The re-election of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin for the fourth consecutive presidential term has been hailed by the Indian media as a rebuff to the West. Putin has silenced his detractors, who were opposing him, with a thumping mandate — with 76 per cent of the vote — and in doing so, he has managed to put up a show of vindication that most Russians want him to stand firm against American hegemony and make Russia great again.

Ironically, the dream “to make America great again” became the tagline of American President Donald Trump as well, while he was seeking the mandate for presidency. “We are a rich country of poor people,” Putin once said, speaking of his “pride in the fatherland”, as he advocated for a strong state as “the guarantee of order, the initiator and main driving force for change”. Somehow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in seeking to make a “New India” and pushing his agenda of majoritarian nationalism strikes a chord with Putin.

Even if we choose to make light of the fact that just a month after Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow in June last year, China’s warships engaged in the first-ever joint war games with the Russian fleet in the Baltic Sea and even lighter of the fact that in the same month, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow where Putin decorated him with the Order of St Andrew, Russia’s highest state award, the reality is that India fares poorly, as compared with the depth of Russia’s bilateral relationship with China. At the same time, India is veering away from Russia and getting supplanted by the US, the pious platitudes sung in favour of ‘eternal’ Indo-Russia friendship notwithstanding.

As it stands today, with Trump smarting under allegations of Russian influence in the presidential polls and the subsequent US actions against Russia, added to the Western sanctions imposed on it, Russia perhaps needs China more than China needs Russia to stand firm against a unipolar global order, led by America and a united Europe overseen by the EU. Russia’s relationship with China, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping, is at the “best level in history”. Xi has visited Moscow more often than any other capital since coming to power in 2012. For India, the real threat is a durable Russo-Chinese-Pak entente which, by the nature of its origin, is dark and insidious. And it happened during the reign of Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s decision to hold its first-ever joint military exercise with Pakistan, days after the Uri terror strike, which left 19 Indian soldiers dead, with Putin at the helm, rankled India to no end. It was brushed under the carpet and the Russians tried to justify it by saying that the “exercise was meant to help Pakistan deal with terrorism”. Actually, Russia’s relations with Pakistan have been looking up since the early 2000s. Observers point out how Russia was acting in tandem with China to promote Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan.

Take two issues that remain sensitive to India’s interests. First, is the emotive issue of India’s admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), steadfastly opposed by China on an exclusionary ground which by extension means the admission of Pakistan. Russia’s apparently unstinted support for India’s membership was later qualified by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, echoing China, by implicitly linking India’s membership of the NSG to that of Pakistan. And the other one was his insinuation to New Delhi to find ways to “benefit from” the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR), coursing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). That it remained central to India’s territorial claims was lost on him. By supporting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through internationally disputed territory and engaging with the Pakistan-backed Taliban, Russia made common cause with India’s regional adversaries.

In the alchemy of shifting strands in the geopolitical affairs, the new Russia under Putin might not find an India ready to lend a shoulder to it in its fight against American power and hegemony, particularly in Asia. During his visit to New Delhi in 1998, Yevgeny Primakov, the then prime minister of Russia, had suggested the possibility of building a ‘strategic triangle’ between Russia, India, and China, as a “viable opposition to American supremacy.” Under Putin though, to have China on board with India against the US is now a pipe-dream. Similarly, as the Russian silence on Doklam showed, India cannot have Russia any longer to counter-balance China. Russia is a very different country today than it was in 2000 when Putin first became the president. Putin had set about restoring the legacy of brute Russia. India’s real struggle is to remain relevant in the rapidly changing scheme of things.