India-Russia ties lack old warmth; it's time for New Delhi to address emerging geopolitical order

Since Moscow has begun to project Pakistan as the key pillar of Russia’s South Asia policy, New Delhi cannot continue its foreign policy within the traditional framework of non-alignment

Vinay Kaura April 14, 2021 19:02:45 IST
India-Russia ties lack old warmth; it's time for New Delhi to address emerging geopolitical order

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

A news item in Pakistan’s Tribune Express, titled ‘Putin offers ‘blank cheque’ to Pakistan’ succinctly captures the growing divergence between the Indian and Russia worldview.

Accordingly to the news published on 11 April, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, during his recent visit to Islamabad, had delivered a message from his President, Vladimir Putin, to the Pakistani leadership that Moscow is “open for any cooperation” with Islamabad.

This has been interpreted by Pakistani officials as Putin’s “blank cheque”.

Putin, who has already removed the legal constraint to standing for re-election in 2024, and to stay in power until 2036, seems to be in a position to grant this blank cheque to Pakistan even though his popularity in Russia has been in steady decline and trust in him is at historic low.

Nevertheless, relations between former Cold War rivals – Russia and Pakistan – have undergone huge transformation in recent years due to new power alignments and strategic realities. As Russia’s foreign minister has visited Pakistan after a gap of nine years, the possibility of Putin’s visit to Islamabad cannot be ruled out.

On the other hand, though Moscow and New Delhi still have a good relationship, the age-old warmth has gone missing. The annual India-Russia summit in 2020 was cancelled for the first time in two decades.

While the official reasons given by both India and Russia pointed towards the COVID-19 pandemic, there was speculation that the annual summit was cancelled due to Russia’s reservations on New Delhi’s embrace of Washington’s geopolitical initiatives aimed at countering China.

While the India-Russian ties seem to have come under strain, many in India are not yet ready to discard the notion of a decades-old romantic relationship.

Nevertheless, friendships and partnerships cannot be a one-way communication.

India’s decision to purchase S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile squadrons despite the threat of American sanctions was a perfect example of its clear signal to Russia that New Delhi’s arms diversification efforts and a burgeoning relationship with Washington will not be at the cost of India’s strategic autonomy.

And in view of the 2018 inaugural 2+2 India-US dialogue along with the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), the Trump administration had hinted at the possibility of such a waiver.

Even when the new US defense secretary Lloyd Austin visited India recently and raised the issue, advising that partners should avoid “any kind of acquisitions that will trigger sanctions,” the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government has decided to go ahead with the procurement.

But Russia’s advocacy for China has troubled India. While the China-Indian relationship has experienced a sharp downward trend since the Galwan clashes, New Delhi has become particularly concerned with Moscow downplaying or ignoring China’s display of coercive military pressure against India.

Beijing’s aspiration to create a China-centric world clearly illustrates the likelihood of a widening China-Indian divide. What it also illustrates is the limit of Russian influence. Both India and China have sought to get Russia to promote their respective positions with the other. But it is China whose perspective Russia has decided to promote. With China unwilling to accept India as a great Asian nation, New Delhi cannot allow itself to be confined within South Asia.

The decade following the disintegration of the USSR was a period of great flux in global politics. Russia had sought, albeit unsuccessfully, to cast Moscow as the leader of a supposed trilateral group of Russia-India-China against a US-led unipolar world. Russia was an early proponent of the effort to bring together the three major powers under then prime minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Aware of the emerging international system as an expression of Western expansion, India’s fear of the unipolar moment made it easier for New Delhi to become a part of this initiative.

But China’s continued refusal on not including India in the league of great powers prevented the success of this trilateral, with India investing its energy in rapprochement with the US.

The forward momentum in the India-US ties continued apace, with New Delhi increasing its engagement with Washington in the arena of military cooperation. Although the RIC (Russia-India-China) meetings of foreign ministers have been held annually that allow the three countries to discuss issues of regional and global concern, they have been criticised as a ‘talking shop’.

There has been no major diplomatic success of the RIC format at the international stage.

Cooperation on devising a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict, based on shared concerns over terrorism, would have been one of the areas of effective coordination for the RIC. But the competing interests of each have made it impossible. Russia’s decision to include China and Pakistan in the peace process with the Taliban under the Moscow-format has left India isolated.

A Russian gesture could have gone a long way in allaying India’s apprehensions over a Taliban return to Kabul by giving New Delhi a voice in the peace process. Unfortunately, this has been done by the US, not Russia.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s ability to influence the India–China relationship has always been suspect, which has further declined as the US-China strategic competition is intensifying. As a rising China can no longer be constrained by Russian influence, Moscow seems to have acquiesced in playing the role of Beijing’s junior partner.

China-Russian ties, underpinned by a shared interest in opposing the US, will improve further, and this is understandable. But India cannot share Putin’s obsessive preoccupation with Russia’s status rivalry with the Western world.

Many in New Delhi have reasons to believe that Putin has run out of coherent ideas for managing Russia’s relations with India at a time when his power has been challenged by protests over corruption and State lawlessness in nearly 200 cities and towns across Russia.

While India needs Russia’s partnership for its defence needs, New Delhi cannot endorse Russian perspective on the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral, comprising India, Australia, Japan and the US. There is no doubt that Asia is the new theater of Great Power confrontation between the US and China.

Since Moscow has begun to project Pakistan as the key pillar of Russia’s South Asia policy, which will also lead to a reconfiguration of the regional geopolitical order, New Delhi cannot continue its foreign policy within the traditional framework of non-alignment.

India needs to come to grips with the reality that Russia’s foreign policy actions are introducing new security architecture in South Asia that will change the regional global balance of power. India should work with Russia where it can and ignore where it cannot.

Updated Date:

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