There are certain areas of concern for Russian foreign policy in its external engagement

New Delhi: Russia is facing a tough challenge from the Western countries on the issue of a potential conflict with Ukraine; it’s facing financial sanctions since 2014 due to the Crimea issue; its dependency on China is growing; then there is the problem of a potential escalation of conflict with the US over the stationing of nuclear weapons and other normative issues. Russia under Putin is also attempted to cement its relationship with Asian countries.

While looking at Russia’s global engagements under Vladimir Putin, three things can be said to be having an impact on Russian foreign policy. These are:

a) Russia is trying to reassert itself in global politics despite numerous limitations.

b) Moscow is also trying to rejuvenate its economy by engaging with both great powers and regional powers.

c) The problem which Russia is currently confronting with the West can be traced back to the Soviet period. Though exceptions can be made with regards to Russia and China strategic partnership even though both of them shared an uneasy partnership in the historical past.

Some of the above strategic developments concerning Russia under President Putin in recent times underlines three possible scenarios. These are:

a) Will Russia under the leadership of President Putin be able to navigate itself in the present geopolitical crisis?

b) How far will Russia mend its fence with Western countries under the prism of “civilisation identity” especially in the context of the present strategic dilemma which Russia is confronting with Ukraine over the years?

c) To what extent will Russia be able to fix its relations with the US in the context of the current nuclear arms race?

While locating Russia’s geopolitical challenges in the present context one has to look at how far Russia will be able to engage itself more effectively with the United States since the last meeting between Putin and Joe Biden in June 2021. Contrary to expectations that the relations between the two Cold War adversaries will worsen under President Biden, the June summit between the two heads of state raised the hopes of many quarters. President Putin after meeting his US counterpart expressed his “optimism” about the bilateral relationship between the two countries. The meeting took place in the background of growing conflict between both Moscow and Washington over the issue of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are once again at loggerheads with each other after a brief thaw and as reported by the media, the US is thinking of providing “arms assistance” to Ukraine. Here one can understand Putin’s diplomatic move of balancing the US (which aims at checkmating Russia) and at the same time keeping Ukraine on its strategic radar.

Another instance where both the US and Russia have differences of opinion is over the emerging issues in the Indo-Pacific region. Russia has a divergent opinion about the Indo-Pacific and is quite alarmed about the Quad and the emerging AUKUS. However, Putin’s policy prescription towards the Indo-Pacific is largely guided by China. Similarly, the recent development in the China-Taiwan fiasco is further polarising the Indo-Pacific region. However, President Putin’s position that Beijing “does not need to use force” against Taiwan as widely reported is also surprising many scholars. Putin’s statement came just before the Biden-Xi meeting. Putin’s statement also raises questions whether there is an irritant in Russia-China relations.

At the same time, despite occasional flare-ups between both Russia and the US on the issue of nuclear questions especially after the Geneva talks in July 2021, efforts are also going on for strategic reduction of nuclear weapons. Though the Iranian nuclear issue is still casting a shadow over Russia-US relations.

Similarly, Russia is also trying to mould its relations with the European countries despite many hindrances. The aspects that bring Russia and EU closer are energy and economy. As per recent trade statistics between Russia and EU trade relations stood at “ $174 billion” in 2020. The same trade statistics also highlight that the EU imported around “26 per cent of oil and 40 per cent of gas” from Russia last year. This shows that there are mutual compulsions in their bilateral relations. But there is divergence on political questions. For instance, the recent EU move in criticising the Russian democratic process, human rights violation shows that there is a divergence in “normative perception”. In this regard, it is pertinent to mention here that Russia’s present crisis with Ukraine and the threat from European countries to put sanctions on Moscow is creating a lot of uneasiness. As stated by the Russian President, “we do not need a new conflict” (as reported in newspapers) is a shrewd diplomatic move on the part of Putin to de-escalate the situation and build bridges with the EU. Russia also needs diplomatic support from a few EU countries to de-escalate the situation with Ukraine.

Putin is also trying to give a new perspective to the question of Afghanistan. Moscow has not recognised the Taliban till now. The Russian leadership is realising the folly of supporting the Taliban initially and its repercussions on the security situation of post-Soviet Eurasia.

While coming to India-Russia relations, three important factors are guiding these: the traditional bonhomie between the two countries; b) growing convergence between India and Russia on issues of mutual interest and a common position on fight against non-traditional threats; c) stronger cooperation in the fields of defence and economy including energy.

Since the signing of the “Strategic Partnership Agreement between India and Russia” in October 2000, relations between the two countries have been on an upswing. As part of the strategic partnership between the two countries, the relationship is moving in different spheres, ranging from defence to energy. In this context, New Delhi and Moscow have taken steps to boost bilateral trade. Internationally too these countries have taken a common stand on many issues of mutual concern. It may be underlined here that India-Russia relations have reached the level of a “special and privileged strategic partnership”. The recent delivery of S400 missiles to India by Russia and the signing of agreements for delivery of AK-203 rifles and other defence agreements will add a new momentum to the relationship. Hopefully, the forthcoming visit of President Putin will add new thrust to the existing bilateral relationship.

At the same time, a substantive change in foreign policy is expected from Putin in terms of the following:

a) Over the years Russia is playing second fiddle to China in global politics. This is contrary to the multi-vector policy which it espouses. Russia needs to take a relook at its present strategic engagement with China. In fact, this is the precise reason which is alienating many countries of Asia (hostile to China’s imperial designs) from Russia.

b) Russia’s engagement with Pakistan is also a cause of concern. Islamabad is known for patronising and promoting international terrorism. Studies suggest that the Chechen terrorists are getting support from Pakistan. Russia should take stern measures against Pakistan.

c) The Putin administration should pursue a policy of pragmatic engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.