by Rakib Ehsan
Thursday, 3
March 2022
Explainer
17:00

Why India abstained on UN resolution over Ukraine

Ties between the two countries go back to the Cold War
by Rakib Ehsan
Credit: Getty

When the United Nations General Assembly voted yesterday overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, few were surprised by China’s abstention. More surprising, though, when India, the world’s largest democracy and strategic partner of the United States, followed suit.

India’s abstention may seem peculiar, especially after the confirmation that an Indian student had died in the Russian shelling of Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv. But close Moscow-Delhi relations date back to 1955 and have been strong ever since. During the Cold War, India and the Soviet Union shared a strong diplomatic, military, strategic and economic relationship, including actively supporting Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation struggle against America- and China-backed Pakistan. In the later stages of the 1971 war, the Soviet Ambassador to Pakistan, Alexei Rodionov, made Soviet allegiances clear, warning Pakistan that it would be “embarking on a suicidal course” if it continued to escalate problems on the Indian subcontinent.

Following the dissolution of the USSR, Russia — as the successor state to the Soviet Union — inherited this ‘special and privileged’ strategic partnership. Former Indian foreign secretary and Indian High Commissioner of the UK, Ranjan Mathai, went as far as to describe Russia as “perhaps the most vital, most decisive” of India’s global partners in 2012.

Much of the work done between the two countries in the post-Cold War system has been through the India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission (IRIGC). Traditionally, the Indo-Russian ‘strategic pentagon’ is built on five core components: politics, defence, anti-terrorism, civil nuclear energy and space, with a recent deepening of bilateral trade adding a sixth ‘economic’ component. Both ‘BRIC’ nations are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — a mutual political, economic and security alliance which also includes China, and a number of former Soviet nation-states: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Moscow-Delhi relations have remained especially close under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Putin only made two international visits last year — a June summit meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, and his more recent diplomatic trip to New Delhi in December. Modi and Putin, who share a similar vision of muscular nationalism, have met a remarkable twenty times since the former assumed office in May 2014. In May 2017 before one of Modi’s visits to Russia, Putin published an article for The Times of India celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and the USSR.

A further indication of the value Russia places on their Indian partnership is the reservations the Kremlin has expressed over growing US-India relations — especially over India’s joining of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) alongside the US, Australia and Japan. While the four QUAD nations speak of working together for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ amid shared concerns over Beijing, Russian foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov has accused the West of trying the engage India in “anti-China games”.

India’s abstention over the UN resolution is part of a long-standing foreign policy pattern of maintaining a ‘special’ partnership that dates from the Cold War. And with increasing talk of a return to the multipolar diplomacy that defined that era, it is the sort of historic relationship the West would do well to be aware of.

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Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
3 months ago

If India thinks its relationship with Russia is of equal or greater value to its relationships with the US, EU and UK then that is a staggering failure of Western diplomacy.

Last edited 3 months ago by Stephen Walshe
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Indeed, especially considering Indians have a strong affinity with the UK and US culturally.

It’s purely down to the US, and their short-term, “if you are not with is you are against us” mentality.
Which is why the US armed Pakistan to the teeth against a neutral India both in the 60s and again in the 80s.

But the real issue was Bangladesh 71 when the US ambassador himself sent frantic telegraphs about the ghastly genocide (especially directed at Hindus, something covered up till today in India to avoid religious tensions)
The US decided it would be a smart idea to send a fleet against India, and in support of a genocidal army. While the supposedly evil Russkies stood alongside India.

People have memories. One reason for Russia invading Ukraine rather than accept NATO at their borders, is they remember 1941 and 1812.
And it also makes typical Indians sceptical of Western claims of nobility and their desire for peace during the current conflict. Too many wars in the South Asian and Middle East region where the West chose options that were foolish and / or malevolent.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Very interesting and one of the many gaps in my history.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

And of course, in this Hindu washing of events in your account, the repeated genocidal attacks on Muslims and Sikhs are ignored.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Not really – India has played them off each other as a good strategy. And they always will – until the Chinese become so dominant in the hemisphere that India will then want the help of the west, since Russia is now condemned to poverty as China rises.
They’ve sat on the fence for too long.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 months ago

India shouldn’t have done that. Modi falls in my estimation. It looks like Putin plans to publicly execute the Ukrainian leadership to cow the Ukrainian nation. Putin is revealed as a bog standard butcher, and while other nations may not be in a position to do anything to challenge Putin, no one should be providing any kind of succour to him – it will come back to to hurt them. China will back him, because China is China, and the same issues arise as with Russia but in a different, far more formidable form.

I have no idea what comes next, but I get the dreadful feeling, like some scene out of the Blair Witch Project, that we are being forced down a path no matter what we do, where we will face the same issues, but magnified, re China in a few short years.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
3 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

“That we are being forced down a path no matter what we do”. We most certainly are and it is mostly being done by the Western MSM.

Last edited 3 months ago by Mark Phillips
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

And governments….

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I suspect the Indian leadership appreciates this isn’t a fight between good and evil, given that the “good” side has far more blood on its hands, for much more trivial reasons than a large neighbour joining a hostile alliance.

And strategically, the US side has a track record of being untrustworthy. India should have been a natural ally of either China or the West, rather than far off Russia. But India has very good reasons to be wary of both.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Have you seen the various comments in Twitter from certain Brits demanding why India doesn’t do the West bidding, considering the positively gigantic “aid” they provide every year.

