The Russian embassy in New Delhi has denied a report in the Indian media that Moscow, at Pakistan’s behest, sought to keep India out of discussions on Afghanistan. But the Russian position should not come as much of a surprise. Disagreements between India and Russia, on geopolitics, are only likely to grow, and Afghanistan is just one among many such issues. While India and Russia do have some common interests, Moscow has its own imperatives that New Delhi should understand. Russian confrontation with the West broadly, and with the US in particular, forces Moscow to lean more heavily on Beijing. That makes India and Russia less useful to each other for some time to come. It is better to acknowledge this reality and reduce the burden of expectations than continue to act as if this is the same old relationship, which it never ever was.
Russia has been useful to India in some ways, particularly in enhancing Indian military power. But Moscow’s political compulsion to support China is a warning that New Delhi should heed. India’s dependence on Moscow for weapons is a vulnerability that the Indian decision makers need to take more seriously.
Indian diplomacy may be hoping to drive a wedge between Russia and China but this understanding assumes that India can be more useful to Russia than China. This is not very likely, to put it mildly. Similarly, India and Russia can daydream about establishing a “multipolar global order”, but this is not something that can be conjured up because we desire. It simply describes the distribution of power, which is stark: China’s economy is more than three times as large as India’s and Russia’s combined. Asia, taken by itself, is already unipolar, and the world is heading towards a US-China bipolarity. Desire cannot overcome reality.
Between India and Russia is US
The source of divergence between Indian and Russian interests lies in the continuing problems that Russia faces in its relations with the US. There can be little doubt that the US was, at the least, careless in how it treated Russia in the decade after the end of the Cold War. There can be equally little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behaviour on a range of issues, from Ukraine, to the poisoning of Russian dissidents in the West, to his efforts to meddle in the 2016 US presidential elections, all antagonised the US. Former US President Donald Trump may have had a bit of a soft corner for Putin’s muscular preening, but even his own administration’s response to Russia was not particularly soft. President Biden and his administration is likely to be tougher, as seen during the first conversation between him and Putin. The just-released Biden ‘interim’ strategic guidance document begins by pointing at the “growing rivalry with China, Russia and other authoritarian states”.
Putin has shown little indication that he will soften towards the West either. These are early days, of course, and things may change – the two countries did agree to extend the New START nuclear arms treaty just three weeks after Biden took over. But it is difficult to see much cooperation or even a reduction in tensions between the two sides in the immediate future.
The consequence of this confrontation is that Moscow has increasingly leaned on China both for support as well as a way to undermine American power. The military relationship between the two has become increasingly close: in addition to conventional weapons, Russia is also helping China set up its missile early warning system, one of the most sensitive bits of technology for any nuclear power. Particularly striking is what has primarily been an arms supply relationship has become increasingly broader, at least from Moscow’s perspective.
Last October, Putin even said that he would not rule out a military alliance between the two countries, a remark that Chinese officials did not endorse but did not reject either. Russia has also taken a harsh and sometimes undiplomatic posture towards the Indo-Pacific, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov characterising the Quad as an anti-China game that the US is pushing India towards – much to India’s discomfiture. As the latest Quad summit demonstrates, despite Moscow’s opposition, India clearly sees the grouping as a necessary response to China. Moscow’s game may be designed to undermine the US’ role in the region or to ensure that Washington and China continue to scuffle, for that is what serves Russia best. But it does not serve India at all because it is China’s potential hegemony over Asia that New Delhi should fear more, not American power. It is American weakness, either in capability or willingness, that would hurt India.
Who benefits whom, between the four of them
The widening gulf between India and Russia does serve China, however, as does the rift between Moscow and Washington. With an economy about half the size of India’s, Russia is not much of a competitor to China. But Russia can still be a source of high-technology weapons for China. China’s broader technological base surpasses Russia’s but it still has the odd weakness: it flies a fifth-generation fighter jet but it needs a Russian engine, a dependance that Beijing is clearly unhappy with. More importantly, Russia provides useful political support for Beijing at a time when China has antagonised many other powers.
Like all international partnerships, including India-Russia relations, the China-Russia partnership is one of convenience. But the conditions that gave rise to it are unlikely to change in the near future. Indian policy should acknowledge this and adjust accordingly.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.