Indo-Russian ties are at a crossroads. A strong relationship between India and Russia was forged in the 1960s amid growing Sino-Russian hostility and Sino-Pakistani amity. Given America’s interest in mending its own fences with China in 1971, Russia offered India some political insurance against security threats from China and Pakistan Both have laid claim to parts of India’s territory since it achieved independence in 1947. For more than sixty years New Delhi could count on Moscow’s support for India’s stance against Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute.
However, the distance between India and Russia became evident at least since June 2014, when Russia broke its arms embargo on Pakistan. Nearly a fortnight ago, the gap it was clear that the gap between them had widened. Russia started its first military drill with Pakistan on 24 September. The drill will end on 10 October. Labeled as a ‘counter-terrorism’ exercise by Pakistan and Russia, the drill is being held in Gilgit-Baltistan, which, together with the rest of Pakistani Kashmir, is contested territory between India and Pakistan. Earlier, Russia had assured India that the exercises would not take place on disputed turf, so India was unpleasantly surprised when Russian troops landed in Gilgit-Baltistan on 23 September.
On the other side, from late September to early October, Indian and Russian forces are also engaged in joint counter-terrorism military maneuvers in the Russian port of Vladivostok – but that is not disputed territory with any country that is hostile to Russia.
From New Delhi’s perspective, the timing of the Russia-Pakistan maneuvers could not have been more offensive. They are being held as India tries to isolate Pakistan internationally after Pakistan-sponsored terrorists killed 18 Indian soldiers in the north-western Indian base at Uri, and as New Delhi confronted violence in its own part of Kashmir. At the same time India is also drawing international attention to its own claims over Gilgit-Baltistan.
India has also found it hard to swallow the claim that Russia and Pakistan are engaged in an anti-terrorism exercise, especially as it felt impelled to retaliate for the assault on Uri with surgical strikes on militants based in Pakistan.
The drills are taking place as Russia increases arms sales to Pakistan. Since Russia has not complained about American arms sales to both India and Pakistan over many years Moscow does not see why India should be miffed at its arms deals with Pakistan. Economic necessity and the imposition of western sanctions since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 have also prompted Moscow to sell matériel to India’s arch-rivals — China and Pakistan.
Yet New Delhi has not been unrealistic or naive. Over the last decade India has strengthened its own military and economic ties with the US. After a long time as India’s top defense partner Russia was replaced in 2014 by the US, which was now India’s biggest arms retailer. given India’s ambition to become a major Asian power, the Indo-Russian tie also needs more than weapons to be sustained – and Russia’s economic weakness has made it hard to shore up the relationship.
The uncertainty of political friendships is also revealed by Russia’s closer military and economic ties with China. Trade and politics do not reflect the same trends. China is America’s top trading partner – but it challenges America’s primacy in Asia. It has Moscow’s support in Asia against the deployment of THAAD missiles in South Korea and on the Hague tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea. But Moscow has no intention of playing second fiddle to Beijing.
The fact is that both Russia and India are maximizing their political and military options. Like India’s expanding ties with the US and the Pakistan-Russia drills – along with Russia’s strengthening ties with China and Pakistan –– have brought their changing priorities out into the open. Russia, China and India are all maneuvering for strategic advantage in Asia. Apparently Russia thinks that Pakistan and China can advance its aims.
But Moscow’s insensitivity to Indian concerns about Gilgit-Baltistan will dispel any possible illusions that Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have entertained when he told President Vladimir Putin last December that Russia is still India’s reliable friend.
As Russia strengthens relationships with China and Pakistan, India will strengthen its co-operation with the US, if only because the US offers it more economically and militarily than Russia. A new era in Russia-India ties has begun. Inconsistency, uncertainty and changing priorities will be its hallmarks.