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From Russia with drift: Why the Delhi-Moscow romance is now a fading diplomatic relationship

On the surface, there appears a semblance of normalcy — even bonhomie — as it seemed when Putin flew down to Delhi in December. But the faultlines are emerging & widening.

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New Delhi: The decades-old traditional friendship between India and Russia is facing unprecedented stress as Moscow grows ever closer to Beijing and their tango is also bringing Islamabad under its tight embrace.

On the surface, there appears a semblance of normalcy — even bonhomie — as it seemed when President Vladimir Putin flew down to New Delhi for a few hours in December, in itself a rare foreign visit by him during the pandemic, and held summit talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two countries also launched 2+2 talks between their defence and foreign ministers.

But, below the surface, the faultlines are emerging and widening, diplomatic observers and analysts said, with one going so far as to characterise the relationship as one that is “steadily drifting away”. This, for instance, could be seen in the latest meeting between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, where both leaders stressed on the “negative impact” of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the analysts said.

India, which has taken note of the joint statement issued by Russia and China, has made it clear that the Indo-Pacific strategic framework remains the cornerstone of its foreign policy and will be so going forward.

Bilateral ties between India and Russia have traditionally always been more transactional than strategic, diplomatic and strategic sources have told ThePrint.

“The Cold War era is long gone from India’s foreign policy. Only its shadow remains. Today, the world is in a very different situation where geostrategic shifts are such that groupings between like-minded countries are vital for maintaining a global world order,” said a top-level source, who refused to be identified.

When both Presidents Putin and Xi met on the sidelines of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, they discussed their concerns over “serious international security challenges”, while vowing to develop cooperation within the Russia-India-China framework, according to the joint statement.

The joint statement, which has made South Block sit up and take notice, also stated that both Russia and China “stand against the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region”, hinting at the Quad, and urged countries to “remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region”.

Also read: India-Russia ties are ‘back on track’ — that’s the message from Putin visit and 2+2 talks

Vociferous critics of the Quad

Russia and China both have also been vociferous critics of the Quad grouping that consists of India, US, Australia and Japan. The next Quad summit is expected to be held in Japan within the first half of this year.

“The nature of US-China-Russia dynamics is important for India. When the US-Russia stand-off worsens, the Russia-China embrace tightens. As for India, we have always been worried about Russia-China relations reaching a strategic level, where they impact our core interests,” P.S. Raghavan, former ambassador of India to Russia and former chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, told ThePrint.

Raghavan, who has had diplomatic assignments in the erstwhile USSR, UK and Poland, among others, said, “President Putin consistently tells our leadership that Russia-China relations will never be allowed to threaten India’s core interests. But we always have to be vigilant about this, especially if US hostility to Russia leaves it with no room for autonomy vis-a-vis China.”

However, he said, “Russia also knows that it has to be careful to play this fine balance between India and China”.

“Having said that, it is also true that Russia will pursue its own foreign policy interests and we don’t have exclusivity in our relationship with Moscow. With India’s close relations with the US and engagement with the Quad and Indo-Pacific initiatives, Russia sees no reason why it cannot have a more nuanced South Asian policy.”

According to Derek J. Grossman, senior defence analyst at RAND Corporation, the India-Russia relationship is “steadily drifting away”.

“I saw no concrete policy deliverables when Putin visited India in December, except for the delivery of the final S-400 package. The relationship, in my view, is steadily drifting away. Yet, India depends on Russian and Soviet military equipment and so New Delhi believes it needs to keep this pipeline open,” Grossman told ThePrint from California.

“New Delhi also oddly believes that close ties with Moscow can offset Beijing, but this, to date, hasn’t come to fruition. Indeed, the opposite has been happening, most recently underscored by Putin and Xi’s meetup at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics,” he added. 

Imran Khan’s Russia visit a concern for India

Earlier this month, Russia came under fire from social media users in India when one of their news media outlets, Redfish Media — affiliated to the Russian media company RT — released the trailer for a documentary on Kashmir, likening the situation there with that in Palestine.

However, the film was subsequently postponed, citing threats, as the Russian government went into a damage control mode by distancing itself from the documentary.

The discourse around the documentary came at a time when India has chosen to take a neutral position over the growing Ukraine crisis, and as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan readies to visit Moscow — the first prime minister of that country to visit Russia on a bilateral trip in 23 years.

According to sources, India will be closely monitoring the visit, as New Delhi believes this has the potential to open up new channels of geostrategic alignments between Russia-China-Pakistan as a “counter” to Quad, said sources.

