The official read on the summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 6, alongside the inaugural 2+2 meeting of the foreign and defence ministers of both countries — respectively S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh, and Sergei Lavrov and General Sergey Shoygu, is too sanguine for comfort.
Because the Indian foreign policy is dictated less by geostrategics or long-term policy calculations than by immediate tactical political concerns, in the instant case, the need apparently is to pacify Moscow. So, the Modi regime is doing what Indian governments have done in the new millennium to get big powers on its side by appeasing them with arms purchases. To palliate Moscow, a draft mutual military logistics support agreement, similar to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement signed with America in 2019, has been readied to strategically equalise the situation. It is topped by a new spate of arms contracts for short-range air defence systems, helicopters, assault rifles, etc worth over $5 billion.
This is in line with balancing India’s buys from the US over the last 20 years for mostly 1960s vintage military technology – M-777 light howitzers, C-130 and C-17 transport planes, and in New Delhi’s acquiescing in Washington’s ploy to use the 2012 Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) not to promote any worthwhile collaboration in the military high-tech sphere, as was promised, but to push for production of obsolete American weapons systems in India, such as the 1970s vintage F-16 fighter aircraft.
All this because Washington is convinced the Narendra Modi government values the fact of the production of something/anything in India, and not what is produced. It suggests the confusion at the heart of Modi’s Atmanirbharta programme and his government’s failure to use DTTI to pit the high-quality military hardware Russia provides along with technology transfer against the dated tech the US offers to make the point that the differential in technology and the American unwillingness to part with high-end tech are too significant a factor to ignore. That’s the kind of plain talk Americans understand but the Indian side is reluctant to deploy.
This is the arms supply scene in a nutshell and the backdrop for the Modi-Putin summit. The trouble is this meeting comes at a difficult time.
What restricts Russia
Western intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian government, and NATO, which are tracking real-time build-up and offensive manoeuvring by 100,000 Russian troops in the Donbas region of the border with Ukraine — a former constituent republic of the USSR and now member of NATO — believe an invasion is imminent. Moscow long ago made it clear it would not countenance an expansion of NATO, and to prove it is serious, snatched Crimea from Ukraine in Spring of 2014 and wants to add parts of eastern Ukraine, to its bag if it can. Russia has drawn the “red line”, indicating Ukraine is within its sphere of influence. The Biden Administration has responded by promising to beef up Ukrainian defence capability.
Short of a Russian invasion, that’s where matters will stand. Except, determined to dominate its periphery, Putin could create an international flashpoint by using some Ukrainian defensive step as pretext to attack.
If Moscow initiates hostilities, New Delhi can expect to be squeezed into a power play. Washington will demand that India, as a fellow democracy, act in concert with the West to oppose Russian aggression. Depending on the timing of possible Russian hostilities, the 9 December virtual conference of democracies called by President Joe Biden to which India and Pakistan are invited — the old hyphenation there? — but, strangely, not Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, could end up as a means of pressing Modi to join the “democratic” consensus on Ukraine and pressure his government, which mistakenly believes India is in no position to resist.
Putin, on the other hand, will expect India to be mindful of Russia liberally dispensing advanced weaponry and sensitive military technology (think Arihant-class nuclear powered ballistic missile-firing submarines!). He will hope that New Delhi will say or do nothing to irk Russia. Whether Modi will be able to side with Washington — how much and how successfully, without upsetting Russia, is the game to look out for.
In this regard, Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh in their 2+2 meeting will no doubt make much of New Delhi risking punitive provisions in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA to stick with the $5.43 billion deal for five squadrons of the Russian S-400 air defence system.
However, there was never any chance of CAATSA being invoked because the US has too much to lose strategically if it does so. India is central to the security of the ‘Indo’ part of the Indo-Pacific and pivotal to holding off China, especially with President Xi Jinping itching to validate his newly acquired “helmsman” status by precipitating a showdown on Taiwan. Washington also doesn’t want to lose the political foothold it has gained in New Delhi over the last 25 years, courtesy Indian PMs putting out for the US, and a host of American think tanks who have set up shop in New Delhi and are manned by retired civil servants, senior military officers and diplomats peddling US-tilting policy options to the government.
