Unreasonable hope misplaced in India-Russia ties
Moscow will play this ‘balancing game with New Delhi and Beijing’ in the current era, which many international affairs faculty and strategic affairs experts call ‘Cold War 2’.
The trilateral talks involving the Foreign Ministers of India, Russia and China have triggered an “unreasonable hope” in a section of Indian media and some “over-enthusiastic” analysts, who are foreseeing “New Delhi getting into Moscow’s strategic plans”. Some even feel that Russian President Vladimir Putin may influence the Beijing leadership, for the closeness he boasts with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, asking the latter “to resolve the Ladakh stand-off and maintain status-quo on the Line of Actual Control,” in a way a “virtual” victory for New Delhi.
In reality, it’s too difficult a dream to get realized that easy. Undoubtedly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “multipolar diplomacy” has made significant advance globally and the nation stood firm with Russia and his “close friend” Putin, despite the threats of US sanctions on the purchase of S400 air defence system. India has purchased jets from Russia in the heat of its stand-off with China on the LAC and has just concluded this weekend its 11th joint naval exercise. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s recent visit to Moscow only expanded the scope of strengthening Delhi-Moscow strategic ties.
Having listed these positive indicators, Russia is still not playing so easy into the “Great Game of New Delhi” and it will never, given India’s growing closeness with Washington DC, which many see as a “strategic coincidence” to counter the common enemy—China. Second, Russia and China are deep in their relations for many “strategic reasons”, including their mutual security investments to “rule from the Pacific to the Atlantic waters”.
But not to miss a point which New Delhi needs to work on more—Russia, in reality, does not want Beijing to flex its influence more than Moscow and grow more than what Putin can control.
However, Moscow will play this “balancing game with New Delhi and Beijing” in the current era, which many international affairs faculty and strategic affairs experts call “Cold War 2”.
Professor Deepa M. Ollapally, Associate Director at Sigur Center for Asian Studies in George Washington University, says: “Moscow does not want to be in the position of having to choose between China and India. It cannot afford to alienate China just now for economic and global political reasons, but it definitely does not want to ‘lose’ India either. You can see how Russia has been playing a delicate balancing game and trying to nudge China and India closer without appearing to take sides openly, even during the height of the Himalayan stand-off in June at the trilateral RIC meeting in Moscow.”
Asia expert and a director in Hudson Institute, Aparna Pande feels “Russia will weigh its own interests first.”
Pande told this newspaper: “We do not live in a world where zero sum games like these ‘Russia leaves China for India’ etc apply anymore. They were applicable during the Cold War, but not since then. Yes, there are countries you have closer relationships with, countries with whom you share strategic interests but at the end of the day, each country makes a decision based on its own national interest. So the Russia-India relationship is not what it was between Soviet Union and India during the Cold War. Russia has close ties with India and China, but Moscow will base its policy on its own interests.”
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program in Woodrow Wilson Center, echoes Ollapally and Pande. Kugelman says: “Russia, like many states, will want to balance its relations with key powers. Moscow has the advantage of having good relations with both New Delhi and Beijing, a benefit that few other influential countries enjoy. This can serve Moscow well as it navigates what is becoming an increasingly volatile world order. There’s no reason for Russia to give up the leverage it enjoys by maintaining close links to two highly consequential and nuclear states that aren’t getting along.”
What about the growing Beijing-Moscow rifts? Aren’t those good signs for India? Professor Ollapaly says, “The economic imbalance in China’s favour is pretty daunting, causing Russia concern. This fact no doubt is not far away in Russia’s calculations. But even more importantly, China’s BRI which is empowering Beijing economically and strategically in Russia’s Central Asian backyard is a growing worry. If the BRI projects actually work and give China much greater leverage, I’m sure there will be pushback from Moscow. I don’t see Russia ever conceding a dominating role for China in that region; it’s not Belarus or Crimea, but it is clearly seen as in Russia’s sphere of influence. It is just hard to see a future where there is not increasing friction between these two giants.”
Pande added, while Russia and China have become closer in the last decade, they still have border disputes, and Russia is wary of growing Chinese presence (and immigration) in its border and outlying areas. “Russia’s economic (dependent on energy and defence trade) and strategic interests will dictate that Russia will play a balancing game. Similarly, for India, while ties with the United States are deep, Moscow remains an important friend, especially when it comes to India’s neighbourhood and Asia,” the Hudson director said.
There is a strategic reason for Russia playing this balancing game, explains Ollapally. “As long as Russia’s economy is weak, it is going to need big customers for the one sector that it is productive in—defence equipment. India is too important as a commercial buyer to not take into account its sensitivities. In any case, it’s not in Russia’s own interest to build up China’s defence capabilities without limits,” the GWU professor said.
Kugelman adds more on Beijing-Russia frictions and hints at “not to read more”.
The Wilson Center expert said: “Perhaps there’s some friction, but not enough to compel Moscow—or Beijing—to move away. At the end of the day, it’s the West and its allies that are trying to push away from China. Why would Russia want to go in the same direction as a global bloc with which it is at odds, and alienate its relations with the world’s next superpower? It makes little sense. And there’s no reason to worry about India in this context; New Delhi will remain a friend no matter what the Russians do.”
Pande explains the growing churning involving Russia-China-India, with the US watching from outside. She said: “Some people call it ‘Great Game’ others call it ‘Cold War 2.0’. Whenever a country tries to change the existing world order (as China is trying) then this happens. China’s desire to create a new China-centred Asian and global order is being challenged by the US and its partners and while Russia may not challenge it openly, does not mean that Russia would accept a China-centred world either.”
Many also argue over a possible scenario where President Trump makes a comeback to the White House and is able to take Putin on board against China. Experts see this as a “mere dream scenario” as America’s deep hatred for Russia will not go in a flash with Trump’s new found love in Putin.
Pande doesn’t see this happening. “The Cold War legacy is still strong in the US and Russia is still seen as a threat. That will not change irrespective of who comes to power in November. The US security establishment views Russia as a threat and I would say, the Russian security establishment views US as a major threat.”
Kugelman echoes Pande saying, “Trump may have a soft spot for Putin, but there’s so much fear and concern about Russia in Washington that I’m sure Trump’s advisors would redirect him away from any plan to pursue a new nexus with Moscow.”
Professor Ollapally, however adds a positive situation emerging for India still. She says: “Seems as a dream scenario for India. But Russian leaders know that American leaders are very short term oriented, with Trump being downright fickle. Right now, Russians have more to lose by having bad relations with China than with the US. So the idea of any bloc forming is highly unlikely. At the same time, Moscow does not want to be in an isolated position globally with just China at its side. If Trump wins a second term, he might dial things down with Russia. This is more likely than dialling it down with China which has now taken a life of its own. Improved relations with the US will put Moscow in a better bargaining position vis-a-vis China. And in turn, a new pressure on China will bring India political dividends.”
But this dream scenario will have “volatile ramifications”, says Ollapally. “This would be a nightmare scenario for Beijing. Clearly, it would signal serious diplomatic failure on Beijing’s part. At minimum, it would have to put a check on its assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea where it is butting heads with several countries. The regional situation would become more volatile and polarized than ever, with stark choices facing countries up and down the Indo-Pacific.”
Warning against the “dream bloc”, Kugelman adds, “If that bloc were to become a reality—and that’s a really big ‘if’—then we’d see US-China rivalry reach troubling new levels, and China-Pakistan friendship charting even greater heights. And this would mean added pressure on India on its already-volatile western and northern borders.”
It’s time how New Delhi plays the “Great Game with Russia” and plays the cards well in the new geo-political dynamics post-COVID19 amidst shifting global strategic alliances!