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To revive an old friendship

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin. File

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin. File  

The Russian Embassy announced that their first-ever joint military exercises with Pakistan, that were initially to be held in the sensitive Gilgit-Baltistan area this week, would be shifted with due respect to Indian sensitivities. Why is India’s time-tested strategic partner engaging with Pakistan at this juncture? Is there a shift in Russian geostrategy and linkage with China that is impacting Moscow’s relations with India? Have India’s own foreign policy shifts and new relations set off a reaction in Russia? The Russia-Pakistan joint exercises raise many questions.

A Russia on the move

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has shown assertiveness in international affairs. It has taken a clear position on opposing Western intervention and militarist regime-change policies in Iraq and Libya and now in Syria. Russia has used counter-force in the fight against the Islamic State in backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It retook the province of Crimea that it had gifted Ukraine in 1954 due to (Soviet) historical reasons. This invited unilateral sanctions on Russia from the U.S. and the European Union. Demonised by the West, Russia has become a strategic partner of China and they have significant convergence of interests.

India as an emerging power has developed a strategic partnership with the U.S. There are real and perceived shifts in Indian armament policies where Russia dominated for years. India has opened up to the U.S., France, Israel, all of whom are gradually edging out the Russians in some sectors. Russia-India trade has not grown to great heights despite the encouragement of both states. Yet India has been supportive of Russian positions and has a careful and calibrated response to all Russian actions — in Chechnya, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, India has supported Russia.

The Russians, on their part, have dutifully backed the Indian position on Kashmir; they share Indian concerns on terrorism; they continue with deep collaborations, providing sensitive technologies, military equipment, nuclear power engines and much more to India. They have a partnership in energy. Yet a Russia dependent on arms and energy exports is constantly looking for new markets and Pakistan is a potential one. The planned exercises were an extension of this search.

Moscow’s Chinese concerns

The reality is that the world situation is one of multipolarity and consequent interdependency, contradictions, compromises and pressures. Countries across the spectrum are building multiple alliances. There is scope for both linkages and dependency. So China, who we think the U.S. is trying to ‘contain’ (and India could get a role in this), has got its yuan accepted as world currency by the International Monetary Fund and the New York branch of Bank of China has been designated as the clearing house for the Chinese official currency, the renminbi. China is leveraging its economy and relationships to build a hegemony (G-2) with the U.S. where both can share international financial domination.

Russia is well aware of this, and has its own concerns about the Chinese dominating Russian markets, exploiting Russian resources, and not backing Russian security concerns. China is enticing countries, including Russia, with its One Belt, One Road plan that will develop huge new linkages and develop trade routes. Pakistan is a satellite state for China. Russia has concerns about Central Asia vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.

In these circumstances, India has to rebuild on its strengths and common concerns with the Russians. They have to revitalise their earlier agreement on sharing intelligence for a joint strategy on terrorism. If India is concerned with state-sponsored terrorism from Pakistan, Russia is concerned with the backing that states are directly or indirectly giving to terror groups in West Asia and Central Asia. India will have to be more forthright in condemning states that on the pretext of regime change or local geopolitics are allowing the growth of terror groups in West Asia.

Balancing new and old allies

Russia and India have common positions and concerns in Afghanistan. Last week the Afghans, in a peace deal backed and welcomed by the U.S. and Pakistan, rehabilitated the mujahideen “butcher of Kabul” and India hater Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. This snubs the Indian and Russian policy of isolating all terrorists and instead has accommodated and compromised with who they wish to label ‘good Taliban’. This policy is an extension of using terrorists for strategic use. Indian and Russian anxieties on terrorism need to converge and bring about some positive outcome.

India has its own military exercises with the U.S. and has signed logistics agreements which can eventually give the U.S. access to Indian naval bases. Is India willing to do the same with Russia? Given the growing U.S.-Russia hostility, has India reassured Russia that this access will not jeopardise Russian interests? If not, it should do so.

India needs to deepen its scientific and technological relations with Russia since a base for this already exists. Often agreements are signed amidst bilateral rhetoric and are not sufficiently followed up. The Russia-India investments in the oil and gas sector and exports to third countries need to be energised. Joint manufacturing needs to be planned. A continuous engagement and follow-up plan need to be made.

India and Russia are engaged in several multilateral efforts that are greatly favoured by Russia such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The BRICS meeting in a few weeks will give a great opportunity for the leaders of these countries to further deepen their engagements. Russia had proposed a Russia-India-China (RIC) forum. India is hesitant about this because of the unresolved issues with China. This has not moved ahead like the BRICS has. Our argument should be, if China can have compromises and contradictions with the U.S., then why not with India? India can use some creative means to build an RIC alliance.

India should use the interdependency and pressure-compromise strategies to leverage its interest to isolate Pakistan. A former U.S. Secretary of State had called Pakistan an international migraine, but then moved on to use it as the U.S. front line in Afghanistan and West Asia. No matter what India gives the U.S., this equation will not change. The U.S. will always have a dual approach to India and Pakistan, because it needs both. Russia, on the other hand, will not. But India has to actively ensure that and not take this strategic partnership for granted.

Leveraging multilateralism

India needs to move on in the international system. In some ways it has, but in other ways it is moving backwards. Its foreign policy is only an extension of its domestic politics. India has to fix its domestic issues to further social cohesion and make special efforts to build bridges between communities. India’s domestic politics has to move towards inclusive democracy, non-militarism, rights and the rule of law. This will give it an edge in the international system. Any dilution would damage it deeply. Indian foreign policy should focus on its strengths of working with the global South, opposing militarist interventions, building norms and depending on multilateralism. India cannot be in denial of its history even as it moves forward.

As far as Russia is concerned, it might appear that there is some strategic shift. But Russia has been pushed into that position. In reality, it knows that India is still its most reliable ally. It has no conflict of interest or anxiety about India as it does about others. India was instrumental in the construction of a multipolar international system. This system has benefitted India and Russia, not to speak of others like China. To retain this, India and Russia need to be active strategic and economic allies. But both will have to make an effort for this.

Anuradha M. Chenoy is a Professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU.

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