India’s relation with Russia has lost much of its sheen since the end of the Cold War, as both countries looked to adjust to a new world order. The rise of an assertive China, ready to assume its place in the world, has changed equations across Asia. India is getting closer to the US, while Russia has been forced to turn to China for economic and strategic reasons. Under the changing circumstances, can the India-Russia ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’ survive?
India strengthens ties with US…
The India-China military stand-off in Ladakh will force India to take a long, hard look at its foreign policy. Most analysts expect Delhi to veer towards Washington as US hopes to balance China’s growth with an equally populous Asian country like India. With this in mind, the US is going all out to woo India. The process which began with the Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2005 is gathering speed under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US and its western allies have tried to isolate President Vladimir Putin. The US has also placed sanctions on Russia. Circumstances have pushed Russia into the Chinese orbit and the two countries have close political and military ties. Russia is caught between India, a traditional ally and China, Russia’s neighbour. Moscow has to do some fine tightrope walking to keep the balance between its two Asian neighbours.
…Keeps Russia close
How will India-US and China-Russia equation affect traditional Delhi-Moscow ties? It is obvious that both countries are not in any mood to jeopardise ties. Despite Narendra Modi’s personal chemistry with US President Donald Trump, he has taken care to ensure that strong political links with Russia continue. The Indian prime minister spoke on telephone with the Russian leader recently and congratulated him on holding the V-Day anniversary, as well as winning the referendum to continue as president till 2036!
Again despite tremendous pressure from the US, Modi went ahead with the S400 Triumf surface-to-air-missile deal with Russia. On June 24, in the middle of the Ladakh crisis, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh travelled to Moscow to take part in the V-Day celebrations. Most Western powers miffed with Russia gave the event a miss. India’s presence is a symbol of the abiding ties with Russia and intent to continue the special relationship.
Rajnath Singh naturally discussed and briefed the Russians on the face-off in the Himalayas. India also wanted to make sure that the delivery of critical spares for fighter planes, battle tanks and submarines continues to flow in without delay. India wants to fast track the delivery of contracted weapon systems from Russia. Soon after the defence minister returned, fresh orders for 21 MiG-29 fighters, a dozen Su-30 jets, and upgradation of 59 MiG-29s was announced. The fresh orders will cost a cool $2.43 billion. Though Delhi has scaled down its defence acquisition from Moscow in the last two decades, 60 per cent of the defence hardware is still from Russia. Ironically China has replaced India as Russia’s largest buyer, India is now in second place. US, France and Israel are the other three main suppliers for India.
“No, we are not drifting away from each other but cooperating in fresh areas,” said PS Raghavan, former Indian ambassador to Moscow. “There is a convergence of interest between India and Russia, nor do we have any major bilateral problems,’’ he added. Traditionally India and Russia’s focus had been defence, nuclear, space and energy. Raghavan points to India’s interest in Russia’s Far East as an exciting new prospect.
Eye on Russia’s Far East
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Vladivostok last year and announced a one billion dollar-credit line for development. He was the chief guest in the Fifth Eastern Economic Forum. “We are starting a new era of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region,” the prime minister said. The plan is to set up a sea-link between Vladivostok and Chennai. This would reduce sea transit time to Russia, and would also connect the two countries through the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, and get Russia a toe-hold into the “Indo-Pacific” framework that the prime minister referred to.
Russia’s Far East is rich in hydrocarbons and minerals. While Russia gets into the Indo-Pacific frame, India gets closer to the Artic via Vladivostok. The Artic circle is becoming increasingly significant because of climate change. The joint statement issued after the PM’s Vladivostok visit also emphasised, a significant role for India in the Artic Council. New Delhi has observer status at the Council since 2013.
Enduring trust is an important factor in the relations and this will not be frittered away by either India or Russia as it gives strategic choices to both. Today countries have to manage ties with all powers. India’s tango with the US does not mean it cannot be friends with Russia. Relationships between nations are much more fluid and not exclusive. At one time Russia refused to sell arms to Pakistan, as Delhi felt any arms bought by Pakistan was eventually used against India. Yet in the last few years, Russia’s relations with Pakistan has improved and it sells arms to Islamabad. Delhi understands Russia’s compulsions.
So while India is likely to move closer to the US, and the quadrilateral group comprising of US, Australia, India and Japan, formalised basically to contain China’s aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific, it will continue to expand ties with Russia. This helps India not to be tied to America’s apron strings, the way Pakistan was a few decades ago.
Similarly, Russia under Putin will never agree to be junior partner to China. Russia too will have a strategic option/ choice because of its rock-solid ties with India. Russia-China ties have seen several ups and downs. Moscow cannot easily forget how the US and China got together against it a few decades ago. There is little trust between Russia and China. They are together now because of the changing security environment.
No one can foresee the future. But till Vladimir Putin, a master strategist remains President, India-Russia ties will continue to be a pillar of New Delhi’s foreign policy.