New Delhi — The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is posing the most serious challenge to Soviet-Indian relations is more than a quarter of a century of friendly relations.
Differences between the two countries were obvious in the absence of any reference to Afghanistan in the joint statement issued at the end of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's three-day visit to India.
India's close relationship with the Soviet Union was clinced in 1971 with the signing of a friendship treaty. The Afghanistan crisis has brought a measure of strain to that relationship, but is unlikely to break it.
India favors a "regional" approach to the Afghanistan crisis, which it thinks has resulted from a confrontation of the superpowers and can best be solved by the South Asian nations themselves. The Soviet stand is tough and inflexible.
Not only did Mr. Gromyko not give Indian leaders any time frame for a troop pullout, but there was not even a specific assurance of any intention to withdraw.
Besides, he used his two speeches here to attack Pakistan for aiding Afghan guerrillas.This no doubt caused India much embarrassment, for India has been trying to reach some kind of accommodation with Pakistan. And Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq had asked India to use its leverage with Moscow to secure a firm commitment from Mr. Gromyko.
But no such commitment was forthcoming, and India's stand remains unchanged: It will not join the chorus of condemnation of the Soviets, but will mount pressure on them to secure withdrawal of their troops.
The Gromyko visit Feb. 12 to 14 was preceded by hints that the Soviets would be willing to withdraw if the United States and China acted to reduce tensions in the area.
Analysts point out that there are many more Soviet troops in Afghanistan than the situation requires. A partial pullout as a cosmetic operation would not reduce effective Soviet military strength there.
Privately, Indian leaders are unhappy that the Soviets did not consult them before entering Afghanistan. Their treaty provides for talks on matters affecting each other's security, and the Soviet intervention undoubtedly has security implications for India. Relations between the nations are unlikely to be seriously affected by differences over the invasion, however.