US, Russia pull India in opposite directions; Modi diplomacy under test

New Delhi cannot have it its way on all counts – it cannot be super-close with the US-led Quad nations while at the same time enjoying the benefits of a special relationship with Russia. It has to choose one way or the other.

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Foreign Minister S Jaishankar with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in New Delhi | File Photo: Twitter

India is facing a diplomatic jam, having to decide between retaining its traditional relationship with Russia or a greater involvement with the rival US-led Quad group of countries.

Following up on the cancellation of a regular India-Russia summit ostensibly due to the COVID pandemic in December last, Russia earlier this week cautioned India against closer involvement with the Quad (short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) countries comprising besides itself the US, Australia and Japan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was in New Delhi, expressed Moscow’s reservations over a reported move to turn the Quad into a Nato-type military alliance. He bluntly termed such a move as “counterproductive.”

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For Japan and Australia, there are no dilemmas as they have been close allies of the US for decades. For India the story is different, as it has shared a special relationship with Moscow for years.

In the three decades after the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Russia as a nation, India, however, moved inexorably close to the United States until a point where it is now almost equidistant from both the big powers.

In today’s scenario, India can neither do without the US nor Russia. And, unfortunately for New Delhi, US and Russian ties are in a crisis after a brief bonhomie in the aftermath of the Soviet breakup. Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict and its annexation of Crimea besides its role in saving the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad among other things have almost pushed their relationship to Cold War levels.

India’s closeness to the US has already caused cracks in the Indo-Russian ties. In 2014, Vladimir Putin, for the first time, offered military cooperation to Pakistan followed by a joint military exercise a year later, indicating that Russia no longer considered New Delhi as a holy cow and that it would willfully get closer to Islamabad. The message to New Delhi was clear: any further neglect of ties with Russia would have direct consequences in the Indian subcontinent.

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In fact, Lavrov visited Pakistan from New Delhi on a two-day visit where he promised the Government in Islamabad of military equipment and further joint exercises, something that is bound to alarm the Indian government.

Despite its proclaimed friendship,  India has been challenged by the United States as well,  showing it is not benevolent as it would seem. Since the time of Donald Trump, the administration in Washington has stridently opposed India’s purchase of S-400 missile weapon system from Moscow and has even threatened sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The US has already imposed sanctions under this against Turkey for buying the S-400 weapons system. India, until now, has ignored the US and is going ahead with the deal. But the US diplomatic hammer may fall on India anytime.

Even as India is probably contemplating how to respond to the US and Moscow’s latest warning, comes the unexpected news that New Delhi’s newfound buddy, the US, on April 7 conducted what it calls “Freedom of Navigation Operation” in Indian waters, 130 nautical miles off  the Lakshadweep islands, under the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) without taking permission from New Delhi.

What this effectively means is that the US asserts its rights to sail wherever it wishes in international waters according to its interpretation of existing laws. An official US statement clearly describes Indian laws as “excessive maritime claims”.  By its actions, the US has challenged laws that India holds dear and have the stamp of its sovereignty.

According to reports, in the past, the Indian government has turned away foreign vessels, including Chinese, found sailing within 200 nautical miles off India’s shores under its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Related news | ‘Quad’ countries plan meeting to counter Chinese aggression

But now that the US has posed a direct challenge to India’s laws, an immediate interpretation could be that it is applying pressure to counter Moscow’s warning to India on the Quad. Coming on the heels of the US warning India from buying the Russian S-400 weapons system, clearly it is a case of realpolitik, where friendships are subservient to perceived national interests.

If, bowing to US pressure, India scraps the S-400 deal, it would conclusively break the decades-old special ties with Russia.

While New Delhi has been attempting to balance one with the other, comes the Moscow missive, which has effectively drawn the “lakshman rekha” for India on its involvement with the Quad.

Amidst the various diplomatic headaches for India including in its neighbourhood, the one from Russia is the latest which is equally, if not more, serious. For India cannot afford to treat Russia with disdain given that successive governments in Moscow (from the time of the Soviet Union) have unquestioningly helped New Delhi on various issues. Recall the consistent veto by Moscow on several anti-India resolutions on Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council over the years.

Or, for that matter, Moscow’s support for India during the 1971 war when the US sided with Pakistan. And, let’s not forget, an estimated 60 per cent of Indian weaponry is reportedly of Russian vintage.

Moscow’s warning over the Quad comes at a time when India was warming up to the group as it is seen as potentially capable of stalling China from encroaching on Indian territory across the disputed border. Though there is nothing on record to show the Quad’s effectiveness in pressuring China, it has been viewed with optimism in India.

However, what seems to have escaped attention is Moscow’s newfound close relationship with Beijing that has reportedly played a role in easing tensions on the Himalayan border.  For, within the platform provided by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in which Russia, China and India are members, Moscow apparently played the role of a mediator, leading to the disengagement of Chinese troops from friction points along the Pangong Tso (lake) in eastern Ladakh recently.

But there are strings attached. Moscow’s warning to India on the Quad makes it clear that New Delhi cannot have it its way on all counts – it cannot be super-close with the Quad while at the same time enjoying the benefits of a special relationship with Russia. It has to choose one way or the other.

Another takeaway from the scenario is the fundamental fact that India, unfortunately, is in no position to unilaterally take charge of the narrative and dictate terms to the US, Russia or China. Uncharitable as it may sound, India’s diplomatic position is like a football that is prone to get kicked around by the big players.

The Modi government, laying claim to a “muscular foreign policy”  finds itself in a diplomatic jelly. It will take more than bravado and rhetoric to extricate India from the jam the country finds itself in.

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