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Behind India’s repeated abstentions against Russia at UN, legacy of policies past

India’s abstention is being explained by experts as a balancing act of maintaining friends and partners of both sides. It is also a legacy of the Nehruvian foreign policy of non-alignment and the ways in which the two countries have interacted with each other in the United Nations.

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In the midst of the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine, India abstained from a United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC’s) resolution sponsored by the United States that deplores Russia’s actions in the strongest terms. Explaining its abstention, India’s permanent representative at the UN, T S Tirumurti said, “India is deeply disturbed by the recent turn of events in Ukraine.”

“Dialogue is the only answer to settling differences and disputes, however daunting that may appear at the 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,” said Tirumurti.

While Russia expectedly vetoed the resolution, China and the UAE too abstained from the vote. The remaining 11 members of the UNSC voted in favour of the resolution.

India’s abstention is being explained by experts as a balancing act of maintaining friends and partners of both sides. It is also a legacy of the Nehruvian foreign policy of non-alignment and the ways in which the two countries have interacted with each other in the United Nations.

India’s tilt towards the Soviet Union

After Independence, India has maintained a neutral stance in a bipolar world following the policy of non-alignment. The Non-Alignment Movement or NAM is a group of 120 countries from the developing world that have not aligned with any major power bloc. The movement was established in 1961 through the initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru along with the heads of Yugoslavia, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia. Despite the official policy of non-alignment, a slight tilt towards the Soviet Union was noticeable during this period.

Professors Sanjay Kumar Pandey and Ankur Yadav in a 2018 research paper have suggested that the underpinnings of India’s affinity towards the Soviet Union can be explained through the deep impact that Socialist and Marxist ideas had on many leaders of the freedom struggle. “Ideological leaning of Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, formation of the Socialist Republican Association/Army, and adoption of socialism and state planning by India are testimony to the relevance of Socialist ideas and Soviet Union in India’s post-independence history,” they write.

The growing proximity between the US and Pakistan has often been cited as another reason for India seeking closeness with the Soviet Union. “The real foundation of the relationship was laid during Nehru’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1955 and the return visit of Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin,” write Pandey and Yadav. Since the 1950s the Soviet Union was closely involved in India’s industrial development, including the building of the Bhilai and Bokaro steel plants and the establishment of public sector companies such as Bharat Heavy Electronics Limited (BHEL) and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).


The war between India and China in the 1960s and the deteriorating Sino-Soviet relationship during the same period, brought the two countries closer, culminating in the signing of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty was to form the basis for the cooperation offered by the Soviets in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, which was crucial in ensuring India’s victory.

India’s relationship with the Russians underwent a downturn following the collapse of the Soviet Union. On one hand, the Russians realised the need to build close relations with the US for rebuilding themselves economically and politically. On the other hand, with liberalisation reforms in the early 1990s, India’s ideological positioning also saw a shift.

By the mid-1990s, however, as the hope for Western aid remained unrealised for Russia, the latter once again warmed up to India. In January 1993 when Russian president Boris Yeltsin visited India, he asserted that the two countries have ended their prolonged interruption. In the ensuing years, several treaties and agreements have been signed between the two countries establishing cooperation in trade, diplomacy, military, industry, science and technology. India is currently the second-largest market for the Russian defence industry. Close to 70 per cent of India’s military hardware is known to be imported from Russia.


Pandey and Yadav in their paper suggest that the joint declarations and agreements between India and Russia show that on a number of global and regional issues, the two countries have broadly similar positions. “India and Russia are together in promoting a multi-polar world system based on the prominent role of the UN and International Law, common interest, equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries,” they write.

India and Russia in the United Nations

India’s tilt towards Russia has been evident in the way the two countries have interacted with each other in the United Nations. In an ORF article authored by Aparajita Das in 2017 titled, ‘A fine balance: India’s voting record in the UNGA’, the author writes that in the course of the 69 years since India’s Independence, only during four years—1946, 1948, 1950 and 1962—did India’s voting patterns at the UN adhere more closely to the US than to those of the USSR or the Russian Federation.

“This was not so much to do with the Soviet Union as it was about the ideologies like anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-apartheid, pro-Palestine, which were fundamentals to non-aligned countries. These were the same values that the Soviet Bloc also endorsed,” explains T P Sreenivasan, former Indian deputy permanent representative of India to the UN in New York. Das in her article writes that the inclination towards the Soviet Union was likely, due in part, “to India and the former USSR states’ shared status as economically developing nations, rather than any inherent ideological affinity.”

From the 1970s, India leaned closer to the Soviet Union and moved further away from the US. India supported the Soviet Union or abstained from voting on a number of issues: Czechoslovak intervention of 1968 or on the invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Speaking about India’s abstention on the vote against the invasion of Afghanistan, Sreenivasan says that the sentiment inside the Indian political corridors was to oppose the Soviet Union, including that of the then prime minister Charan Singh. However, it was Indira Gandhi who stood solidly in support of the Soviet Union, which resulted in India’s abstention in the UNGA at a time when all other non-aligned countries along with the Western powers had voted against it.

At the same time, India has been the beneficiary of the Russian veto on several instances. The Soviet Union was the only country to veto resolutions in the UN Security Council against UN interventions in Kashmir in 1957, 1962 and 1971. “In fact, India’s friendship with the Soviet Union started in 1955 when Nikita Khrushchev (secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) came to Kashmir and declared it an integral part of India,” says Sreenivasan. Khrushchev is famously known to have stated, “We are so near that if ever you call us from the mountain tops we will appear at your side.” “This no other country has ever said. Even our best friends have suggested that India and Pakistan must sort it out between themselves,” says Sreenivasan. “However, in recent years even Russia has altered its position slightly to maintain that the Kashmir issue needs to be resolved through bilateral dialogue.”


Yet another instance when the Russian veto had helped India was during the Goa liberation movement of 1961. The US, UK, France and Turkey had proposed a resolution in the United Nations condemning the Indian invasion in Goa and asking the country to withdraw its forces. The veto from the Soviet Union destroyed the resolution. Writing about Russia’s backing of India in the case of Goa, historian S R Sharma in his book India-USSR Relations (Volume 1) says, “The (Russian) veto saved India from a very awkward situation as the West was determined to get a ceasefire and withdrawal resolution passed in the Security Council.”

The Russian veto was once again crucial in determining India’s victory in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The US had passed a resolution in the Security Council demanding a ceasefire and withdrawal of armed forces by India and Pakistan. The Russians once again had vetoed the resolution, allowing India to keep fighting for the cause, which eventually led to the liberation of Bangladesh.


Sreenivasan says that despite the obvious affinity between the two countries in the UN, there are several differences to remember as well. On a number of other issues, the Soviet Union has also stood against India, the most important among them being when India decided to carry out a nuclear weapons test in 1974. “Although they did not object as vociferously as the Western countries, the Soviets too were not in favour of the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons being violated,” says Sreenivasan. Consequently, India and the Soviet Union differed on their vote on disarmament issues.

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Another issue on which the Soviet Union was sternly opposed was the expansion of the Security Council. Indian ambassador to the UN Brijesh Mishra proposed expansion of the non-permanent members of the Security Council in 1979, which the Soviet Union opposed along with the other four permanent members as well. On the other hand, India opposed the Soviets on the issue of collective security in Asia.

First published on: 04-03-2022 at 08:17 IST
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