Moscow and New Delhi have remained cautious and restrained in voicing their concerns, but the signs of discomfort have been surfacing on and off.
By Rajan Kumar
The visit of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister to India seems to be an attempt to paper over the cracks in the ties that have recently appeared between the two countries. Moscow and New Delhi have remained cautious and restrained in voicing their concerns, but the signs of discomfort have been surfacing on and off. Moscow’s biggest worry is India’s growing security and defence ties with the US; whereas for New Delhi, the growing proximity between Beijing and Moscow seems to be making her edgy. One of the primary concerns of India is the possibility of a semi-military alliance in the near future. While Russia would like India to maintain the status quo and remain neutral; India on the other hand seeks to retain strong ties with both Russia and the US.
Befriending the arch-enemy of the other while still being friends is the dilemma that the two countries, India and Russia, face today. It is indeed a fact that Moscow’s ties with Beijing, and New Delhi’s ties with Washington are not pitted against each other; but it would be naïve to assume that this balance can be sustained for too long. Washington’s cold-war mindset and ill-advised policy towards Russia is pushing it closer to China, while the Chinese truculence at the Himalayan border is nudging India closer to the US.
Washington treats Russia as a threat to its influence in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. The Trump administration was relatively calmer but the Biden administration is likely to tighten its noose around Russia. The policy of sanction and support to democratic forces in Russia’s neighbourhood is unlikely to succeed; yet, that is exactly the kind of policy one expects in the next four years. Russia has begun to brace itself for this eventuality. It is forging closer ties with China and Iran. During his trip to the Chinese city of Guilin, Lavrov stressed on China and Russia working together to move away from the dollar payment system.
If push comes to shove, Russia and China may form a semi-formal military alliance with much wider implications for global politics. This is still at the stage of one’s imagination, but the two states have started flirting with this idea. Ivan Timofeev, the Director of Programs at the Russian International Affairs Council, noted that the “Sino-Russian relations are still not an alliance, but they are more than a partnership. The possibility of an alliance cannot be excluded if the pressure builds up from the West”. Such an alliance would empower China and provide her the much needed time to modernise her military infrastructure. This would hasten the prospects of bipolarity and curtail the chances of multipolarity, an idea embraced by both Russia and India. The US is unlikely to gain from this development and this would then lead to a decrease in America’s influence further in the regions of Indo-Pacific, West Asia and Eurasia.
New Delhi’s growing dependence on Washington for its defence requirements, and its close collaboration with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) have caused alarms in Moscow. Russia presumes that the US is trying to snatch its most reliable partner in South Asia. It would much like India to have a balanced policy and not become a subordinate partner of US’ security designs in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad is seen as an anti-China forum steered by the US. In his December 2020 statement at a well-known think-tank (the Russian International Affairs Council), Sergey Lavrov warned that India was “currently an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy” against China through their Indo-Pacific strategies, called the ‘Quad’. The timing of the statement created an anxiety among the Indian policy-makers. In response, Anurag Srivastava, the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs noted, “India has always pursued an independent foreign policy based on its national interest. India’s relationship with each country is independent of its relations with third countries. We hope that this is well understood and appreciated by all our partners”.
From Moscow’s viewpoint, Washington is putting extreme pressure on New Delhi to undermine the Indo-Russian defence and military cooperation. In the context of Washington’s CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) which was designed to sanction a country acquiring sophisticated weapons from Russia; this view cannot be dismissed as being baseless. India depends heavily on arms and weapons imported from Russia, and is in the process of acquiring S-400 defence missiles. Since India has signed several foundational defence agreements such as LEMOVA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) with the US; it may therefore come under obligations to cut down some of its defence purchases from Russia. And now with the gradual formalisation of the Quad under the Biden administration, the pressure is likely to intensify in the coming years.
Moscow has remained steadfast in its support to New Delhi over the last seven decades – weathering the tumultuous transition of the post-Cold War years of the 1990s. The successive regimes in India have also reiterated the vitality of India’s unique and historic ties with Russia. However, in the last few months, one has been witnessing signs of strains appearing in the ties between the two countries. In December 2020, the annual summit between the two countries was cancelled – the first time in its twenty years. The official statements blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for the cancellation of the event, but some attributed it to Russia’s unease over the Quad.
In the latest controversy, a few articles in Indian newspapers accused Russia of betraying India by not including it in its Afghan dialogue process. Russia in its defence, clarified promptly by saying that it was a continuation of an earlier process in which India was not a member. This contrasted appallingly with the US’ offer to include India in its parallel negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The fact that Lavrov is bringing along Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan shows Moscow’s sensitivity to India’s concerns in Afghanistan.
Lavrov’s visit to India, and the summit meeting with President Putin sometime later, will offer the two parties various opportunities to shed some of their misgivings that have emerged in the last few months. Russia needs to be sensitive to India’s security imperatives in the region. It is not the lure or the pressure of the West, but the belligerence of China which is pushing India closer to the US. India would prefer to maintain a balanced middle path; provided China follows a less-assertive policy, both at the Himalayan border as well as in the Indo-Pacific region.
New Delhi also needs to reassure Moscow that the Quad is not a precursor to a military alliance. Though India figures prominently in the US strategy of the Indo-Pacific, yet it is still averse to forming an alliance with any state. Since Japan and Australia already have bilateral military agreements with the US, India is the only nation to resist the Quad becoming an alliance in the near future. The agenda of its first virtual summit included issues beyond security; and stressed on vaccine collaboration, technology transfer and democratic cooperation. As the Quad is shaping up in becoming a diplomatic forum for democracies to protect rules-based order and free navigation in the Indo-Pacific; it then certainly is not directed against Russia. To allay apprehensions, India is equally keen in working with Russia in her Indo-Pacific construct.
(The author teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His latest book Re-emerging Russia: Structures, Institutions and Processes (co-authored) was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)