India doesn't need Russia to come to its defence, but in any future war it would expect Moscow to ensure the smooth supply of weapons and spares
International support can be a multiplier in any conflict. In the 1971 War, Russian support was a critical factor that allowed India to wrap up a quick and decisive victory. Moscow kept the western and Chinese hounds out of the fight so that the Indian military could do its job without worrying about a second or third front.
On December 3, the Pakistan Air Force recklessly attacked 11 Indian airfields. India officially declared war, launching retaliatory air strikes deep into Pakistan. As Indian armour scythed through Pakistan’s defences – both in its eastern and western halves – the world quickly took sides.
While Russia and its allies had India’s back, the western powers and India’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) buddies tilted against India. On December 4, then US ambassador to the United Nations George H. Bush – who would later become US President – introduced a resolution in the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of the armed forces by India and Pakistan. Since only Indian forces were inside Pakistan, the move was meant to pressure India. The resolution – which was backed by 104 countries – was vetoed by Russia. Only 10 countries stood by India.
India’s sweeping victories on the battlefield unnerved the West, which didn’t want its ally Pakistan to be humiliated. The US sought to force a ceasefire by sponsoring two more United Nations resolutions that censured India. However, Moscow used its veto to block all anti-India resolutions.
The Indian leadership was so sure of Russian diplomatic and military support that it did not panic even when US President Richard Nixon sent the US Seventh Fleet sailing up the Bay of Bengal in a move widely seen as threatening Indian cities with nuclear bombing.
The following anecdote illustrates India’s calm response to America’s gunboat diplomacy. During a tri-services briefing held for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Admiral S.M. Nanda, then navy chief, intervened and said:
“Madam, the US Seventh Fleet is sailing into the Bay of Bengal.”
The Prime Minister did not let that news interrupt the meeting. After sometime, the admiral repeated, “Madam, I have to inform you that the Seventh Fleet is sailing into the Bay of Bengal.” She cut him off immediately:
“Admiral, I heard you the first time, let us go on with the briefing.”
The Prime Minister’s nonchalance was due to the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation that India and Russia had inked a few months earlier. The agreement had a secret clause which made it mandatory for Russia to intervene on India’s side if it was attacked. Indira Gandhi knew that if the Americans or the Chinese attacked, the Russians would intervene. Russian divisions on the border across China’s Sinkiang province were on standby with nuclear artillery.
Drama at the UN
With the Pakistan military getting a hammering, the mood in that country was dark. The Russian vetoes on top of this completely demoralised the Pakistani leadership. On December 15, as the Pakistan Army was facing capitulation, Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto walked out of the UN Security Council and said: “I hate this body. I don't want to see their faces again. I'd rather go back to a destroyed Pakistan.”
Bhutto's parting words to the Council, before he ripped up his notes, pushed back his chair and rose, were these:
“Mr President, I am not a rat. I've never ratted in my life. I have faced assassination attempts, I've faced imprisonment. Today I am not ratting, but I am leaving your Security Council.
“I find it disgraceful to my person and to my country to remain here a moment longer. Impose any decision, have a treaty worse than Versailles, legalise aggression, legalise occupation – I will not be a party to it. We will fight. My country harkens for me.
“Why should I waste my time here in the Security Council? I will not be a party to the ignominious surrender of part of my country. You can take your Security Council; here you are. I am going.”
“We have been frustrated by the veto. Let's build a monument for the veto. Let's build a monument for impotence and incapacity.”
Turning to Yakov A. Malik, the Soviet delegate, Bhutto said:
“You throw out your chest and you pound the table. You don't talk like Comrade Malik, but like Czar Malik. I am glad you are smiling. I am not, my heart is breaking.”
Future conflict scenario
The Russian vetoes clearly helped India block the barrage of international criticism that came its way. However, that was in 1971 when Moscow and New Delhi had common opponents in the West and China. Almost a half century later, the situation has taken a dramatic about turn with Russia and China now ‘semi-allies’ and India burying the hatchet with the US.
The good news for both countries is that India no longer needs a Russian veto. India has given up its NAM (pipe) dream and is internationally respected for its economic success story. In any future war, it is unlikely to find itself the target of UN resolutions. Plus, the world knows Pakistan exports terror so except for some Arab countries, India won't face much external pressure.
Another major difference is that unlike in 1971, India is today a militarily powerful country and doesn’t need the protection of a Russian naval fleet. Although it may not be able to sustain a two-front war, India can easily steamroll Pakistan.The good news for both countries is that India no longer needs a Russian veto. India has given up its NAM (pipe) dream and is internationally respected for its economic success story. In any future war, it is unlikely to find itself the target of UN resolutions. Plus, the world knows Pakistan exports terror so except for some Arab countries, India won't face much external pressure.
However, it should not be forgotten that even as the US foreign policy apparatus (the State Department) is making a big show of support for India, the Defence Department is more honest and open. It continues to be Pakistan’s patron, and the Pentagon generals will not let the US abandon one of the world’s most strategically located countries. Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharief was seen in the company of US Secretary of State John Kerry this week.
In a future war, all that India expects of Russia is to make sure the parts pipeline doesn’t slow down. Over 70 per cent of India’s military equipment is of Russian origin and a steady supply of parts would be the least New Delhi expects.
It was the tremendous success of Indian Air Force MiG-21s against the PAF’s latest American-built F-104 Starfighter that led to a huge order for the MiG-21 from the Iraqi Air Force. Unlike other customers, India has used Russian weapons with devastating effect in a number of conflicts. So it is clearly in Russia’s interests to see India wage war successfully. There is no better marketing for weapons than a real war.
If Russia throws its military helmet into the ring, India would welcome such direct support. However, if it merely keeps the weapons and spares highway open, it would serve India’s purpose too.