The Ukraine war, India and a stand of non-alignment

New Delhi’s present position apart, the only lasting principle in foreign policy is the principle of national interest

March 02, 2022 01:00 am | Updated 01:00 am IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin | Photo Credit: AFP

Very few sayings are as true as: “Truth is the first casualty in war”. Its corollary is: “No government tells the truth about war to its people”. Certainly not the whole truth. This is true of all governments at all times in all countries. India’s war with China ended in 1962. Sixty years later, we still do not know all the truth about that war. The Henderson Brooks report that delved deeply into the circumstances leading up to the war and the conduct of the military operations has still not been made public, though many claim to have read it. The reason it has not been made public, it is believed, is that it does not reflect well on the army. Even if true, how will it reflect poorly on today’s Indian Army? It is interesting that even BJP governments have refrained from making it public.

For Ukraine and the West

So, we will hear claims and counter claims about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is widely recognised that Russia has legitimate security concerns. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is already at its doorstep. The saga of broken promises and commitments, albeit oral, given at the highest level by the West to Russia that NATO will not be expanded eastwards, closer to Russia, is well documented.

However, that does not justify the invasion of Ukraine. Also, it is not clear how this war will take care of Russian security concerns. Even if the West agrees to give such assurance in writing, it will not have much meaning since written commitments can also be equally easily disregarded. The President of Ukraine ought to have been more flexible in devising some formula which would have accommodated Russia’s concerns, as for example by announcing adherence to the Minsk agreements. He knew, and knows, that the only country which would suffer heavy casualties and suffer incalculable destruction, is his own. The West could also have been more innovative. The distrust towards Russia lies deep in the western psyche.

A large part of the world has condemned the Russian invasion. Quite rightly too, since it is a gross violation of the universally accepted principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. Ukraine is a sovereign state, founding member of the United Nations. It may be recalled that the Soviet Union wanted all the Soviet Republics to be admitted to the newly founded United Nations. Ultimately a compromise was struck and only two republics — Ukraine and Byelorussia as Belarus was then called — were admitted. Thus, Russia has surely violated the most important principle of international law. Does concern about its security perceptions justify the invasion?

Ukraine is in no position to defend itself against Russian might. It was widely expected that it would be a short, decisive war. There is no doubt that Russia can and will prevail, but if it has to take Belarus’s help in doing so, it will not redound well to Mr. Putin’s credit. The resistance put up by the Ukrainian people under President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership is impressive. But what thereafter?

Challenging for India

India is in a difficult position. On the one hand, there is the growing relationship with the United States. As is often maintained, India-U.S. relations have never been better. This is true especially in the defence sector. Much is also made of the famous Quad (India, the United States, Australia and Japan) which is essentially an arrangement to contain China. How that helps India, the only one in Quad having a territorial dispute with China, is not clear.

On the other hand, there is Russia with whom we have a long-standing history of friendship, which is still our principal source of military hardware and which is willing, more than other countries, to share the technology involved. Russia has also helped us out in the United Nations on many occasions. One can hardly forget how they stalled action in the UN for several days at the time of the 1971 Bangladesh war to enable us to ‘finish the job’. We might need Russian support in future as and when Pakistan, fully backed by China, brings up the Kashmir issue in the world organisation.

Under the circumstances, the Government had done well by maintaining a kind of neutral position. It is a demonstration of the classical Nehruvian policy of non-alignment. There are influential voices in India that speak derisively of non-alignment but that is precisely what we are witnessing the Government do. Yes, the Russian invasion is wrong by every principle of international law. But the only lasting principle in foreign policy is the principle of national interest. Jawaharlal Nehru even called it a selfish policy. National interest will always trump principles. That is what Nehru did at the time of the Soviet Union marching with tanks into Hungary in 1956; he did not condemn the Soviet action. Our stand stood out in stark contrast to our stand on the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression on Egypt, which we condemned, when it nationalised the Suez Canal the same year.

However, if the war continues, resulting in large number of civilian casualties, and given the nuclear alert, Belarus’s renouncing of non-nuclear status, the indiscriminate bombing of major cities, will all make it extremely difficult for us, India, to maintain the non-aligned position for long.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan was India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations

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