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An insider look into what Russia actually thinks of India

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The fundamental challenge is that our relations with Russia are massively concentrated on defence trade.

Last week, several members of India and Russia’s think tank community sat down for two days of conversation in Moscow. Since so much of our knowledge on Russian affairs comes filtered either through the prism of Western reportage or though pro-establishment Russian media, engaging in closed-door discussions with leading intellectuals and policy influencers was particularly valuable. Here are some of my impressions after participating in the talks.

First, what came across quite clearly is that the Russian establishment sees itself in a state of siege. US sanctions have raised international pressure on the country — even if the Russians are loath to admit — and are pushing Moscow into greater isolation. Consequently, the paranoia of the siege mentality colours both elite and popular perceptions of international events. So the Russians might see, say, India’s closer engagement of the United States, Australia and Japan, in the form of the Quad, as partly inimical to their own interests. They are aware but do not give too much credence to the argument that the Quad is part of India’s effort to manage China’s rising power in our extended neighbourhood.

Second, our Russian interlocutors uniformly disliked the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. They see the term as an American construct to preserve US dominance in the region. They are miffed that the Indo-Pacific, which they see as implicitly excluding Russia, has replaced the term ‘Asia-Pacific’, which included them. Again, they are aware but don’t think important the Indian argument that ‘Asia-Pacific’ excluded us, while ‘Indo-Pacific’ doesn’t. It’s not merely semantics, because political, economic and security arrangements follow how a region is defined, and the Russians are having major FOMO.

Also read: Beyond defence deals like S-400, there’s not much left to India-Russia ties

Third, the Russians are quite aware that China is a long-term threat to them, not least in the Far East where their border divides regions with massive demographic asymmetry. Population densities on the Chinese side of the border can be ten to a hundred times higher than on the Russian side. Further, Chinese influence is fast rising in the Central Asian republics that have long been in Russia’s sphere of influence. Yet, the Russians say they have no choice but to get onto the same side as China in the short-term, both for reasons of domestic economy as well as international politics. Therefore, where China is undermining the Western-created liberal international order in order to remake it to suit its own interests, Russia is mostly playing along.

This is the second mistake the West made over the past two decades. The first was to underwrite China’s rise as a global power in the hope that it would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the extant world order. The second was to push the boundaries of the European Union and NATO across what Russia saw as its geopolitical red lines. Western support for the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine fifteen years ago turned the Russia establishment into an adversary. In other words, the West not only nurtured its own strategic challenger, but also went on to provide it with a very useful ally.

Fourth, while seeking Indian support in their contest with the United States, the Russians have begun to use Pakistan as a bogey to persuade New Delhi. One Russian analyst explicitly warned us that they would sell advanced military equipment to Pakistan — including fighter aircraft and helicopters — should the order book from India decline further. None of my colleagues at the conference blinked, but it appeared to me that the Russians were getting somewhat desperate with New Delhi’s drifting away.

So, what should we make of our relations with Russia?

Also read: Trump turned down R-day 2019 invite in August, did not want to see Russian armoury floats

The fundamental challenge remains that our relations with Russia are massively concentrated on defence trade. It is best to purchase defence equipment from a country with whom we have broad and deep trade relations; failing which, to try and build such relations with the country we’re buying arms from. Russia falls into the latter category. Yet, bilateral trade has remained around $10 billion for years, with the balance being in Russia’s favour. India trades more with Venezuela, Belgium and South Africa. To be sure, New Delhi has been aware of this. If you look at joint statements, you’ll find the need to expand trade and investment mentioned several times. Official targets have been set for trade and investment.

Unfortunately, setting targets is very different from achieving them. That’s because in the Indian economy, at least, it is the private sector that drives trade and investment. I found that many of our Russian interlocutors had yet to appreciate that the Indian economy was driven by private industry and entrepreneurs, and that the latter had to be courted from Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and other hubs of growth.

To be sure, governments can facilitate greater trade through measures such as permitting invoicing in local currencies. Yet, for trade to take off, businesspeople in both countries must be interested to explore and exploit opportunities. That they are not doing so merely suggests that there are lower-hanging fruits elsewhere.

Will this happen? Or should the ‘normal’ in India-Russia relationship be geopolitical opportunism and transactional arms trade? It’s hard to tell. It’s worth making the effort though, as long as it’s possible to buy Russian gear without having to buy their line too.

Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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  1. US is directly responsible for pushing Russia into Chinese orbit in 2014 by overthrowing Russia backed president in Ukraine and meddling with oil prices to punish Russia for annexation of Crimea .. I think we are not vociferously speaking against such American aggression against interests of russians.. Go to Moscow and Washington as an Indian and we will realize although we have common language(english) with American but can’t understand single Russian phrase… But it’s the Russian people warmth and respect towards India that any Indian will easily feel but not in US. I guess this article is written by an Indian-American who fails to understand Russian/Soviet contributions towards Indian military infrastructure from many decades and that it’s natural respect for India which we don’t get from any country in world…

  2. Did the author also see any hint of Russian proclivity to ‘meddle’ in Indian General elections? The way Madam Sonia Gandhi paid a visit to Russia twice in six months, in April and September 2018, followed by an uncharacteristic haste by present government for defence equipment procurement from Russia (S-400 without offset clause, choppers, rifles, Igla missiles and a whole host of stuff), suggests that something is not easy about the Russian bear in the room…

  3. India sells itself to whoever is willing to give more without realizing the fundamental folly of this. So desperate for American approval they are willing to ignore decades of US aid to Pakistan that was subsequently used against India. Were it not for the Soviets, who knows what the US would have done when it moved a carrier strike group into the Bay of Bengal in 1971. Not only has America emboldened and contributed to Pakistan and China for decades, but they are the reason the Taliban was even armed. Russia was an all weather friend to India and the only reason China anr Pakistan and the US didn’t press further. Now they need India more than they did in the past and what is India doing? Bending over backwards for american acceptance. Those same jets and hardware the US sells is also in the hands of Pakistan and other nations. The US doesn’t care it. It only needs India as a hedge against China now. If I was Russia, I would tell India go to the Americans. Russia could easily sell its military hardware to Pakistan but does not out of respect and deference to India.

  4. A good article. I have been making this point ever since Trump’s election when the deep state (i.e. War Profiteers and the US-NATO-Sunni Axis opinion and decision makers within the CIA, FBI and US media) bucked and hog tied Trump to junk his election speeches and go back to loving the Sunnis and hating Russia:I have been writing of the Deep State created by Nixon. Kissinger and the Tent of Saud which promoted Pakistan and China to contain India and the Soviet Union since the 1970s. One must also remember that it was Pakistan that brokered the entente cordiale between the US and China and that Pakistan received the Islamic Bomb from the US (A.Q Khan et al) before China began to supply it with nukes and missiles.

    “This is the second mistake the West made over the past two decades. The first was to underwrite China’s rise as a global power in the hope that it would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the extant world order. The second was to push the boundaries of the European Union and NATO across what Russia saw as its geopolitical red lines. Western support for the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine fifteen years ago turned the Russia establishment into an adversary. In other words, the West not only nurtured its own strategic challenger, but also went on to provide it with a very useful ally.”

  5. I think Russia has already explored prospects to engage with Pakistan. President Putin’s visit to Pak in near future will take Pak Russian relations to a new level. Russia will further drift away from India in years to come.

  6. This is an important relationship that India should continue to nurture. Since the Russian economy is overly dependent on natural resources, is not as well diversified as its level of technological sophistication makes possible, the modest figures of two way trade, barring military hardware, will likely endure.

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