Cognizant of India’s growing strategic denouement with Russia, visibly so in 2021, in wake of Russia’s outsized priority to China and pivot to Pakistan in its South Asian policy formulations, Russian President Putin made a significant six-hour dash to India, to rebalance Russia’s fraying strategic partnership with India on December 06 2021 for a Summit Meet with Indian PM Modi and also to mark the initiation of Russia-India 2+2 Dialogue of respective Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers.
Visible cracks in Russia-India strategic relationship were becoming noticeable for last three to four years when Russia piquantly reverberated against India’s intensifying and institutionalising of US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.
President Putin’s flying visit to India for a personal meet with Indian PM Modi for the Annual Russia-India Summit Meet, which in 2020 was called off ,is significant in terms of its possible geopolitical implications in a churning global environment where Russia and India find themselves in new geopolitical combinations, and Russia trying to restore balance with its traditional ties with India while yet still clinging to its Strategic Nexus with China.
Russia failed to recognise that India under bold leadership of PM Modi had decisively ascended the global power ladder to be counted as a force which could not be ignored or side-lined in the strategic calculus of Major Powers. Especially, when India was increasingly be viewed as an existential counterweight to China’s threatening and globally disruptive rise.
Russia in the last three to four years for its strategic compulsions on Afghanistan became too entangled with according overwhelming priorities to China and Pakistan, at India’s expense.
Arising from the above factor was Russia’s inability or lack of inclination to dissuade China from intensification of its military confrontation with India on its Northern Borders with China Occupied Tibet. This manifested and coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasing hold on China’s military levers. Chinese military adventurism stretched from Dokalam in 2017 to Eastern Ladakh in 2020 where violent clashes occurred.
Pakistan emboldened by Russia’s change of strategic tack in South Asia under prodding by China resorted to re-intensifying Kashmir Valley militancy and a concerted effort with China to force out India’s considerable ‘Soft Power’ presence in Afghanistan.
India at all levels was incensed with the blatant open display of President Putin’s Special Adviser on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov to voice utterances contradictory India’s strategic interests on Afghanistan. Kabulov can be said to be the architect of Russia’s foreign policy of Russia’s tilt towards Pakistan, the formation of China-Pakistan- Russia Trilateral to capitalise on Afghanistan-centric convergences of the three countries.
Russian Foreign Minister Lazarov’s last visit to India, before President Putin’s December 06 visit, was perceptionaly a disaster, in my assessment. The strain was visible in TV appearances.
India emboldened by its expanding geopolitical weight was no longer in a mood to ignore the political signalling coming from Russia’s top levels in Russian foreign policy establishment.
Indian Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar signalled India’s displeasure at Russia’s piquant foreign policy stances both in his foreign policy utterances and visibly so when on a visit o Moscow, he followed I by a visit to Georgia. This was in response to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov insensitively going to Islamabad after his last visit to New Delhi.
Coupled with the above events, what is now being assessed by policy analysts is that there is a sense of unease within Russian foreign policy establishment that Russia was perceptionaly losing out globally with the image that Russia was being viewed increasingly as a ‘junior partner’ of China. Also coming to the fore was that in Central Asia and Middle East Russia-China strategic convergences could not be said to be coincident.
President Putin cognizant of the above factors coupled with PM Modi’s independent streak in Indian foreign policy stances and that if Russia continues with its present stances, Russia would lose out on the growing Indian arms purchases, made this significant air-dash to New Delhi. In fact President Putin spent more time flying-in and flying-out of New Delhi. Significant was also the fact that this was the second only visit abroad in the last two Years after the outbreak of the China Wuhan 19 pandemic. The first visit abroad was to meet US President Joe Biden.
The details of the 28 MOUs signed during President Putin’s visit including a 10year Military Cooperation Agreement stand dissected in detail in media reports. The aim of this Paper is not to repeat what stands disseminated in the media but to focus on the larger geopolitical implications of this significant flying visit to India by Russian President Putin on December 06 2021 and which was followed up by the inaugural Russia-India 2+2 Meet.
Russian President’s visit to India, albeit a short one, does however signal that Russia has recognised that its South Asian foreign policy lately have not been well received in India at all levels. President Putin’s visit can therefore be said to have sought to rebalance ties with an India that is on an upward trajectory in global geopolitics.
Surely, Afghanistan must have been discussed both at the Summit Meet between the Russian President and the Indian Prime Minister besides the meetings between the Russian Foreign Minister and Defence Minister with their Indian counterparts. Four months down the line after Afghan Taliban 2.0 takeover in Kabul assisted by Pakistan and China, it should have been apparent to Russian President that India still has a major role to play in Afghanistan as compared to China.
On Afghanistan, surely. Russia would have realised that India has a greater global acceptability to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s future security and stability than China.
Manifestation of the above was analysed by me in a previous Paper on the implications of the India-convened Regional Conference on Afghanistan of National Security Advisers. China was invited along with Pakistan but both these nations refused to attend. Russia and the five Central Asian Republics participated. That was the first signal by Russia of diverging from Chinese stances on Afghanistan and honouring India’s initiative.
Russia’s misgivings on India’s active participation in QUAD led by United States would have been addressed by India. India expectedly would have highlighted that India’s perspectives on joining the QUAD were not determined by any moves to strategically discomfit Russia in Western Pacific in which Russia in any case has only a small littoral. The QUAD though not a formal military alliance cannot be denied to be intended as a deterrent signal to China’s military adventurism in Indo Pacific.
India signing some sizeable defence purchase agreements would have signalled to Russia that Indian arms purchase market is still open for Russia but that Russia would have to concede some strategic quid pro quos.
Russian President Putin’s flying visit to India would have sent the appropriate political signals to China that India still figures and matters in Russian geopolitical and strategic calculations. China may not be amenable to Russian pressures where it concerns India but China can ill afford to ignore the fact that Russia’s rebalancing of ties with India after an interval of three to four years in which Chin’s military adventurism reached at its peak in 2020 at Galwan in Eastern Ladakh, is significant for all three nations.
Concluding, in terms of a political reachout to India to rebalance ties which were fraying primarily because of the China-factor being predominant in Russian foreign policy planning, the call was for Russia to make. Russian President Putin has made that call and it remains to be seen with what vigour the Russian President pursues that call in times to come.
If Russia wants to keep its relationship with China ‘independent’ of its relationship with India then Russia too has to accept likewise India’s strategic proximity to United States and not get piquant.