The Indian government must be overjoyed after receiving an unexpected, enticing, and completely unsolicited proposal from visiting US undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, to “help… (get) defence supplies” from Washington, but with a major (and difficult) condition: that “India move away from dependence on Russian” weaponry.
In defence and diplomacy, there is no such thing as a full stop in any century. To the high table practitioners of realpolitik, any black-and-white formula is always anathema. Grey is the colour of choice for those who despise or are hesitant to join a camp. India, as a typical non-camp follower with national self-interest difficulties, faces a difficult decision, particularly during a time of global war.
India imports a lot of weapons, which are largely Russian-made but are becoming more American-made. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, which generated massive production-supply channel difficulties for both Moscow as a producer/seller and New Delhi as a consumer/buyer, the United States is a late entry into India’s arms industry.
As a result, India is perplexed by the American proposal, which comes just days after US Vice President Joe Biden labelled Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and “butcher.”
This excursion into unknown land has caused havoc. Whether President Biden was serious or just making off-the-cuff remarks, what does “war criminal” or “butcher” legally mean in international relations?
Mr Putin was “booked” on “four charges” under various international law provisions in one fell swoop. First, a war crime is defined as “cruelty that is in violation of international law… devastation that is not justified by military necessity.” Second, a war criminal is someone who “commits an act in violation of international war regulations.” [It’s worth noting that, since the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46, claiming that the act was carried out on orders from a superior officer is no longer a valid defence, implicating both the subordinate (soldier) who executes and the superior (the sovereign) who conducts the war.]
The “laws of war,” the rules and principles agreed upon by most countries to regulate items inherent in or incidental to the conduct of a public conflict, are Mr Biden’s third implicit count.
The fourth is the 1949 Geneva Accords, which are actually four conventions, the first of which dates from 1864. In 1949, it was revised, extended, and finished. Two more protocols added to the broad humanitarian law protection established in these in 1977.
Mr. Biden’s remarks have not only put Mr. Putin on the defensive throughout the world, but they have also contributed to the unnecessary pressure on New Delhi, which has had a six-decade seller-buyer relationship with Moscow.
Will the West now challenge democratic India’s prudence in continuing to buy arms from a “war criminal”? Even a suspected war criminal has the right to be heard, at least in a “court of natural justice,” as Germany and Japan did after 1945, despite the fact that the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals were both seen as clear acts of retribution by some.
After a six-decade relationship, India cannot afford to abandon Russia as a defence ally. The facts are self-evident. According to Military Balance 2021 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies), India’s defence expenditure came in third in 2020. It still does, with a budget of $68 billion, as announced in the Lok Sabha on Budget Day 2022. Only the United States and China are ahead of the pack.
Except for the Lockheed C-130J Hercules and the Boeing C-17A transporter, India’s military has no US-made fighters. Mixed variants of Russian MiGs, Sukhoi-30, French Mirage-2000, Rafale, and the 41-year-old Anglo-French Jaguar make up the “768 combat competent” aircraft. All of the Indian Army’s main combat tanks are Moscow-supplied T-72s and T-90s, with the exception of the 100-odd Arjuns produced in India. Infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, armoured engineer vehicles, vehicle-launched bridges, and a slew of infantry weapons were all supplied by Russia.
The Navy was the most obvious and prominent Russian contribution. While India got off to a good start, conceptualising a “builder’s navy” rather than a “buyer’s navy,” when India was neglected, Moscow delivered; swift attack boat, patrol, and reconnaissance to corvette, frigate, destroyer, submarine, and aircraft carrier.
Things continued to move forward even as the USSR disintegrated in 1991, causing cost and time overruns for Indian armaments. Without a question, Russia’s steely and sterling collaboration has helped the Indian Navy stand out in the sea today. That’s no small feat for a country with no long-standing maritime tradition or history. One must remember Russia’s famous Adm. Sergei G. Gorshkov’s one-of-a-kind service to India.
There are a few severe issues that need to be addressed. Can the US maintain a long-term, unbroken defence alliance with Russia, as Moscow has done for the past 60 years? Without any huge stumbling blocks arising out of nowhere?
Haven’t our times’ hazardous geopolitics already resulted in some “shifted priorities”? At such times, does a superpower’s “overriding national interest” always take precedence, leaving its smaller, weaker allies in the dust?
The hard fact of today’s world is that, because to its global interests, no superpower can ever be a long-term partner. Even during the Cold War, Russia could never equal the US because, despite its superior Navy, Moscow lacked sufficient warm water ports, thus limiting the operations of its armada.
Is it appropriate to resort to an act perceived as avoidable provocation by non-aligned India in the midst of intense heat? Is it possible for New Delhi to just move from Moscow to Washington in terms of fighters, frigates, tanks, and tankers, which take decades to develop and adapt? India should refrain from “taking” or “switching” sides; its first responsibility is to ensure the safety and well-being of its 1.37 billion people.