ThePrint recently published an article titled “Has Russia Hyphenated India & Pakistan? Growing Moscow-Islamabad Ties Have Delhi ‘Worried’”, which cites top sources who shared their concerns about the India-Russia relationship. Nobody should doubt that those said sources veritably exist and sincerely believe in what they said, but it’s arguably the case that their interpretation of events is shaped by a lingering problem of perceptions between Russia and India. Both countries have risen as Great Powers over the past decade and are more confidently asserting their interests outside of their regions. Russia currently pursues what many have simply described as a “balancing” act, while India officially refers to its policy as “multi-alignment”.
They’re essentially the same thing though, and have seen each Great Power expand relations with non-traditional partners such as Pakistan and the US. Neither country is doing so with any intention of harming their traditional partner’s interests, though India seems to interpret Russia’s rapid rapprochement with Pakistan as being against its own. For its part, Russia has repeatedly voiced its concerns about the Quad that India forms a pivotal part of, warning against it being used to contain China at the US’ behest. The Quad is an altogether different topic of conversation and might be analysed in a separate article, but the focus of this one is on how some top Indian sources reportedly regard the recent improvement in Russia-Pakistan relations.
Russia’s balancing act
India’s rise as a Great Power has seen it aspire for regional leadership status in South Asia. There’s no question that New Delhi commands powerful influence in many of the subcontinent’s capitals, but it’ll never be the indisputable leader of South Asia simply due to Pakistan’s existence, especially since the latter is a nuclear-armed State allied with China and facilitating the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) expansion into the region through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This, coupled with historical differences between the two and the three wars between them over Kashmir, means that India very closely observes every one of Pakistan’s international interactions. It’s therefore natural that many in New Delhi are discussing Moscow-Islamabad ties.
Each country’s leadership has its own strategic culture, through which it formulates policy and interprets relevant events of concern for their State. Some observers have wondered whether the evolution of India’s traditional “non-aligned” policy towards “multi-alignment” has led to a gradual shift in the direction of embracing ‘zero-sum’ outlooks in line with the Neo-Realist school of International Relations. In the context of the current analysis, this takes the form of instinctively regarding the improvement in Russia-Pakistan relations as somehow being directed against India or at least partially driven as a response to India’s growing ties with the Quad’s American leader.
It’s of course up to India’s official representatives to publicly articulate their policies, but ThePrint’s report suggests that some of its strategists are influenced by this ‘zero-sum’ outlook in terms of how they regard the impact of Russia-Pakistan relations on their national interest. That’s the wrong interpretation to have since Russia harbours no intention whatsoever of doing anything that could infringe on India’s legitimate interests. That said, it’s understandable why some in New Delhi might be concerned about Islamabad breaking out of their country’s failed containment policy by comprehensively cultivating new economic, energy, diplomatic, investment, and military ties with India’s traditional partner.
Russia has repeatedly reiterated that it respects India and considers the two countries to be in a special and privileged strategic partnership. No matter how rapidly Russia-Pakistan relations improve, they’ll never replace Russia-India ones. Simply because India is a much larger market for Russia, especially when it comes to energy and military exports. Contrary to what some in New Delhi might think, Moscow isn’t hyphenating their country with Islamabad, but balancing relations with both India and Pakistan in accordance with Russia’s grand strategic balancing act, which forms the core of its envisioned Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP). This vision necessitates the establishment of balanced relations with all of the supercontinent’s many countries.
Not a zero-sum game
With this in mind, both Pakistan and India have important roles to play in Russia’s GEP. I co-authored an academic article last year about “Pakistan’s Role In Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership” that was released by the prestigious Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and explored the means through which Moscow could actualise this policy with Islamabad. In the same vein, I also co-authored a complementary piece about “The Prospects Of Russia And India Jointly Leading A New Non-Aligned Movement” for the official journal of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, run by the Russian Foreign Ministry) that elaborated on India’s promising role in Russia’s GEP.
Conceptualising Russia’s new approach to South Asia as hyphenating India and Pakistan unintentionally ignores the grand strategic motives of Moscow’s GEP and the balancing act that lies at the core of this new vision. It, at the very least, belies a subconscious embrace of ‘zero-sum’ thinking, which is at odds with Russia’s win-win intentions. Of course, no policy is perfect, and Russia’s will predictably experience regular recalibration in order to improve its execution in light of changing circumstances, but the GEP has thus far been successful in advancing Moscow’s interests, which its leadership compellingly argues is in harmony with every one of its many partners across the supercontinent.
The lingering problem of perception that lies at the heart of reported disagreements between Russia and India could be rectified if both sides more openly discussed their respective grand strategies of the GEP’s balancing act and “multi-alignment”. Each one has resulted in these two traditional partners cultivating ties with non-traditional partners that just so happen to be historic adversaries of the other. Neither country, however, intends to harm the other’s legitimate interests, and they each sincerely hope that their traditional partner understands the larger context in which these new non-traditional partnerships are being established. More Track II dialogue between Russia and India could help clarify everything and dispel growing misperceptions.
Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst who often writes about South Asia. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)