Forty years ago, on September 21, 1982, India and the Soviet Union agreed that the primary task before the world was to avert a nuclear war. Meeting in the Kremlin, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev agreed on the need to reduce tension by strengthening detente and promoting trust.
While the Indian PM called upon the superpowers to desist from stockpiling weapons, Brezhnev proposed that the NATO and the Warsaw Pact declare that they would refrain from extending their sphere of activity to Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Russian news agency TASS described the talks as ”warm and friendly,” and said the two leaders ”are against the setting up of foreign military bases on the territory of Asian states, against military, political and economic pressure on sovereign states.”
Gandhi, who declared that India is a nonaligned state, had not condemned the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, in the same meeting, the then-Indian PM announced that two test pilots of the IAF have been selected for the coveted Indo-Soviet space flight in 1984, which included Squadron leader Rakesh Sharma and Wing Commander Ravish Malhotra.
Cut to 2022: Modi-Putin meet
On September 16, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
At the beginning of the meeting, Modi had told Putin: “I know that today’s era is not of war and we have spoken to you many times on the phone that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue are such things that touch the world. Today, we will get a chance to discuss how we can move forward on the path of peace in the coming days. I will also get an opportunity to understand your viewpoint.”
Putin responded to Modi: “I know your position on the conflict in Ukraine, your concerns that you constantly express.”
Modi’s comment has caught the world’s attention, seven months into the war. The Indian PM — who has steadfastly stayed away from criticising Putin — has articulated what is music to the ears of Western powers.
Days later, French President Emmanuel Macron and US NSA Jake Sullivan lent their voice in support of Modi’s comments and asked the Russian President to end the war on Ukraine immediately.
Macron also said those countries which have chosen to be “neutral” and “non-aligned” are “mistaken” and have a historical responsibility to speak out.
Macron, delivering his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, said: “Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, was right when he said the time is not for war. It is not for revenge against the West, or for opposing the West against the East. It is a collective time for our sovereign equal states to cope together with challenges we face.”
In Washington DC, Sullivan said: “I think what Prime Minister Modi said — a statement of principle on behalf of what he believes is right and just — was very much welcomed by the United States.”
All countries should follow the principle that one cannot conquer its neighbour’s territory by force, Sullivan said.
State of Putin’s Russia
Russian President Putin, however, has taken a decision for “partial mobilisation”. Many analysts in the West have interpreted it as a dangerous move by Putin, who is facing the heat from a war that was supposed to be quick and painless.
But, what is interesting is how Putin’s speech unfolded. Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: a History and a former The Washington Post columnist, wrote in The Atlantic, “If an American president announced a major speech, booked the networks for 8 pm, and then disappeared until the following morning, the analysis would be immediate and damning: chaos, disarray, indecision. The White House must be in crisis.”
“In the past 24 hours, this is exactly what happened in Moscow. The Russian president really did announce a major speech, alert state television, warn journalists, and then disappear without explanation. Although Vladimir Putin finally gave his speech to the nation this morning, the same conclusions have to apply: chaos, disarray, indecision. The Kremlin must be in crisis.”
Putin’s move to mobilize as many as 3 lakh reservists — individuals who have completed their mandatory conscript service — comes at a time when Ukrainian and Russian forces are locked in battles over territory in eastern and south-eastern parts of Ukraine.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War, which has been tracking the war for the past 211 days (since Feb ruary 24) has said that Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization” on September 21 “reflected many problems Russia faces in its faltering invasion of Ukraine that Moscow is unlikely to be able to resolve in the coming months….will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months. It may suffice to sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties, although even that is not yet clear. It will occur in deliberate phases, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an interview on September 21, likely precluding any sudden influx of Russian forces that could dramatically shift the tide of the war. Russia’s partial mobilization will thus not deprive Ukraine of the opportunity to liberate more of its occupied territory into and through the winter.”
The Russian President’s gambit, along with a thinly-veiled nuclear threat, has raised alarm inside Russia as well. Soviet-era pop legend Alla Pugacheva spoke out against the war in Ukraine on social media, TASS reported and she is being investigated by the authorities for “discrediting” the Russian army.
Politico reported that flights out of Russia have sky-rocketed in price — and are selling out. Direct flights from Moscow to countries that don’t require visas to enter — including Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia — have sold out until at least Friday, according to the Russian outlet RBC. Politico also said that Turkish airlines’ direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul have jumped from Euros 350 to Euros 2,870.
Associated Press reported that over 800 Russians have been arrested in anti-war protests in 37 Russian cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg.
View from outside
While Modi’s comments grabbed the headlines, what is quite significant is Putin’s comments in Samarkand, at the meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where the Russian President acknowledged that Xi Jinping has “questions and concerns” about his war in Ukraine.
Many analysts have viewed this as a critical turn: This, for the first time, signalled that Beijing is seeking to distance itself from the Russian actions.
The Russia-China axis has been a worry for the West, particularly for India.
At a time when India is dependent on Russia for 60 to 70% of its defence requirements, Russian arms supplies might be under stress, worry Indian officials. This has been flagged earlier by Western officials, which has been downplayed by New Delhi.
But, as the Russian army is seemingly struggling to get more men, the worry is getting bigger for Delhi. It is not yet clear how many of these reservists are fit to fight or have enough weapons.
From India’s perspective, the message to Moscow is loud and clear: end the war, and get back to business-as-usual.
Indian Army chief Gen Manoj Pande has underlined this week that they still have “two friction points” along the LAC in eastern Ladakh, obliquely referring to stalemate at Depsang plains and at Charding La nullah in Demchok.
For the first time, as Delhi braces for the third winter with about 60,000 troops mobilised along the India-China border, and defence supplies from Moscow looking weak and stretched, some in Delhi feel that it is in India’s interest as well that the war in Ukraine must end quickly.
From Delhi’s perspective, PM Modi has not said anything new. But, framing it publicly and clearly is a powerful message that Delhi needs Moscow to ensure a resilient and reliable supply chain for its defence needs. So, from Indira Gandhi to Narendra Modi, the message to their Russian counterparts about abandoning war has been somewhat consistent, as it has been in India’s interest in strategic cooperation with Russia — from space to defence.