Russia is too heavily invested in China and Pakistan to effectively articulate India’s interests against China’s hostility and aggression or Pakistan’s terrorist activities against India.
It was possibly not necessary to enquire about the health and well-being of the India-Russia partnership five years ago. Possibly not even 18 months ago when Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Vladivostok in September, 2019 for the Annual Summit with Russia as Chief Guest at the Eastern Economic Forum at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it has become essential to reflect on this question because much has happened in the world as also in India-Russia ties over the last few years, particularly over the preceding one year.
The most important recent global development is the devastation wreaked by coronavirus since it spread from Wuhan, China to the rest of the world early last year. This has resulted in increased aggression and muscle-flexing by China as also weaponization of its supply chains. Simultaneously, it has led to an apparent decline in the United States and most other countries on health, economic and social fronts. Russia has moved notably towards China since 2014 because of the pressure and sanctions of the West, particularly the US, on the Ukraine and Crimea issues. Its cooperation with Pakistan in defence, energy and security has also increased significantly, primarily due to its interest in reaching out to the Taliban to counter the increasing presence of Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. India’s relations with China have nose-dived with the latter’s aggression on Indian territory. India’s relations with the US have continued their rapid ascendant trajectory in political, security, economic areas, particularly in the field of defence.
INDIA-RUSSIA TIES: CHINA
India’s divergences with Russia are not sudden. They have been visible and have continued to grow with time. These became starkly evident with Russia strongly espousing India’s membership of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to India for the Russia-India-China Dialogue in December, 2017, totally ignoring India’s concerns regarding the violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which runs through the Indian territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, illegally occupied by Pakistan.
More recently in December, 2020, speaking at a prestigious think tank in Moscow, Lavrov asserted that India was an object of the West’s persistent, devious and aggressive policies against China through their Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad. This totally missed the aggression by China against India whereby it had violated all bilateral agreements signed by it in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 to maintain peace and tranquility on the border and had gone so far as to kill 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan valley, the first time a casualty occurred on the India-Tibet/China border in 45 years. It was also condescending for Lavrov to suggest that India was incapable of determining its foreign policy on its own. India’s foreign office spokesperson was forced to contradict this comment by saying that “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.”
Even during his recent visit to India on 5-6 April 2021, in response to a question Lavrov said that Russia-China relations are the best they have ever been. This was seen as nothing but rubbing salt on India’s wounds as China has emerged as the most formidable challenge and serious threat to India’s security and well-being. He took it further by referring to the emergence of an “Asian Nato”, the same language that China uses to denounce the Quad.
INDIA-RUSSIA TIES: PAKISTAN
In the 1980s and 1990s it was said that the US and Western countries hyphenated India and Pakistan. No world leader would visit India without visiting Pakistan. This sequence was broken when President Bill Clinton travelled to India for five days in March, 2000 and, on his way back, stayed in Pakistan for a couple of hours at the airport. A hyphenation of sorts seems to have been initiated now by Lavrov when he visited Pakistan on 6-7 April after a gap of nine years, after his trip to India.
In addition to the above development, elements of strain in India-Russia ties on account of Pakistan were visible much earlier. Even if the supply of four military attack helicopters by Russia to Pakistan by lifting the arms embargo in 2015 could be overlooked, the decision
by Russia to go ahead with its military exercises with Pakistan days after the Pakistani terrorist attack in Uri in September, 2016 raised many eyebrows in India. In addition, Russia’s vigorous defence of Pakistan on the issue of terrorism, whether it was in The Heart of Asia meeting in Amritsar in December, 2016 or in various other fora, clearly brought home the fact that the India-Russia partnership had lost its strategic underpinnings.
India and Russia did not hold a summit in 2020. Leaders of the two countries have met regularly annually for the past 20 years since the Summit relationship commenced in 2000. The ostensible reason given by both sides was Covid-19. However, several observers commented that both Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin had held summits with many world leaders virtually due to difficulties in international travel. Also, the customary call by Lavrov on the Prime Minister did not take place during his recent visit because the latter was out of Delhi owing to his commitment with the ongoing elections. Could Lavrov’s schedule have been tweaked so that he could call on PM Modi, or was it a subtle message to Russia that it needs to be more sensitive to India’s concerns regarding China and Pakistan? Only time will tell.
THE WAY FORWARD
Lavrov’s visit was a good opportunity for both sides to have an in-depth and frank conversation on the state of bilateral ties and the way forward. EAM Dr Jaishankar lauded the relationship as being “time-tested, energetic and forward-looking” and their dialogue as “warm, comprehensive and productive”. Lavrov was less effusive and termed the talks as “constructive, useful and productive”.
Every strategic partnership is a product of its time. Situation in 1971 when India and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was very different from the world of today. In the 1990s, India and Russia were on the same page on Afghanistan against the US, Pakistan and Taliban. Today, Russia is opposed to inviting India for the Extended Troika format on Afghanistan, ostensibly at the behest of China and Pakistan, while the US wants India to be included in the Afghan Conference to be organized under the aegis of the UN.
It is clear that the strategic bond that existed between India and the Soviet Union is considerably diluted. Russia is too heavily invested in China and Pakistan to effectively articulate India’s interests against China’s hostility and aggression or Pakistan’s terrorist activities against India. Russia appears to be more sensitive to concerns and interests of China and Pakistan than of India. From the heights of the “special and privileged strategic partnership,” we appear to be moving increasingly towards a more transactional relationship.
Both India and Russia need to be realistic and suitably curtail their expectations from the bilateral partnership. Many areas exist in which both countries can expand and deepen their relations to mutual benefit. Some of these encompass defence including Make in India initiatives, nuclear energy, space, hydrocarbons, connectivity through the INSTC and Chabahar, the Arctic, Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor, manufacture of Sputnik V in India, trade and economic cooperation in Russian Far East, opportunities in India through the PLI scheme etc. The two countries can also cooperate effectively on regional and global issues in multilateral bodies including UNSC where India is a non-permanent member for 2021-22, G-20, ASEAN-led fora and others.
It is also imperative that dialogue at the highest as well as at Ministerial/Senior Official level is not only sustained but also further reinforced. Both sides should have the capacity and confidence to discuss their differences and divergences and also identify fresh areas for cooperation. In this context, the forthcoming visit of President Putin to India will be crucial.
Rapid changes in geo-political and geo-strategic dynamics today present significant challenges but also opportunities that India and Russia can leverage to further invigorate and intensify their relations to mutual advantage and to benefit of the world.
Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar is President, Institute of Global Studies; Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre; former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; former Secretary/Principal Executive Officer, National Foundation for Communal Harmony, Government of India.