp criticism of the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt (in 1956) and the rather mild reaction to the Soviet armed invasion of Hungary for suppression of the nationalist uprising had been criticised in the West as well as in India, especially by the Socialists, as an example of his double standards. Sir Anthony Eden (later Lord Avon) retrospectively laid emphasis on this. The Indian reaction, he wrote, was remarkable. Mr. Nehru declared in a speech that whereas in Egypt every single thing that had happened was as clear as daylight, he could not follow the very confusing situation in Hungary. The initial ambivalence in the Indian governments attitude might have been the result of lack of proper information, which becomes evident from the later recollections of K P S Menon, who was then the Indian Ambassador to Moscow and was also concurrently accredited to Budapest. At a press conference on 25 October 1956, two days after the revolution began in Hungary, Nehru said that it seemed to be a national rising and that he intensely disliked the stationing of foreign troops, wherever it might be. A couple of months later Nehru said in the UN General Assembly: The maintenance of forces on foreign soil anywhere in the world is basically wrong, even though such maintenance is with the agreement of the country concerned. Certainly, such utterances were not in justification of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, although Nehru did not criticise the Soviet Union the way he criticised the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt that took place around the same time. He expressed regrets at Soviet Unions action and criticised the atrocities in Hungary, but was inclined to treat the Hungarian issue as an intra-mural issue and told the Lok Sabha that unlike the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, the presence of Soviet troops in Hungary was really a matter of continuing intervention based on the Warsaw Pact. In the United Nations, India supported the demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Hungary. More than a decade later, in August 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to suppress the reformist movement led by Dubcek, Prime Minister Indira Gandhis initial reaction was of disapproval of Soviet Unions actions. She stated in the Lok Sabha: the right of nations to live peacefully and without outside interference should not be denied in the name of religion or ideology…, which was appreciated in the West as it marked a break from her fathers initial response to the Hungarian crisis. But in the UN Security Council, India failed to condemn the USSR and abstained from voting, which was sharply criticised by the press in America, particularly because even leaders from the Socialist bloc ~ especially Ceausescu ~ had strongly condemned the invasion. Indias policy was certainly influenced by the growing friendship with the Soviets. A decade later, in December 1979, when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, Indias response was not much different, except for the brief period when Charan Singh was the caretaker Prime Minister. The Soviet Union had considerable stakes in Afghanistan and the massive Soviet intervention may be viewed as an attempt by one of the superpowers to manage a local disorder which was perceived as constituting a threat to its national interests. It also revealed a breakdown in communications between the decision-making elites in Moscow and Washington, a reversal of the process of limited adverse partnership. The Soviet Unions aggression and the subsequent US response had a considerable impact on Indias security. When the Soviet Ambassador to India met Mr. Charan Singh, he was told bluntly that India could not support the intervention and urged the withdrawal of Soviet troops. But the MEAs statement issued on 28 December, attempted a balancing act: India has opposed outside intervention in internal affairs. [It is our earnest] hope that no country or external power would take steps which might aggravate the situation. Two days later, the MEA spokesman said that India was not supporting or opposing anyone and was trying to ascertain whether the Soviet assertion that they responded to the request of the duly constituted Afghan authorities for help, was correct. On 12 January 1980, in the first statement approved by Mrs. Gandhis advisers, even before her government had been sworn in, Indias Permanent Representative Brajesh Mishra told the General Assembly that India had no reason to disbelieve the Soviet commitment to withdraw troops when asked to do so by the government in Kabul, and expressed Indias grave concern over the response of the US, China, Pakistan and others in arming Afghan rebels and expanding naval activities in the Indian Ocean region. Mishras speech and Indias abstention from voting on the resolution condemning the Soviet Union, which was carried 104-18, with 18 abstentions, caused dismay among the non-aligned states, as Afghanistan was a nonaligned state. India was isolated, wrote Shivshankar Menon later, and this isolation was exploited by Pakistan. Although Russia was not officially condemned by India, Indira Gandhi told Leonid Brezhnev, when he visited India in December 1980, that the Soviet Union should start a token withdrawal of troops and specify a time frame within which the bulk of Soviet troops would be withdrawn. Will Indias refusal to fall in line with the US and condemn Russias aggression bring about major changes in India-US relations? Those who think so argue that the Biden Administration is particularly sensitive on the Russian question, especially because of its role in influencing the US Presidential election in 2016 and may, therefore, take a dim view of India because of its close ties with Russia, and may even consider application of CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) on Indias procurement of the S 400 weapons system. While this is possible, it is unlikely to happen, given the fact that India in 2022 is different from what it was in 1956 or 1979; that India has developed a close strategic and security relationship with the US and is a member of the Quad, set up to work for the maintenance of a rules-based international maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region, and that India has also developed significant defence and trade links with the US and is a big market for weapons manufacturers and multi-national corporations. The USs Unipolar Moment, as portrayed by Charles Krauthammar, is now history, because of globalisation and it cannot impose its policies on other friendly states, just as Russia cannot, without harming its own interests. However, personal equations developed between the leadership of India and the US may suffer and that may itself be a setback for Indo-US relations.