Tightrope walk: India must be vigilant about US attempts to erode its time-tested friendship with Russia

by MK Bhadrakumar

India faces an unprecedented foreign policy challenge as big-power conflicts are brewing in Eastern Europe and in the Far East. Independent India has not witnessed anything like this before.

Cataclysmic events can wreak collateral damage when things fall apart and blood-dimmed tide and anarchy is loosened upon the world.

In uncertain times ahead, India’s robust partnership with Russia is at the core of its calculus.

Proxy wars are one thing, but conflicts directly involving great powers hold the high risk of escalation into apocalyptic proportions. Twice it happened in the last century, when embedded within seemingly innocuous ‘incidents’, there were germane seeds of world wars — the assassination of an archbishop (1914) and the annexation of Sudetenland (1939).

Some Indian analysts make predictions that what is unfolding in Eastern Europe is a storm in a tea cup since President Biden desires an entente cordiale with Russia to balance China’s rise. Such delusional optimism not only overlooks the mood in the US Congress, but lacks a sense of history and borders on the naïveté about great power politics.

The Indian discourses are generally one-dimensional nowadays due to a tunnel vision. It should never be that the present day India-China tensions are turned into a touchstone on any regional or international situation or that we reduce ourselves to a state of dreamy forgetfulness and idleness that God is in heaven and all is well with the world so long as India travels on the US bandwagon.

Any long-time observer of Russian-American relations knows that the crisis over Ukraine and NATO expansion are symptomatic of a much larger struggle that began with the US military intervention in Russia to stifle the Bolshevik Revolution. Putin, in his annual press conference last Wednesday, in Moscow, spoke about the historicity of the US aspiration dating back to Woodrow Wilson that ‘the entire world would rest easier if instead of the currently enormous Russia there was a state in Siberia and another four countries in the European part’.

What brings Russia and China into “an absolutely comprehensive partnership of strategic nature” today, to borrow Putin’s words, is also their profound realisation that an invidious common agenda is in play behind the steady build-up of tensions by the US over Ukraine and Taiwan. India cannot afford to miscalculate. Fundamentally, this is about the fate of the five centuries old western dominance of the global order. The US is openly daring Moscow to make a military move in Eastern Europe and is deliberately provoking Beijing over Taiwan almost on a daily basis. The US is apprehensive that within a decade, the global balance will have transformed phenomenally with multipolarity gaining ascendancy in the world order. Its best hope lies in bleeding Russia first and defanging it in Eurasia and to go for China’s jugular vein. Moscow and Beijing understand that they swim or sink together.

India should take utmost care not to get sucked into the big power confrontation. Basically, India faces the same predicament as the ASEAN countries. In practical terms, India, too, should somehow mark its distance from the Quad. Second, India must be vigilant about the US attempts to erode its time-tested friendship with Russia. In uncertain times ahead, India’s robust partnership with Russia is at the core of its calculus. Prime Minister Modi enjoys great trust and mutual confidence with Putin at the personal level. Their mutual understanding is unshakeable. That said, Indo-Russian partnership is not directed at any third party. Moscow knows full well how deeply India cherishes its strategic autonomy. The deployment of the S-400 missile defence system in the face of threat of US sanctions testifies to the resilience of India’s strategic autonomy.

Third, India belongs to the region. The emergent situation demands that India should strengthen its ties with the countries of the surrounding regions. The recent India-Central Asia Dialogue and PM’s invitation to the leaders of that region as chief guests at the Republic Day celebrations are initiatives in the right direction. There is much goodwill towards India in Central Asia, Southeast Asia and West Asia. And, there are really no obstacles to the pursuit of an active, constructive engagement with the regional states.

Finally, there will be interest groups and lobbyists for America, who propagate the seductive thought that India stands to gain if the US undermines China’s development path. They reduce life to game theory. The plain truth is, the US has always exploited India-China relations in its self-interests.

India-China bilateral issues, especially the border dispute, cannot be mixed up with the big power confrontation. It is unrealistic to expect China to give up its stance on the boundary dispute because it is embroiled in a rivalry with the US— just as Beijing knows it is unreasonable to expect Russia to turn its back on its enduring friendship with India because of the Sino-Russian alignment in the grim struggle ahead. The paradox is that the Indo-Russian strategic understanding can serve China’s interests too. There are three platforms — BRICS, SCO and RIC — where Russia, India and China harmonise their common interests.

Peace has prevailed in Ladakh for close to a year and a half. China is not seeking to create new facts on the ground. It seems to be pinning hopes that with tensions steadily lowering and emotions calming down, the diplomats and political leadership can charter a new course. The Chinese commentators visualise that Delhi’s decision to appoint a ‘China hand’ as its next ambassador to China could be a signal that India seeks a ‘breakthrough’. An improvement in relations with China will increase India’s strategic depth if an epochal great power conflict erupts, which cannot be ruled out.