External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar described the talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov as “excellent” that reflects the “Special and Privileged Partnership” between the two countries. And Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Russia and a stopover in Tehran indicates something is changing, especially because Jaishankar also followed the same route. New Delhi is attempting to forge a new regional alliance and Moscow is slowly appearing to move away from Beijing.
During his visit, Rajnath Singh lauded the ‘steadfast support’ provided by Russia in response to India’s defence and security needs. Notwithstanding the stark reality of geopolitics, in which Russia no more enjoys the power of the Cold War era, New Delhi values Kremlin’s friendship highly. Importantly, it is necessary to wean Russia away from the ongoing China-Iran-Russia partnership.
Deepening defence ties
In the wake of heightened tensions between India and China, Russia has agreed to speed up the supply of 33 fighter jets, a deal signed after Prime Minister Narendra Modi “warmly congratulated” Russian President Vladimir Putin on the constitutional reforms allowing him to continue to be number one in political hierarchy till 2026.
According to Russia’s Federal Service for Military and Technical cooperation (FSVTS), India has ordered for a huge $14.5 billion worth of defence equipment between 2018 and 2019, including the $5 billion purchase of S-400 air defense missile system. All this, in spite of the serious threat of sanctions from the US. Besides the supply of Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 1135.6P/M) guided-missile frigates to the Indian Navy, and other ammunitions to the Air Force and Army, the India-Russia deal inked by PM Modi and President Putin last year includes greater engagements in energy and shipping sectors as well that will take the bilateral trade to about $30 billion by 2025. After the US, Russia is the second-largest defence exporter of the world, a status not likely to be altered by Beijing in the near future.
Despite New Delhi’s diversifying basket of defence purchases, Russia’s defence exports to India still accounts for 58 per cent of our total defence imports and is likely to almost double in the next few years. This will be more than Russia’s share of defence exports to China by the year 2030. From 2012 to 2016, India imported 68 per cent of its defence equipment from Russia while China imported 57 per cent. But from 2016 to 2019, the Russian arms export to China went up to 76 per cent.
Except India, Russia has no other major defence equipment buyer, especially in the region. Much to the discomfort of the domestic ‘comrades’, Russia is, by and large, a regional power now, with limited influence in the rest of the world.
Russia’s Asian dependence
India-Russia friendship and cooperation in the fields of industrial, technical, space and nuclear advancements is nearly seven decades old now. Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 1971, came at a time when the US was against India and China feigned to stay neutral while tilting towards Pakistan. China recognised Bangladesh only in 1975.
Post-Cold War, Russia inherited the (treaty) obligations of the erstwhile USSR, retained the UNSC membership, but seriously began looking for a new identity, shorn of ideology. Russia finally moved towards Atlanticism, (though it majorly involved closer ties with the US, which Russia did not relish) and found its roots in Europe. Vladimir Putin, after assuming office in 2000, made the much-needed course correction, admitting that Russia is part of European culture. “Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world. So it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy,” Putin had said in an interview to the BBC in 2000.
But, with Brexit and a number of European Union economies struggling economically, Russia will have to depend more on its Asian cousins. The Coronavirus pandemic has effected tectonic shifts in regional and global geopolitics, bringing about an unprecedented economic decline. The two decades of trade-oriented power supremacy has completely destroyed the already creaking power pecking order and global institutional frameworks.
The US is aware of the fact that the post-Cold War order has collapsed and with the emergence of ‘not-so-peaceful’ China, the immediate challenge is to its own position of pre-eminence in global affairs. Strategic community in the US could be looking to formulate a second Containment policy — this time to target China. The first had followed the containment of the Soviet Union. This time, the ‘Soviet satellite states’ will have to be substituted with the ‘Chinese satellites’ States, like Pakistan and countries that have got inextricably intertwined in Beijing’s Belt and Road debt trap. The emerging Indo-Pacific framework will provide a larger base for almost half of the UN member countries from all the continents to forge a new trade and investment bloc. The new rules of engagement will need a balanced approach based on cooperation and mutual respect among countries. Why will Russia prefer to be part of a new power structure where rules are written by a hegemonic China?
Like the Indian political establishment, Putin, too, must be betting on the return of Donald Trump as US President for another term. An anti-China Trump will help keep the pressure on Beijing and work as a dampener for China’s aggressive moves in the region, in the immediate neighbourhood, in South China Sea, and more importantly, in countries which were once under Russia’s political and economic influence.
New Delhi has put its best diplomatic foot forward. But much more needs to be done as far as economic engagement with our neighbours is concerned. A renewed India-Russia-US axis, moving closely with a more realistic approach towards an Indo-Pacific structure, will give India a great advantage. What is important is to set our own house in order, improve our economic fundamentals and increase global alliance partners without compromising with our strategic autonomy.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.
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