Friends and partners on both sides: Why India abstained on UN vote against Russia

India’s abstention from the vote on the draft resolution with text “deploring in the strongest terms” Russia for its operations inside Ukraine was no surprise, given the fine balance Delhi has sought to strike between crucial partnerships with both Moscow and Western allies over the last month of the escalating crisis.

Russia used its veto to kill the draft resolution co-sponsored by the United States and Albania, and which was also sponsored by more than 40 other members of the General Assembly. When a resolution is taken up for vote, UNSC members have to cast their vote before any of the Permanent 5 decide to use their veto on it.

China too abstained, which was no surprise considering its own nuanced statements on the crisis, seeming to support Russia but not endorsing its actions all the way .

Among the non-permanent members, India’s abstention found company in the United Arab Emirates, another strong partner of the United States.

The US envoy to the UN said after the vote that “there is no middle ground” and that it would be taken next to the General Assembly “where Russia has no veto”. That is where India’s next challenge will come.

In an explantion of India’s vote, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN T S Tirumurti said “India is deeply disturbed by the recent turn of developments in Ukraine. We urge that all efforts are made for the immediate cessation of violence and hostilities”.

“Dialogue is the only answer to settling differences and disputes, however daunting that may appear at this moment. It is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up. We must return to it. For all these reasons, India has chosen to abstain on this resolution,” Tirumurti said.

With this India has managed to hold its balancing act for another day, despite the considerable pressures from the West to get off the fence, as well as pressures from Russia.

On Thursday, the ambassadors of the G 7 countries in Delhi had met in a show of solidarity with the Ukrainian envoy Igor Polikha who openly appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a stand against Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“Ambassadors of G7 countries & UKR in Delhi met today to express their solidarity with people of UKR & to exchange information on Russia’s unjustifiable military aggression (GER currently holds G7 presidency). This is a moment to stand up for peace, rule-based order & intern law!” German ambassador Walter J Lindner tweeted.

Unofficially, several of these envoys have been conveying their concern to their Indian interlocutors their concerns about Delhi’s unwillingness to shed its neutrality on the conflict.

On Thursday, President Biden indicated that the US was in talks with India, when he was asked about Delhi’s position on the conflict.

“We’re going to be — we’re in consultation with — with India today. We haven’t resolved that completely”.

Meanwhile, Russia too has been keeping up the pressure on Delhi by lauding its “unbiased stand” in the Security Council. The Kremlin readout of the Modi-Putin conversation did not take note of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to the Russian president for a “cessation of violence” and a return by all parties to dialogue.

It appeared that in saying this, Delhi had decided to do the barest minimum to keep the West off its back, without havinf to make an expression of concern or condemnation of Russia.

India’s strategic ambivalence at this big turning point in world geopolitics is born out of its friendships and strategic partnerships on both sides. Russia is India’s biggest and time tested supplier of defence weapons. Despite its growing friendship with China, Moscow has boosted India’s defence capabilities with the S-400 air defence system. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Moscow at the height of India’s crisis with the Chinese Army at the Line of Actual Control in June 2020. And Russia has stood behind India at the UNSC on all issues.

At the same time, India has a deep partnership with the United States, which includes defence pacts, trade and investment, technology, and not least, a huge connect through the Indian diaspora and people to people contacts, with thousands of students leaving Indian shores every year to study in American universities. The same with Europe. Additionally, France as one of the P 5 is a vital friend of India in the UN Security Council. India needs all these friends as it deals with China’s moves at the LAC.

Within India’s foreign policy establishment, there is ongoing debate on what India might gain or lose by its neutrality and the consequences of siding with the West. There is also the thinking that the West cannot afford to cut away from India at this point, as it needs India’s markets, and India’s heft as a democracy as it seeks partners to contain China. But there is an inbuilt tension in this realist position that speaks about rules violations in one part of the world but does not call it out in another.

India’s position may have to be calibrated constantly as the situation evolves especially if confronted by growing casualties in Ukraine.

A joint statement after the vote, read out by US envoy to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, described the resolution as “vital” and “straightforward”, aimed “to hold Russia accountable for its aggression against Ukraine”.

“Fundamentally, it was about whether the countries on the Security Council charged with maintaining international peace and security believe in upholding the UN Charter,”

“Russia alone is accountable”, the statement read. “President Putin is the aggressor here. There is no middle ground”.

The 43-odd sponsors of the resolution now plan to take it to the General Assembly, where, according to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, “where the Russian veto will not apply and the nations of the world will continue to hold Russia accountable”.

According to the Security Council Report, during negotiations on the draft, China wanted a change in the draft from text’s use of Chapter VII of the UN Charter (which allows the Council, once it determines a threat to the peace, a breach of the peace or an act of aggression, to take measures, including the use of force) to Chapter VI (which speaks about peaceful settlement of disputes). This change was incorporated in the final draft that was put to vote.

Including the February 25 meeting, the Security Council has so far held five meetings on Ukraine — on 31 January at the request of the US; on February 17, at Russia’s request to brief members on the Minsk II agreement, which marked seven years on February 12; on February 21, following Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, an open meeting at the request of Ukraine, with support from Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US among others; on February 23, an extraordinary/emergency meeting at the request of Ukraine, after the authorities of the two “republics” requested military assistance from Russia, and Moscow initiated its “special military operations”.

Apart from this, the General Assembly held a regular session on the agenda item, “The situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine” on February 23.

At the January 31 meeting, India abstained from a vote on whether to hold a discussion on the Ukraine situation, and also indicated support for Russia’s “legitimate security interests”.

At the February 21 meeting, after the Russia recognised the two breakaway regions, India expressed “deep concern” at the “escalation of tensions on the Ukraine-Russian border”, and called for “restraint on all sides”. Ambassador T S Tirumurti said at the meeting that the “immediate priority was de-escalation of tensions taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed toward securing long term peace and security in the region and beyond”. He said India was convinced the issue could be resolved only through dipliomacy and dialogue. “We need to give space to recent initiatives undertaken by parties which seek to defuse tensions,” he said.

At the February 23 meeting, India said it “regret[s] that the calls of the international community to give time to the recent initiatives to defuse tensions were not heeded”, and that the crisis, if not handled urgently, would undermine “the peace and security of the region”. Without naming any parties, India called for “immediate de-escalation and for refraining from any further action” that to could lead to a worsening of the crisis. India also called for all parties to make “greater efforts to beidge divergent interests”. Ambassador T S Tirumurti’s address also contained a reference to taking into account the “legitimate security interests of all parties”.

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