What happens when an old friend becomes close to your adversary? What if that old friend is not really a meaningful friend anymore, but decades of friendship makes you inherently dependent on her or him? And, what if this old friend hardly has anything to gain from your adversary, but is still forced to remain friends with them?
Yes, we are talking about the complicated dynamic between Russia, India, and China.
The past couple of days have involved Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh taking a trip to Russia, New Delhi holding trilateral discussions with Moscow and Beijing, and the Chinese army venturing into yet another portion of Indian territory in Ladakh – this time the Depsang plains.
These events, on one hand, are making New Delhi realise the cost of ignoring the widening gulf between India and China’s economic and military power. On the other hand, it is making India face a question it has been brushing under the carpet — what should it do about Russia?
As MIT professor Vipin Narang astutely pointed out, the thorn in Indo-US ties is the fact that a large portion of Indian weapons continue to be from Russia. So how do Indian and American military fight together if their machinery is worlds apart?
While such logistical concerns and India’s immediate geopolitical environment are important considerations, if New Delhi wants to fundamentally rethink ties with a somewhat global power like Russia, looking beyond these issues is necessary.
Looking at Russia beyond South Asia
There is a long-held tendency among South Asian strategists to focus squarely on their neighborhood, and ignore developments across the world. Although, if one looks at the history of Indian foreign policy during the colonial era or the Cold War period, policymakers had to constantly grapple with developments around the world.
Over the past few years, there is an increasing tendency to look at Russian strategic worldview from the narrow lens of its impact in South Asia. Thus, while New Delhi continues to buy weapons from Moscow, analysts in India are often miffed by the fact that Russia would hold a military exercise with Pakistan.
Never mind that India’s ties with the US, which are closer than ever, could probably illicit some reaction from Russia. Such a myopic consideration often limits us from understanding Russia and its foreign policymaking.
Russia is a strange power, not just in terms of how it operates at the international level, but also in how it operates internally. Among hundreds of spooky examples of how things are run Russia, lets recount two of them.
As New Yorker’s editor-in-chief David Remnick has noted, after a section of Soviet Communist party’s leadership indulged in a failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, they appeared for a press briefing where the entire lot was drunk, drowsy and incoherent.
More recently, a “live polio” vaccine developed by Russian researchers in the 1950s is now gaining traction among scientists trying to fight the novel coronavirus. While the vaccine is believed to temporarily keep viral infections away, what makes it controversial is that developers tested it for the time on their own children.
Russia between tactics and strategy
As these cases show, Moscow’s leadership, though seemingly bizarre, has a unique sense of Russian exceptionalism. It is this sense of exceptionalism that gives it an unparalleled willingness to act at the global level. Much more than Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi. But this doesn’t mean Moscow’s actions are always well thought-out, or reflect long-term strategic thinking.
Over the past few years, the goal of Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin can best be described as a ‘party popper for the US’. A quick look at the places where Moscow’s interventions have upset US calculations — Syria, Libya, Venezuela and Cuba — show how Kremlin is hardly building states or allies that can serve long-term Russian interests.
Putin’s worldview is still entrenched in the logics of Cold War, where his only real aim seems to be to weaken the “West” and curtail its influence over Europe. His key adversary is still the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And it is this worldview that led Putin to essentially annex Crimea in 2014, forcing the collective West to gang up against him.
Putin has now forced himself into the arms of the Chinese, as somewhat of a junior ally. Interestingly, the only ideological premise both Moscow and Beijing share is an opposition to the Western-led liberal world order. They would much rather have the world return to one ruled by strong powers, with each boasting its own sphere of influence.
The issue is that while Putin signed on a short-term strategic partnership with China to survive the onslaught by the West, it has turned out to be a license for Beijing to slowly extend its control over regions that were traditionally seen as Russia’s sphere of influence. Whether it is Eastern-Central Europe or Central Asia, it is hard to miss China’s ever-growing footprint.
Regardless of Putin’s success or failure, Russia under him is only interested in regions where it can compete with the US, and for all practical purposes is absent from Asia.
Delhi needs to call out Russia’s bluff
For decision makers in New Delhi, the Russia question is simpler than it might seem. In the immediate future, India is solely focused on the Indo-Pacific. Its foreign policy aim is to ensure that the Asian order doesn’t become a completely Chinese one, so that New Delhi can gradually expand its influence over the region.
Russia features nowhere in India’s Indo-Pacific foreign policy calculus. In this scenario, India’s biggest problem with Russia is its dependency on the latter for its arms’ spare parts. Continuously sourcing spares from Russia and ensuring that Indian weapon systems eventually move away from Russian machinery is no lean task, but it’s not as severe as it seems.
More importantly, the complicated India-Russia-China entanglement that often bothers analysts in New Delhi, might actually not be worth their time after all.
Views are personal.