What clearly appears is we are living in a unipolar world dominated by the USA and the multi-polar world touted for long remains hazy with its contour still not being fleshed out. Another dominant feature of the current world order is the US’s supremacy being challenged by the rise of China. India is feeling insecure with the growing Chinese ambitions and so is the US. Both need each other to contain the rise of China and have become partners to balance the new world order. It is in this context India-Russia relationship has to be placed and contextualized after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Delhi on December 6-7, 2021.
President Putin’s visit to New Delhi has left behind many bright spots to cherish in the India – Russia relationship. However, there are quite a few grey areas that provide food for thought while analyzing this old tried and tested relationship.
High-profile India – Russia defense deal of long-range S-400 ground-to-air missile is fraught with US sanctions that could be evoked against India under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. If this happens it could be much to the detriment of India. Even though the US has not announced any waivers to India about this Russian defense deal it may become a sticky point in the growing India-US relationship.
Related to this is the question of the Arms race in South Asia. India use to accuse the US of arming Pakistan in the cold war era and starting an arms race in South Asia. Now with the procurement of armament from Russia, the table has turned and Pakistan or the US can blame India for starting the arms race in South Asia. In this context, how well the India-US relationship flourishes has left many putting their thinking caps.
The Indo Pacific Quad is another area, where India and Russia have a different perceptions. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has called the Indo-Pacific Quad an unequal partnership and a US strategy to contain Russia more than China. He holds the view that the Asia Pacific may be more appropriate and inclusive terminology than Indo- Pacific quad.
India US, Israel, and UAE are signatories to the Midwestern Quad. This has happened at a time when Russia wants to increase its engagement in the Indian Ocean region and wants India to play an important role to strengthen its diplomatic contact with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). It is with this view; President Putin has signed the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS) with India.
However, this raises the question of how India can play two divergent roles, placating both the US and Russia at the same time.
The situation in Afghanistan was discussed during President Putin’s visit to India but nothing substantial has come out on the views of converge in dealing with Afghanistan. The fact remains that Russia has aligned with China and Pakistan in the Afghan peace process leaving out India and it was expected that President Putin may invite India to join the peace talks being held in Moscow for the reconstruction of Afghanistan but that has never happened. In such a divergent situation how India- Russia relationship can flourish needs to be pondered.
Next comes Russia’s growing relationship with Pakistan. This has happened since India has become a close ally of the US. Russia’s growing closeness with Pakistan can be ascertained by the fact that Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov immediately flew to Islamabad after visiting Delhi in April 2021. Indian policymakers were unhappy about this act, but this underlines the fact that the Russian-Pakistan relationship is growing warmer even though it hurts India.
Then, Russia’s growing closeness with Iran is no hidden fact. Both are on board to meet the challenges posed by their common adversary the US. As a result, Russia and Iran are in close coordination opposing the US in West Asia. In such a situation India caught up either siding with the US or with Russia and Iran is another matter of concern that comes in the way of India- Russia relationship.
The China factor is the most sticking point in the India – Russia relationship. In the changing geopolitical environment, Russia has committed to side with China to contain the US, while India has committed to side with the US to contain China. In such a scenario, how the India-Russia relationship can blossom is a matter of guess.
The highlight of Putin’s visit to India was the arms deal but there was little traction to build an economic relationship between the two countries. India’s trade with Russia remains abysmally low compared to its trade with China. The economic engagements between the two countries remain confined to the government level.
There is not much private sector’s participation in the economic cooperation and it was expected from the Russian President’s visit to Delhi that he may unbox Indo-Russian economic cooperation by bringing in the private players and announcing some joint ventures. However, this has not happened. So what is inferred is Russia’s involvement in India’s national development is of cold war vintage and any new leaf economic cooperation is yet to be added.
We are living in a complex world. In the rivalry between US and China and Russia and the US, how much New Delhi and Moscow can maximize their convergences and minimize divergences is a matter of thought. There are many divergences and convergence in the India- Russia relationship but which will prevail over the other remains unknown. These are the imponderables the new world order has thrown before us. The prevailing geopolitical reality where the India-Russia relationship stands looks to be shrouded in mystery.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org