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Is it time for damage control in India–Russia ties?

08/03/2021


Is it time for damage control in India–Russia ties?

The 2021 BRICS leaders’ summit, slated to be organised by India as the chair, might present an opportunity to hold the bilateral summit on the same dates.


Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Shringla’s visit to Moscow on 17-18 February — his first trip abroad this year — was an important indication that bilateral mechanisms have been set in motion ahead of the India–Russia annual summit. Bilateral visits by Deputy Prime Minister, Yuri Borisov, and Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to New Delhi are to follow soon. The 2021 BRICS leaders’ summit, slated to be organised by India as the chair, might present an opportunity to hold the bilateral summit on the same dates.

A vertically structured relationship

Last year’s Putin-Modi meet was skipped, provoking much debate in Indian media and the expert community about a rift in the relationship. It was unsurprising that the Russian President Vladimir Putin did not come to Delhi in person, given that he has not been on a foreign visit since January 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, two questions still remain unanswered. First, why was a virtual dialogue not organised? Second, why did senior Russian officials not visit India at a time when their foreign colleagues were interacting with their respective Indian counterparts in-person despite the pandemic?

This is especially relevant given the ‘top-down’ decision-making in the India–Russia relationship, which is part of the problem. As a result, when the annual summit is called off, it leads to suspension of all the preliminary progress, and bilateral cooperation loses momentum. This has been visible in the case of India’s US$ 1 billion line of credit for the Russian Far East announced in September 2019 that is yet to be utilised. Another example is the delay in Reciprocal Logistics Support Agreement, which remains at a protracted finalisation stage.

It could be argued that in the absence of sufficient preparatory work, the agenda for the leaders’ discussion was vague, which became the reason for postponing the summit. To avoid such a situation in the future, a possible solution would be more regular joint ministerial meetings under the ‘2+2’ dialogue format. Both India and Russia have such an arrangement — at the level of foreign and defence ministers — with several other countries. This format has the potential to deal with issues related to the bigger geopolitical picture and might add more dynamism to discussions on bilateral matters. Does India–Russia ‘strategic and privileged partnership’ deserve a closer interaction? Could the ‘2+2’ dialogue bring about more deliverables for the relationship going forward? These are open-ended questions.

Geopolitical bottlenecks

During his visit, apart from meeting with Russian officials, Shringla also had an interaction with renowned professors and aspiring diplomats at the Russian Diplomatic Academy. He also had a separate meeting with Russian strategic affairs experts. This reveals New Delhi’s intent to deliver its vision of the current world situation not only to Russian government but also to civil society representatives whose voice in Russia, though often ignored by decision-makers, still shapes public opinion.

In his remarks at the Diplomatic Academy, the Indian foreign secretary candidly pointed out that “no geopolitical discussion can be complete without a mention of the Indo-Pacific” and elaborated on New Delhi’s vision of the region. He further expressed hope that India and Russia “will agree much more than they will disagree on the strategic direction, the inherent and necessary multi-polarity, and the security and prosperity” in three strategic geographies — “Eurasia, Indo-Pacific and the Russian Far East, and the Arctic.”

Shringla’s remarks on the Indo-Pacific are particularly significant against the backdrop of the December 2020 comments by Lavrov in which he yet again lambasted American “Indo-Pacific strategies,” “anti-China games” and presumed that India had been an object of Washington’s “tough pressure” on defence cooperation. Lavrov resorted to some damage control a month later, calling India a “very close, very strategic, and very privileged partner.” These words, however, scarcely cover up divergent views on the Indo-Pacific since in the same statement Russia’s top diplomat juxtaposed India’s inclusive approach toward the region with “confrontational” ones of the US, Japan, and Australia.

Despite the never-ending Moscow’s critique of the Indo-Pacific and Quad — something that obviously does not sound appealing to the Indian government — New Delhi has been consistent in its efforts to promote links between the Indo-Pacific and the Russian Far East. Speaking in Vladivostok in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi predicted that “the Far East will become a confluence of the Eurasian Union on one side and the open, free, and inclusive Indo-Pacific on the other.” That proposition has started to materialise with experts from India, Russia, and Japan mulling over the prospects for trilateral cooperation in the Russian far-eastern region. The willingness of India and Russia to promote regional cooperation is also visible in proposals for joint economic projects in the Far East and the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime trade route.