While the date of the visit has not yet been announced officially, the Kremlin said in a statement on 7 February that “arrangements are being made for such a visit”. The visit follows a phone conversation between Putin and Khan in January this year.

Bilateral ties between China and Russia are “perhaps the closest” at present, “forged out of a common desire to counter perceived US hegemony and US-inspired ‘colour revolutions’ against authoritarian regimes”, said Grossman.  

“I think China and Russia’s close ties are facilitating a Russia-Pakistan friendship, and we’ll learn more when PM Khan visits Moscow later this month. My sense is Putin will sometime soon become the first Russian leader to ever visit Pakistan, and India won’t be pleased,” he added.

Russia, India’s main source of military hardware

India continues to depend on Russia for its military hardware — it remains the topmost arms supplier for New Delhi, accounting for about 60 per cent of the country’s total arms imports.

Despite the threat of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which stipulates US sanctions on countries that procure arms from Russia, New Delhi and Moscow have finalised the deployment of the first regiment of S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile defence system.

India and Russia expanded their defence cooperation in 2021 by holding the first ever 2+2 talks between the foreign and defence ministries on both sides. 

They also extended the Programme for Military Technical Cooperation for another 10 years, and several other deals continue to remain in the pipeline, including for Kamov-31 and Mi-17 helicopters, and the supply of the multiple rocket launcher Smerch.

During Putin’s December visit to New Delhi, both sides had issued a joint statement that had 99 points in it, although tangible outcomes were quite limited.

Yet, strategically, both countries are still far apart from each other.

“So, why does India persist with Russia? I think most of it is related to refusing to admit that circumstances have changed, but some of it is also related to Modi’s shift from strict non-alignment to multi-alignment policy that seeks to deepen ties with all powers that can support India — and they really still seem to believe Russia can help,” Grossman added.

Now, with Pakistan eyeing a long-term relationship with Russia, concerns of an arms programme between them will bother India.

“Under today’s changed circumstances, it is quite possible that the Pakistani PM may visit Moscow sooner rather than later. But I don’t think Russia will oblige Pakistan with support on Kashmir. Whenever Pakistan tries to get this, the Russians fall back on the importance of the Simla and Lahore agreements,” said Raghavan.

He added, “But again, we have to be vigilant that they shouldn’t cross our red lines, especially on military cooperation. In this, of course, Putin is the only Russian leader with the authority to decide on defence exports of any significance.”

Also read: Here’s why India-Russia rift will deepen with Ukraine crisis. It’s foolish thinking otherwise

Taliban in Afghanistan a major factor

Yet another factor that is probably compelling Russia to build bridges with Pakistan is that of a changed Afghanistan and the Taliban dispensation there.

Raghavan believes Islamabad and Moscow have developed a bilateral economic cooperation because the former “provides Russia with some Taliban contacts in Afghanistan”.

Even before the Taliban came to power, Russia was teaming up with Pakistan in order to have a dialogue with the Islamist group, added sources.

“China, Russia, and Pakistan all seem to generally be on the same page with the Taliban in Afghanistan. All three want stability and are likely to countenance an extremist regime so long as it doesn’t provide a safe haven for attacks against them, as had happened in the pre-9/11 era,” said Grossman.

“China-Pakistan relations continue to deepen to offset India’s growing power,” he added, citing China’s sale of 50 new JF-17 fighter jets to Pakistan.

Ukraine crisis also has a role to play

With the Ukraine crisis deepening by the day and with Washington’s warning about a possible Russian invasion triggering panic all around Europe, the spotlight has once again fallen on India-Russia ties, and whose side New Delhi will take in the event a war.

India has taken a neutral stance on the Ukraine issue, calling for a diplomatic solution to mitigate the crisis. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was careful about not being drawn into a criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine at the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting last week.

“What is going on now on Ukraine’s borders is a drama that should head towards some kind of an accommodation, unless there is a bad miscalculation somewhere. President Biden clearly signalled in June last year that he is trying to establish a modus vivendi with Russia to be able to focus on his more pressing domestic agenda and his principal external challenge — China. And Putin is ratcheting up the Ukraine crisis probably as a tactic to get himself the best deal from Biden,” highlighted Raghavan.

“Unless some hotheads create a major provocation somewhere, we should see a face-saving package in the not too distant future,” he said.

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi) 

Also read: No, Russia-India chasm isn’t deepening with Ukraine. It counters US’ divide-and-rule ploy


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