Worthy birds in the hand Sushma Swaraj with counterparts Sergey V Lavrov and Wang Yi

Russia and India should keep their relationship forward-looking given their common interest in a multi-polar world order

by G Parthasarathy

India has sought to retain strategic autonomy by maintaining a careful balance in its relationships with the major centres of power — notably the US, Russia, China and the European Union. This has never been easy because of the geopolitical rivalries inherent.

The challenges we now face are unprecedented because of the determination of an aggressive China to become the sole centre of power in Asia, while it prepares to match the US 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.

Reading Russia

Although the US and powers like Japan regard the role of India as important in maintaining a viable balance of power in Asia, there are misgivings about Russia’s approach to India. Moscow’s policies are driven largely by the relentless hostility of the US to oppose and contain Russia’s influence, even on its doorstep, in the 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 endeavouring to maintain its strategic autonomy by seeking to expand its relationship with Russia. This is being done internationally by working with Moscow in forums such as 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 stabilise the secular Assad regime in Syria.

While limited connectivity has served as an obstacle to trade with Russia, the defence relationship between the two countries remains vibrant. The approximately 270 Russian Sukhoi-30 fighters are the main element of the IAF’s strike and air defence potential. The lethal Brahmos missile, multi-barrelled rocket launchers, around 900 T90 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 a small portion of the vast amount of Russian defence equipment with our armed forces. New acquisitions under way from Russia include highly advanced S-400 air defence systems and a large fleet of light helicopters. Russian defence exports to India in recent years account for around 39 per cent of its total exports and far exceed the exports to China which, unlike India, has successfully developed a vibrant defence industry with significant export potential.

Russia and India have a mutual interest in carrying forward defence and security cooperation, with regular meetings and exchanges between their defence 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; it is presently confined to purchasing some MI-35 attack helicopters. The Russians also know that the Indian market will be closed for the equipment they supply to Pakistan.

The Taliban Factor

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 ironic, given 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 Afghan groups. This effort has been neutralised by the Afghan government’s insistence on direct talks with the Taliban.

India’s trade with Russia remains limited because of problems in connectivity. However, mutual cooperation in investments in the petrochemical 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 per cent stake in the Rosneft Siberian oil project. Moreover, there are substantial prospects for increasing Russian supplies of coal, diamonds, LNG and fertilisers 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 per cent. There is also considerable potential for Russia and India to reinforce each other in executing energy and rail transportation projects in third countries such as 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. Mao Zedong was kept waiting for months in 1949 before he got to call on Stalin, who met him only after he met the Indian ambassador, Sarvepalli 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 armoured formations on the border with China to deter Beijing from getting involved militarily in the Bangladesh conflict.

Ground Realities

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, in light of their common interest in developing a multipolar world order. Moscow needs to be told clearly that the Quad — the US, Australia, Japan, India — will primarily maintain a viable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, even as India seeks a greater cooperative partnership with Russia.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan