India harvests ties with Russia to take on Sino aggression
Three decades since India turned away from a disintegrating Soviet Union who could have imagined there would be a day when New Delhi would once again look at Moscow to protect it from external predators.
In 1991, India in the throes of its economic reform sought to move closer to the United States and away from the remnant of the Soviet Union, Russia. Though it happened gradually and circumstances dictated the Indian government’s move following the demise of its Cold War ally, Soviet Union, the trend picked up speed to a point where today the US is considered closer to New Delhi.
The latest visit to India by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the slew of agreements including new military deals appear to have turned the tide. New Delhi is now willing to antagonise Washington in its decision to go ahead with the purchase of the contentious S-400 missile from Russia. Until now, it has disregarded the threat of US sanctions that hangs over any country that dares to buy this missile system.
Why would India go against the US diktat and cosy up to Russia? The reason is obvious – the growing threat that New Delhi perceives from a belligerent China on its borders. In the last decade, the emergence of China as a big power, if not a super power, has had a negative impact on Sino-Indian relationship.
China has moved aggressively into the South Asian neighbourhood, long considered by India as its backyard. Today, Beijing’s close ties with India’s neighbours have upended New Delhi’s dominance in the region. Aggravating the situation is the unseemly border standoff between the two countries.
For Beijing, New Delhi is a source of irritation as it has refused to fall in line with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While all other countries in the neighbourhood are now part of China’s flagship project, New Delhi is unwilling to join in.
Further, India in recent years has been doing the bidding of the United States in the Pacific and South China sea – challenging Beijing’s attempts to establish control over one of the world’s busiest seaways and its move to take over islands that dot the region and are claimed by Japan, Philippines and Vietnam among others.
The choice for India is stark. It can neither afford to antagonise the US or China while not being in a position to please both. The result is that China is breathing down hard on New Delhi while the US expects India to dutifully kow-tow to it, as an ally. Into this difficult equation comes the joker in the pack – Russia, which could be the way out for New Delhi.
In today’s geopolitics, Russia and China have moved closer to each other as both are being challenged by the US and its allies in Europe. Consequently, Moscow is the only player that has influence in Beijing. For India, this has turned out to be a blessing as all is not yet lost between New Delhi and Moscow despite a stagnant relationship.
In fact, it was Russia’s intervention that prevented the situation from going bad to worse in the Ladakh standoff, after the Galwan valley clash in June 2020 that saw the deaths of soldiers from India and China.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin too, increasingly pushed on the defensive by the West, needs friends and it would be beneficial to Moscow if India again moved closer to it.
India would also appear to be a trifle disillusioned with the US as it has not been able to intervene substantially to help India deal with China. For Beijing today is no longer in awe of Washington and in most cases treats the US with disdain. In any case, the US and China have their own blow hot – blow cold relationship in which India plays no part.
The Biden administration further relegated the Quad (and with it, India) to second place and instead opted to have a military alliance with traditional partners Australia and the United Kingdom under the AUKUS umbrella. The Quad, from which India hoped to borrow some muscle, has now for all practical purposes turned into a mere talking shop and one that cannot go beyond issuing brave statements against China.
Putin’s visit to New Delhi – for a few hours and a focussed one at that – is a sure shot indicator that the two are in the process of resurrecting a rusting relationship. A slew of 28 agreements, including military-technical cooperation for the next decade and the signing of the long-pending deal to manufacture ₹5,000 crore worth Russian AK-203 rifles mean they are back in serious business.
That Russia has already started sending deliveries of five S400 missile systems worth nearly ₹40,000 crore to India under an October 2018 agreement means that New Delhi is ready to face sanctions under the US’s CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act”. Turkey which defied the US has been sanctioned under this law.
But India is not Turkey and by defying the US, New Delhi is challenging Washington to impose sanctions. The US too may not find it easy to go ahead and “punish” India as it has invested considerably in converting New Delhi into the status of an ally. While it is obvious that the US is the dominant partner in the relationship that does not mean it won’t be hurt by punitive action against India. And, the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi is gambling on it to get away with its acquisition of the Russian S-400 missiles.
It is not just the China factor that is at play. New Delhi would like to do business with the Taliban-administered Afghanistan. If there is one country that can enable India to do it, that would be Russia, as Putin can be relied upon to influence Beijing and by extension, Pakistan, to concede some space to New Delhi in Kabul.
It may however be premature to conclude that India is foregoing US for Russia. At the moment, the jury is out on whether India and Russia have embarked on another chapter in a time-tested relationship or if the current bonhomie is merely transactional, one determined by circumstances beyond their control.