With Moscow and Beijing set to wield more regional influence after the Taliban’s rise, Russia and India have set up a joint team to assess the situation as a placatory measure. India is also concerned about a recent Russia-China military exercise in the context of the ongoing border dispute with the latter

As world leaders debate how or whether to engage with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, Russia has sought to assure its long-time partner India that New Delhi’s views matter.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the two agreeing to set up a joint team of foreign affairs and national security officials to assess the situation in Afghanistan.

According to sources with knowledge of the conversation, there are indications Russia is not in a hurry to recognise the Taliban, but Moscow will share its assessment of the situation with New Delhi once it has been made.

The Taliban’s seizure of Kabul has opened a path for Russia and China to wield greater influence in South and Central Asia. Both countries, along with Qatar – which is on good terms with the Taliban political leadership – have kept their embassies in the Afghan capital open, with the United States and its allies, as well as India, scrambling to evacuate staff.

New Delhi has little influence with the Taliban, given its deep-seated suspicion of the Islamist group – which it blames for sheltering militants that carried out attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir, with arch-rival Pakistan’s encouragement.

Russia earlier this month convened an “extended troika” meeting in Doha with the US, China and Pakistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan, but India was left out.

“Right now, everyone is thrashing around to see how they can protect their interests,” said P.S. Raghavan, the former chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board.

But it was not the case that Moscow and Beijing would have an easier time dealing with the Taliban, he said, adding that while both countries had supported the withdrawal of US troops, “the Taliban is not beholden to either China or Russia for their victory”.

Indeed, while China has offered to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction, it is concerned about extremism spilling over into its westernmost province of Xinjiang. On Wednesday, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone call to discuss the security situation, with Xi telling Putin that Beijing was willing to work with other nations, including Russia, to encourage all parties in Afghanistan to build an inclusive political structure that was cut off from terror groups.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said Russia saw India and China as its two principal strategic partners.

India and Russia define their ties as a “special and privileged strategic partnership” and hold regular meetings to cooperate in trade, energy, science, technology, and culture.

But Indian commentators have also pointed to Moscow’s warmer ties with Beijing as a matter of concern for New Delhi.

Last year, when Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov described the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, or the Quad – comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan – as “anti-China” and an American ploy to wean New Delhi away from Moscow’s influence, Indian commentators said he was glossing over the threat China posed to India, given that both sides are locked in a border dispute.

“There is no exclusivity of relations in today’s world. We can talk about Russia-China, they will talk about India-US,” said Raghavan, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2014 to 2016. He added that India would need to manage each bilateral relationship to ensure it did not affect core interests in other relationships.

New Delhi’s concerns about Moscow’s commitment to their partnership were also shaken when Russia earlier this month took part in a large-scale joint military exercise with China in Ningxia with Su-30SM fighter aircraft, motorised rifle units, and air defence systems.

It raised a few eyebrows in Delhi as not only is Moscow India’s main defence supplier and accounts for 55 per cent of its military requirement, the joint military exercise took place amid India and China’s year-long military face-off in Ladakh.

Deependra Singh Hooda, a retired lieutenant general and former chief of the Indian army’s northern command, said the joint exercise was “meant for the US and not India”.

He said concerns that the Chinese were getting to know about Indian military equipment were unfounded, as much of the hardware that Russia supplied was common to both sides. “It is incorrect to feel disadvantaged with such an exercise,” Hooda added.

Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary who was in Moscow as India’s ambassador from 2004 to 2007, said Russia had been supplying advanced military hardware to China for many years and held military exercises with Pakistan, too.

Joint military drills are also held within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation security group, and Russia has held naval exercises with China in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. As Sibal points out, Russia also holds annual military exercises with India. “There is no reason to be particularly concerned about this joint military exercise,” he added.

Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre said Moscow tried to facilitate a dialogue between Delhi and Beijing last year, but the Ladakh dispute was a sovereign matter for the two powers. “Russia will never side with China against India and is a fully dependable partner of India,” he added.

Raghavan, the former national security adviser, said an assured supply of military spares was better than a joint exercise. He said when China wanted Russia to suspend supplies to India during the border stand-off, Moscow had quietly made it known it would continue supplying New Delhi.

Unlike during the Cold War, Trenin said, the Indo-Russian relationship was not exclusive, as in recent years India had grown closer to the US – which sees Russia as an adversary and has piled sanctions on it.

He said India had joined navy exercises alongside the US as part of the Quad, and though Russia might not like this, it did not question New Delhi’s right to choose partners.

“In the fluid 21st-century geopolitical and strategic environment, Moscow and Delhi need to learn to develop their valuable strategic partnership in a non-exclusive setting,” Trenin said.

The Washington-based Stimson Centre think tank said 86 per cent of India’s military equipment, weapons and platforms are of Russian origin, ranging from aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines to the tanks that are deployed in Ladakh.

The Su30 MKI fighter aircraft, the Indian Air Force’s mainstay, is of Russian origin, while BrahMos, India’s nuclear-capable supersonic cruise missile, is a joint venture with Russia.

The US has also supplied India with military equipment such as the Apache and Chinook helicopters and M777 howitzer guns, all of which are deployed in Ladakh, as well as the Boeing C-17 and C-130J aircraft that provide the Indian Air Force with strategic airlift capacity. US-made P81 submarine-hunter aircraft are also popular with the Indian navy.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India was the world’s second largest importer of arms during 2015-2019. Though New Delhi has diversified its defence sources, making Israel and France major suppliers as well, Russia continues to top the list.

As per the SIPRI database, since 2014 Russia has sold defence supplies worth US$9.3 billion, while the US has sold US$2.3 billion in the same period. Since 2000, more than two-thirds of India’s total defence imports of US$51 billion have been from Russia.

Trenin said Russia did not have a monopoly on defence sales to India, and New Delhi had been diversifying its defence imports for many years.

“But defence relationships are a matter of mutual confidence, like a friend that you can trust in a crisis,” he said.