In his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly on 20 April 2021 (not widely reported), Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia would be respected, heard and feared and none dare cross the red line it has drawn. He added that he would strengthen the West’s reluctance to take risks in their relations with Russia as his country rose back as a global power.
The geopolitical situation in our region is churning and changing so quickly that one has hardly has time to catch one’s breath. Things have changed dramatically with the deception and belligerence of China.
The history of India-USSR ties is too well known to discuss here. In our moments of need, the most significant being the war with Pakistan in 1971, when the US and UK were solidly on the side of Pakistan, the former Soviet Union stood by us. Then the world changed in 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Russia considerably weakened. It has not been easy for Russians to accept that from being joint numero uno, they are now relegated to third place.
In his 2005 address to the nation, Vladimir Putin said that the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century (and) for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy…(with) the epidemic of collapse spilling over to Russia itself,” referring to separatist movements such as those in Chechnya. He was preoccupied with preserving the unity of the Russian Federation. China took full advantage of this to emerge as the effective number two global power.
Although US power has declined relatively, the country still retains its pre-eminence.
The global political and economic swing has shifted from the transatlantic area to the Asian region. Russia-US ties have deteriorated very sharply, as have US-China ties. As in the 1950s and 1960s, the US considers both of them as adversaries, pushing Russia and China into a tighter strategic embrace.
India-US ties have transformed, with the US becoming India’s premier partner in many ways, including defence, even if we have major differences on several concerns such as Afghanistan, the Taliban, Iran, Russia, even Pakistan. In his press conference during the Russian Foreign Minister’s April visit, External Affairs Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar noted the longstanding partnership in nuclear, space, and defence sectors (expeditious addressing of our defence requirements in the context of the Ladakh stand-off), new economic opportunities in the Russian Far East, the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor as connectivity projects, the rapidly expanding energy cooperation with long-term commitments, and production of Russian vaccine in India.
On Afghanistan, Russia has succumbed to Pakistani and Chinese pressure to keep India out of the extended Moscow format involving Russia, China, US, and Pakistan and it now backs the Taliban. There is divergence on the Indo-Pacific, a concept that Russia resents (as Russia’s Foreign Minister for 17 years Sergey Lavrov stated bluntly), but we are firm in stating that contemporary challenges require new and different ways of cooperation and also reflect the rebalanced character of global politics.
The Russian Foreign Minister’s visit to Pakistan (he went there from New Delhi) has attracted much attention. Russia’s desire to expand ties with former enemy Pakistan is circumscribed by China’s stranglehold on its quasi-colony. It will not allow another player onto the field. Russia’s outreach to Pakistan is part of Russia’s broader effort in the extended West Asia region to project itself as a power that cannot be ignored.
Chanakya had said 2,400 years ago that there is no friendship without self-interest.
Having lost the Cold war, in Russia some experts are very uncomfortable at the intensifying cooperation within the Quad with US President Joe Biden hosting its first virtual summit, and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visiting India as a sign of its institutionalization. A few have even gone as far as to suggest that this will lead to the creation of an “Asian NATO”.
Islamabad’s relations with Moscow are new, evolving for less than a decade. In the past, Pakistan and Russia could not develop close ties because neither country trusted the other. Russia is apprehensive about the nature of Pakistan’s deepening strategic relations with China.
Russia faces three complex challenges in its policies toward South Asia.
First, New Delhi is seen to be gradually shifting away from dependency on Russia in favour of the United States, and India is buying arms and technology from the United States and Europe. Second, Moscow can neither afford to alienate India, a huge market for defence and nuclear sales, nor ignore the potential market for military sales in Pakistan. Third, the impact of China’s BRI initiative on Russia’s near abroad (Central Asia) is plainly clear. China’s economic packages via the BRI were creating influences in Russia’s backyard with unprecedented speed till the Chinese virus upended our world.
For Pakistan, its eternal self-interest is anything and everything that can weaken India. It sees India as an existential threat and is terrified of India’s closeness to the world’s greatest military and economic power—the United States. Russia’s relations with Pakistan deteriorated sharply in the 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan War, when Pakistan played a key role going against the Soviet Union by supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahideen backed by the US. The Stingers played a key role by accurately shooting down Soviet helicopters, and killing thousands of Soviet air force troops.
Pakistan and Russia carried out their first-ever joint military drills in 2016 despite reported Indian requests to postpone them due to the Uri attack. Pakistan has granted Russia access to the warm water Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea. Moscow has supplied Pakistan with Mi-35 attack helicopters and has signed contracts to deliver anti-tank systems, air defence weapons and small arms. Since the famous American raid in 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden, Islamabad has gradually moved away from the United States, and sought rapprochement with Russia.
The Quad is a major consideration for Russia and China. How will India’s involvement in the Quad and the promotion of the Indo-Pacific strategy impact Indo-Russian ties?
The Quad is unlikely to become a formal military alliance in the immediate future, even though its members recognise the importance of collaboration among themselves to maintain a rules-based order. Yet, each of its members has a very complex relationship with China, that it will attempt to manage on its own.
India would be happy with Russia’s participation in the broader Indo-Pacific construct, because a Russia that is left out of the Indo-Pacific has increased incentives to move closer to China.
India is a critical pillar of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. While the US can take care of the Pacific Ocean, India’s capability in the Indian Ocean has frightened China.
An article some months ago in the Goebbels (sorry Global) Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinee Communist Party, was the first one to betray discomfiture in the military domain about possible “preemptive action” on the seas by the Indian Navy (recall Xi Pingpong’s exhortation to his troops to be ready for battle within a second).
India would much prefer a Russia deepening its ties with other Quad partners, rather than being excluded from the Indo-Pacific space and left entirely in Chinese arms.
For India, Russia is a very important component of its larger foreign policy.
The Russian President invited India’s Prime Minister to be the chief guest at the September 2019 Eastern Economic Forum. India offered a USD 1 bn soft loan to Russia. Russia is aware of the growing asymmetry of its ties with China and the weakness of its position in the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific. But it has to be very careful. Not only is India a time-tested strategic partner, it is also a significantly larger market than Pakistan. India sees China as much more of a competitor, perhaps even an adversary, whereas Russia’s perceptions of China are different for the time being.
When its relations with the United States started to erode, Pakistan began to see the emergence of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as an opportunity for closer relations with Russia and China through a common platform. Russia and China’s long running strategic rivalry with the US and many other converging interests has seen them close ranks in an unprecedented fashion.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 9 December last year complained that India was falling for the US’ “persistent, aggressive, devious…unipolar…anti-China camp”—undermining Russian-Chinese efforts towards a “multipolar world”—and asserted that Russia and China were not going to be “subordinate” to the West. Then there is the thorny issue of Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires where the US has been fighting an annual war for 20 years.
The foundation of Russia-Pakistan convergence lies in mutual thinking regarding Afghanistan. Neither Russia nor the US wants a fundamental Islamist Afghanistan. The Taliban do not trust Pakistan, as they feel Pakistan abandoned them after 9/11 without even saying “sorry, guys”.
Both the US and Russia would like to vaccinate themselves (with a non-Chinese vaccine) against Afghanistan and let Pakistan and its boss China carry the dangerous cargo. Washington has concluded that Islamabad was unlikely to act in full compliance with the US strategy for Afghanistan and has been providing safe haven to Taliban leaders, fighting an asymmetric war against US forces.
Pakistan has been convinced that the US strategy in Afghanistan was unlikely to succeed and was destabilizing Pakistan. The gulf between these differing convictions widened as war in Afghanistan dragged on to become “an endless war”.
Pakistan and Russia were hedging their bets as they carried out mutual consultations for the past decade. As the Taliban gains influence and control in nearly 70% of Afghanistan, Moscow and Islamabad agreed that a negotiated peace processes was the only viable option for the future stability of Afghanistan.
Though Russia and Pakistan believe that the continued US presence in Afghanistan is a source of instability, neither desires a complete US withdrawal either.
The future government in Kabul would have to rely on the presence of US forces.
Russia is now proactively engaged in hosting a parallel peace initiative involving the Afghan Taliban and Afghan opposition. It was notable that both the US-led and Russian-led processes have excluded the current Kabul government. Islamabad is facilitating both initiatives as well as keeping its options open. Pakistan understands that Russia is back in the new great game. Russia feels that Pakistan is important in any settlement of the Afghan problem—a charade strenuously promoted by Pakistan through playing spoilsport. Its bluff will be called sooner rather than later.
India, with its growing economic and strategic influence, is important for Russia’s pivot to Asia (Europe is outmoded). Any obituary of India-Russia relations is premature.
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.