“While the Russians will continue to play second fiddle to China whenever it suits them, both Russia and India have an interest in keeping their relationship forward looking, given their common interest in developing a multipolar world order. Moscow needs to be told clearly that the US, Australia, Japan, India “Quad” is to primarily maintain a viable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific Region, even as we seek an increasingly cooperative partnership with Russia”, says the author.
Given its size, potential and pride in its history, culture and democratic institutions, India has sought to retain its strategic autonomy, by maintaining a careful balance in its relationships with major centers of power-notably the US, Russia, China and the European Union. This has never been easy, given the inherent geopolitical rivalries between major centers of global power. The challenges we now face are unprecedented, because of the determination of a growingly aggressive China to become the unchallenged, sole center of power in Asia, while it prepares to match the United States, in wielding power globally. An assertive China will not brook the thought of India having a vital interest in asserting its right to influence events, especially across the Indian Ocean Region.
While the US and powers like Japan regard the role of India as important in maintaining a viable balance of power in Asia, there are doubts and misgivings about Russia’s approach towards India. Moscow’s policies are driven largely by the relentless hostility of the US, to oppose and contain Russia’s influence, even on its very doorstep in former Soviet Republics, which often have large Russian populations. Moscow has thus been literally driven into the arms of Beijing, resulting in a virtual Moscow-Beijing alliance, to counter American hegemony. Despite this, India has remained steadfast in endeavoring to maintain its strategic autonomy, by seeking to expand its relationship with Russia. This is being done internationally, by working with Moscow in forums like BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the India-Russia, China triangle, which was initially promoted by Russia. India has also sought to complement Moscow’s efforts to stabilize the secular Assad regime in Syria.
While limited connectivity has served as an obstacle to trade with Russia, the defense relationship between the two countries remains vibrant. The approximately 270 Russian Sukhoi 30 fighters are the main element of our Air Force’s strike and air defense potential. The lethal Brahmos missile, multi barreled rocket launchers, around 900 T 90 Tanks, an aircraft carrier with Mig 29 aircraft, guided missile stealth frigates and even a leased Russian nuclear submarine, are all meant for frontline use. These are but a small portion of the vast amount of Russian defense equipment with our armed forces. New acquisitions underway from Russia include highly advanced S 400 air defense systems and a large fleet of light helicopters. Russian defense exports to India in recent years account for around 39 per cent of its total exports and far exceed exports to China, which unlike India, has successfully developed a vibrant defense industry, with significant export potential.
Russia and India have a mutual interest in carrying forward defense and security cooperation, with regular meetings and exchanges between their Defense Ministers and National Security Advisers and periodic joint military exercises. While some concern has been voiced about Russian arms supplies to Pakistan, the Russians are well aware of the fact that a cash-strapped Pakistan cannot afford to buy its frontline equipment, which is presently confined to purchase of some MI 35 attack helicopters. The Russians also know that the Indian market will be closed for the equipment they supply to Pakistan. The greater concern in New Delhi, however, arises from Russian readiness to join with China and Pakistan in seeking to give legitimacy to the Afghan Taliban. This is rather ironic, given the fact that approximately 14,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and more than 35,000 wounded in action between 1979 and 1989 against ISI backed radical Islamic armed Afghan groups. This effort to legitimize the Taliban has been neutralized, by the Afghan Government’s insistence on direct talks with the Taliban.
While India’s trade with Russia remains limited because of problems in connectivity, mutual cooperation in investments in the petro-chemical sector is substantial and significant. The recent $ 12.9 billion deal for the acquisition of Essar Oil refinery by Russia’s largest oil producer Rosneft, is one of the single biggest foreign investments in India. India’s investments in Russia’s oil and gas industry are presently around $8 billion. They are likely to reach $15 billion by 2020, with India set to acquire an almost 50% stake in Rosneft Siberian oil project. Moreover, there are substantial prospects for increasing Russian supplies of coal, diamonds, LNG and fertilizers to India. Interestingly, while the much touted 2014 Russian gas deal with China was expected to generate $ 400 billion by gas sales to China, the drastic fall in gas prices is likely to reduce the returns by well over 60%. There is also considerable potential for Russia and India to reinforce each other, in executing energy and rail transportation projects in third countries, like Afghanistan and Vietnam. Russia and India are presently cooperating in the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Bangladesh.
It is evident that India cannot match China’s economic power in its relations with Russia. One should, however, remember that there has been grave mutual distrust between Russia and China for centuries. The Russians view China’s meteoric rise and its growing population, as a threat to their Siberian region and even to Vladivostok. The Soviet Union and Mao’s China, loathed each other, from the very inception of Communist rule in China. Mao was kept waiting for months in 1949, before he got to call on Stalin, who met him only after he met Indian Ambassador Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, in January 1950. Mao made no secret about his contempt for both Stalin and Khrushchev. The two countries had several border skirmishes in 1968-1970, in which the Chinese were badly mauled. Just after the 1971 Bangladesh conflict, which saw the emergence of a US-China strategic nexus, the Indian Ambassador in Moscow was informed by a senior Communist Party functionary that the Soviet Union had deployed massive armored formations on the border with China, to deter Beijing from getting involved militarily, in the Bangladesh conflict.
These are historical and geopolitical realities that neither the Russians, nor the Chinese will forget easily. While the Russians will continue to play second fiddle to China whenever it suits them, both Russia and India have an interest in keeping their relationship forward looking, given their common interest in developing a multipolar world order. Moscow needs to be told clearly that the US, Australia, Japan, India “Quad” is to primarily maintain a viable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific Region, even as we seek an increasingly cooperative partnership with Russia.
(The author is a career diplomat)