Which would be a spectacular testament to the “developed” world’s lack of self awareness, even if you didn’t know that the Indian govt has practically threatened the British govt, for over a decade now, to stuff their bag of peanuts where the Sun doesn’t shine.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Back in the 1950s India and China were close to war and there has been recent conflicts. If conflicts happen again would India benefit from support, if so what type and how much? China may obtain access to ports in Sri Lanka due to Indian support of Tamils which could seriously impact on their naval policy. China being able to threaten India from north and south would make life interesting.

Malvin Marombedza
Malvin Marombedza
3 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

China won’t try to pull another Ukraine on India. With all this re-arming, and the nukes that India has, that would be a very foolish act, deserving the century prize in my opinion. More foolish than lockdowns I guess

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago

India is so poor and disorganised that China can just ignore it as a world power. China was behind India economically after WW2.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I don’t think it I’ll happen in my lifetime (ie not long to go), but one day India is going to be a super power.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
3 months ago

How The Great Game has now changed…!
(This is an amazing read btw if interested – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/138299.The_Great_Game)

Matt M
Matt M
3 months ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

Thanks – just ordered

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

I downloaded it some time ago… still to read. Thanks for the reminder.

Sally Owen
Sally Owen
3 months ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

Thanks for that will def order it…

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 months ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

What is interesting was the book was praised by Woodhouse and Mclean both SOE officers in WW2. The book shows the level of expertise Britain used to have but today lacks. Richard Burton, an ICS Officer spoke at least 12 languages and used to disguise himself as an Indian and run a shop to pick up bazaar gossip. This is when a Briton starts to understand what foreigners feel, motivates them and can perceive the World from their perspective and therefore have an idea how they may act in the future and various events. Manners Maketh Man, the manner in which one presents oneself to the World is the way we are judged.
When a country is attacked all that is needed for it’s defeat may be that others to do nothing. Ukraine as been given effective military support: weapons, training and possible intervention by Special Forces by Britain and the USA when most needed.
For Modi and India plus Putin and Russia, how will their actions possibly effect other countries if they ever need help from China? If China invades Siberia and China invades India from the north and launches an attack from the south, using naval bases in Sri Lanka, what will other countries do? At the moment T90 and T80u tanks do not appear to be doing particularly well: should India ask for it’s money back from Russia?

David McKee
David McKee
3 months ago

I suspect Modi has made a huge mistake, as has every government since Nehru.
Why the fixation with Russia? It’s nothing to do with trade. Russia barely makes it into the top 20 of India’s trading partners. Nor is it ideology. The days of Nehruvian socialism and anti-Westernism are long gone.
I suspect it’s to do with armaments. The Indian Air Force is almost entirely dependent on Russian aircraft. Why? I suspect the Russians were always ready to do the cash-strapped Indians a sweet deal. (It was certainly not because the aircraft were any good. India’s accident rate with Russian aircraft is phenomenal [https://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Database/Accidents/].) So it pays to keep Putin happy if you want to make sure the spare parts and upgrades keep coming.
The sooner the IAF abandons its Russian kit for indigenous or Western-made aircraft, the better. Then Indian foreign policy will stop being a source of shame for the Indian people.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago

The author should know that it is not BRIC any longer, but BRICS which includes South Africa. Not that SA deserves to be there, but still.
Here is a South African article on the state of play:
https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-03-03-brics-has-south-africa-caught-a-monster-by-the-tail-and-should-it-let-it-go/

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
3 months ago

Thanks Lesley for the interesting read.
I must say though I am not entirely convinced of the premise. For me, the SA abstention is consistent with condemning the invasion. It seems reasonable to condemn the invasion but also believe that a more balance tone could be adopted in the UN resolution.
Of course, I defer to your more local wisdom on this matters…

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Everyone here is arguing about it, but I really don’t think many have the foggiest clue as to the history of Russia and Ukraine or the conduct of the West iro NATO threats.
I am going to generalize here now, but I guess many of the white and probably Indian community are draping themselves in Ukrainian flags on FB and the majority of the black community are calling out the US for their warlording over sovereign states for so long.
There is also a faction of the black population who remember the help the Soviets gave them during apartheid, so there is that loyalty, but I have seen some of these people called out as fools.
I don’t spend a large amount of time anymore on the FB arguments which give you a good idea. I used to and have a hugely wide variety of friends from different communities and used to dig down deep to try and understand.

willy Daglish
willy Daglish
3 months ago

This is probably about all the information the KGB/FSB has on Indian politicians going all the way back to Stalin’s day.
Blackmail works!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
3 months ago

India and Israel should be the UK’s favoured and closest international relationship and allies: it is a dismal reflection on the pitiful state of the Conservative government, that this is not the case… One hopes that PM Sunak will change this?

Sam Brown
Sam Brown
3 months ago

What India has done is shameful….

Frank Freeman
Frank Freeman
3 months ago

The Great tragedy here is that it is clear how many allies that Russia had before the invasion. Russia was in a very strong position in terms of trade and diplomacy and military prestige before the invasion, and Putin has stupidly thrown it all away.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  Frank Freeman

Why is his stupidity in losing power a tragedy?