A US-Russia rapprochement might work in favour of India.
By Himani Pant
Conjectures regarding Donald Trump’s foreign policy have been afloat ever since his surprise win in the US presidential election last year. As he prepares to take over the White House next week, his apparent willingness to ‘reset’ relations with Russia is leading to intense speculation about the consequences of such a policy approach.
Trump, who has also remained outspoken in his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin, considers the latter a better and smarter leader than Obama. The admiration has been reciprocated from Russia — Putin was among the first ones to congratulate Trump post his win. In his congratulatory message, he expressed “confidence that Moscow and Washington can establish a constructive dialogue based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and genuine consideration for each other’s positions.” This is indicative of Putin’s willingness to work closely with Trump administration on resolving global issues of equal concern. Predominant among this would be the fight against ISIS which both regard as a major threat in the Middle East.
The President-elect has already made several moves which mark a departure from the policies that the US had been following for a fairly long time. He has vowed to withdraw the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and expressed his criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, shaking the foundations of US commitment to European security that dates back to 1941. His choice of candidates, which includes the appointment of Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State and Robert Lighthizer as his chief trade negotiator, signals the same. While the former is alleged to have a close proximity with the Russian president, the latter has remained a harsh critic of China’s trade practices.
US reset with Russia inevitably affects India as it involves a traditional ‘time tested friend’ and a rapidly evolving ‘strategic’ ally.
While Indo-Russian relations are yet to reach their full potential economically, Indo-US ties have gained unprecedented momentum over the last few years. Though Russia still continues to be a major source of military equipment for India, the latter has got closer to the US of late. 2016 was especially eventful in this regard with US designating India as a major defence partner. Defence trade grew to over $15 billion and the M777 advanced howitzer deal was finally concluded. Though not yet operational, the two sides also signed the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) — a modified version of the Access and Cross Sharing Arrangement (ACSA) with several other quasi-military allies. Growing Indo-US strategic ties are a matter of concern for Russia since it would like to preserve its arms market in India.
A similar concern regarding Russia’s proximity to China and Pakistan is shared by India which remains wary of their cooperation. Sino-Russian relations have received a fresh impetus following West’s isolation of Russia after the Ukrainian crisis. In addition, ever since Russia removed its arms embargo against Islamabad the same year, a sort of rapprochement between the two has followed. In 2015, Moscow agreed to sell four Mi-35M helicopters and welcomed Islamabad to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In 2016, the two also went ahead with the first-ever “mutual special drills” in the mountainous region of Cherat, in spite of India’s concerns following the Uri attack (drills in the Rattu area of Gilgit-Baltistan were however allegedly cancelled). Interestingly, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov downplayed the military exercises with Pakistan during the Heart of Asia conference held in Amritsar last month. He also hinted at India’s close ties with the US in order to defend a “much lower level of cooperation” between Russia and Pakistan. The latest in the spate of events is Russia’s alleged interest in China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well as the recently concluded trilateral meeting in Moscow to discuss the situation in Afghanistan which sought for a “flexible approach” to remove UN sanctions on certain Taliban “figures” as part of efforts to reach a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.
Easing of tension between the US and Russia would place India in a congenial position. It would help in restoring the trust factor between India and Russia, given their mutual suspicions regarding the growing relations with the US, China and Pakistan respectively.
India has so far balanced the US and Russia in importing defence equipment. It recently signed a contract with the US for importing M777 ultra-light howitzers. This was preceded by agreements with Russia on importing three 11356 frigates and S-400 missiles. Softening of relations would to a great degree ease the predicament that India currently faces while trying to diversify its imports and balancing its traditional relations.
In addition, the rupture between the West and Russia has had wide-ranging geopolitical implications. As a result of Western isolation due to the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow has been tilting towards Beijing, where the balance of power favours latter. An amicable relationship between the US and Russia would help the former in checking China’s increasingly assertive posture globally. A continued Sino-Russian ‘entente’ has the potential to adversely affect Russia’s policy towards India too. A US-Russia rapprochement might work in favour of India which, as pointed earlier, has been wary of the growing closeness between the two.
While hopes are high, it would be interesting to see how the situation plays out given the outgoing US president has dismissed thirty five Russian diplomats over the alleged Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack and imposed fresh sanctions on Russia — a move which has not been retaliated by the Kremlin which hopes for better relations under Trump administration. Ironically, a ‘reset’ with Russia was also one of the foreign policy priorities of the Obama administration in its first term. However, by early 2014, it had fallen apart completely due to growing tension in Ukraine. A revival would thus depend on the extent to which Trump is able to translate his rhetoric into action.