However, it is highly unlikely that Moscow will change its mind on the idea of the Indo-Pacific soon — the whole concept being seen only through the prism of the US’ strategic documents labelling Russia as a ‘malign actor.’ Apart from this, the changing situation in South Asia adds a complex strategic background to the Moscow–New Delhi partnership.

The Afghan crisis is far from being settled. While Russia and India realise the changing dynamics in the war-torn country, they have stuck to different positions. After a period of inactivity, Russia is back again at the forefront of peace efforts, proposing itself as the venue for intra-Afghan talks as well as ‘major external stakeholders,’ or “enlarged troika” meeting. Earlier this year, Moscow accorded a warm welcome to the Taliban delegation led by Deputy Peace Negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai. Then, on 17th February, the Afghan crisis was discussed at Lavrov-Shringla talks and two days later Zamir Kabulov, Kremlin’s point person on Afghanistan, visited Islamabad where he met Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Kabulov in his recent interview to Sputnik said that Russia believes that the Taliban adheres to the Doha agreement “almost flawlessly… which cannot be said about the Americans.” While Russia demonstrates profound understanding of and even some respect for Taliban’s objectives and demands, India holds the Taliban responsible for atrocities in Afghanistan that inhibit peace in the country. As Shringla stated in his speech in Moscow, “[t]he rise in violence and targeted killings of Afghan activists is not conducive to the ongoing peace process.”

Here the role of Pakistan can hardly be ignored, wherein Russia’s outreach no longer seems innocent. This is an increasingly cosy relationship backed by common interests. Moscow and Islamabad seem to view the Afghan endgame in a similar fashion — without Ashraf Ghani and his cabinet, and with some interim structure including an adequate number of Taliban’s representatives. There is a caveat though: Unlike Pakistan, Russia believes that an Afghanistan entirely under Taliban’s governance is a bad idea and does not endorse Taliban’s rhetoric on the Islamic Emirate.

The growing consensus on the Afghan conundrum is only part of Russia–Pakistan dialogue, which is also propped up by joint energy projects and potential defence cooperation. Several Russian media, quoting Gen. Bajwa, have reported recently about Islamabad’s “contracts with Russia on supplies of anti-tank weapon systems, air defence systems, and small arms.”

This report was not confirmed officially, but neither was it denied by the Russian side. A deal, perhaps a more limited one than Pakistan would want, seems quite possible as Moscow appears to be making overtures for defence exports to Pakistan, regardless of India’s requests to follow ‘a policy of no arms supply to Pakistan.’

On top of all these frictions, it is the ‘Russia plus China’ equation that should worry New Delhi the most. Russia has seen increased political, economic, and military cooperation with China. This also stems from their relationship with the West, in particular the US “dual containment policy” against the two.

However, not withstanding its close partnership with Beijing, Moscow has refused to take sides between India and China. It is interested in a good relationship between its two Asian partners, and works hard to strike a fine balance between them. This was evident in its posture during the India–China standoff in eastern Ladakh in 2020. Russia expedited military supplies to India several weeks after the Galwan clash having “responded positively to every defence requirement that India had.” This is in line with Beijing and Moscow being reluctant to back each other up on territorial disputes. May this approach change in the future?

It is clear that Russia’s ties with the West will remain strained for the remaining period of Putin’s presidency, and it will continue to gravitate, even if with some setbacks, towards China. Given the nature and structure of Russia-China cooperation, Moscow’s dependence on Beijing is prone to grow further which may be fraught with consequences.

The navigation between conflicting interests across Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific will define the trajectory of India-Russia ties in the near-term. With many variables at play, unless the two manage to marry their aspirations and goals in strategic geographies, the road ahead may turn even more bumpy than before.

Author: Aleksei Zakharov is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences and previously was a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

Source: Is it time for damage control in India–Russia ties? | ORF (orfonline.org) 

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