Pakistan: Russia’s leverage against India
Except, there’s Putin. No slouch at the strategic chess game, the Russian President has already made a blocking move, putting in place Russia’s new Pakistan policy to ensure Modi does not deviate much, or go overboard on Ukraine, or other combustible issues. Sometime back, Moscow agreed to sell assault helicopters to the Pakistan army. On 26 November, Moscow and Islamabad initialled a wide-ranging draft-accord for economic cooperation, topped by a proposal for a 1,100km long north-south gas pipeline to stream 12.4 billion cubic metres of Russian gas to Pakistan, a deal to be formalised by February 2022, and for collaboration in the telecommunications, information technology, and various other fields.
Should New Delhi not heed these warnings, Putin will surely up the ante. Instead of making do with second-rate Chinese copies of Russian hardware (JF-17, a Chinese version of MiG-21), Pakistan may be able to access the latest and progressively more advanced Russian military equipment.
The geopolitics-minded Putin will not push India beyond a point though. He wants India in Russia’s corner as he expects relations with China to sour sooner rather than later, owing to clashing interests and friction points. Among these is the Russian fear of Chinese annexation by stealth of natural resources-rich Siberia. There’s already a flood of Chinese petty businessmen and labourers settling down in the Siberian districts adjoining the Chinese border, taking local Russian wives, and spawning not just a new breed of colonisers of the vast empty spaces in the Russian Far East but a consequential demographic creep that could lead to Chinese-origin people becoming a majority, in time to buttress Beijing’s claims on that part of Russian territory. Beijing is, after all, expert at alluding to some historical event or the other of a Chinese emperor or his emissary long ago reaching Vladivostok and points north or whatever and etching “a nine-dash line” in Siberia, who knows! — to claim all of it as China’s eminent domain!! Who is to say this won’t happen? It is, in any case, a nightmare prospect many Russian strategists worry about.
The other probable cause for a falling out is Central Asia. Beijing is rapidly advancing its BRI (Belt Road Initiative) objectives via rail, road, air and telecom connectivity schemes along with massive commercial investments that are increasingly making the Central Asian Republics economic captives of China. It is stoking Moscow’s fears of a China growing too big too fast to contain. It is a subject where the interests of Russia converge with those of India and even the US, none of whom cares to have China dominate Asia, or even the Central Asian economies, which last could potentially have “a narco-terrorist” Afghanistan, an “insolvent [Pakistan] with nuclear weapons”, and India, in that order, falling like nine pins to the status of tributaries of China.
Where Modi’s going wrong
But Modi, hoping for rapprochement with China, has adopted a conciliatory attitude advised by the apex China policy forum within the government — the China Study Group (CSG) — appeasing Beijing by backing its contention that it has not intruded into the Indian side of Line of Actual Control. Reality is, over 1,000 sq miles of Indian territory northeast of the Y-Junction in the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh has been de facto annexed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
Such defeatist counsel is emblematic of a soft-headed Indian foreign policy. Look at what it has fetched the country: An India not doing anything proactive, or acting assertively and on its own to protect its territory and vital national interests. Instead, it is trying desperately to appease big powers by making arms purchases to get them on its side in a possible military conflict with China while seeking to postpone such contingency by appeasing the adversary with an approach that soft-pedals its aggression.
But such appeasement of friends and main adversary won’t obtain a more congenial correlation of forces. Nor is it a substitute for India needing to fight its own battles by itself and preparing to pay the price for it, because one thing is certain — the status quo ante in Ladakh that Jaishankar keeps talking about as a prerequisite for normal relations, will not be restored at the negotiating table.
Bharat Karnad is Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and posts in ‘Security Wise’ blog at www.bharatkarnad.com. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)