By Meenakshi Sood*
At a time when political isolation of Russia by the West is entering its second year, India-US ties are closer than ever. The geopolitical developments are pulling India and Russia in opposite directions.
Weakened by Western sanctions over Ukraine and falling oil prices, Russia has had no option but to look for alternatives to compensate for the loss of its traditional markets. As a result, Russian pivot towards east to relieve pressure from the west has moved it closer to China and Pakistan. This has not gone down well with India as it has made India’s sensitive security frontier even more complex. India’s proximity to the US, the diversification of its defense market and efforts to develop an indigenous defense industry has also had an impact on its relations with Russia.
The perception is that the stable friendship has degenerated, with changing global alignments inducing changes in bilateral equations. Is this the end of a long and enduring relationship?
In recent times, Russia and Pakistan have come too close for New Delhi’s comfort. This is striking considering that relations between Pakistan and Russia were never warm during the Cold War and had reached its nadir with Pakistan siding with the United States against the Soviet Union. Underlying Russia’s decision to engage with Pakistan is the desire to establish new synergies in the face of crumbling traditional alliances, with the perceived Indian drift towards West dissolving last of Russia’s inhibitions.
Not far behind political and security concerns are economic imperatives. Pakistan is a large market for defense and energy trade. On its part, Islamabad had always sought closer ties with Moscow, who now has found a willing partner in Pakistan worried over changing US interests in the region after the 2014 NATO withdrawal. It is a time of many firsts for Russia-Pakistan relations- in November 2014 Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu visited Islamabad during which the two countries signed the first of its kind military cooperation agreement, and the first-ever joint military exercises will be held as part of their enhanced defense cooperation. Russia has agreed to sell Pakistan Mi 35 ‘Hind-E’ attack helicopters, and is unwilling to play ball to support India in its attempt to initiate stringent actions against Pakistan in international forums.
The cooperation has moved to the critical sector of energy, with Russia expressing its desire to participate in building energy and transport corridors from Central Asia to Pakistan through Afghanistan’s Wakhan sector. The cooperation on energy sector includes plans for a $2 billion LNG pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. The two have found common cause on many issues of national interest.
Of paramount concern is the marked shift in Russia’s approach towards the Af-Pak issue, which used to be in sync with India’s position.
From condemning Pakistan for perpetuating global terrorism Russia has moved on to patting Pakistan for its efforts to tackle terrorism in the region. Russia is concerned about the conflict spilling over to Russia’s immediate neighborhood, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Drug trafficking and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan has consequences for Russia as illegal substances end up at home. Russia, China and Pakistan’s interests have converged over the evolving Afghan regional security and the three have been working together to find a solution for the same. The tripartite effort excludes India. India not only has security concerns in the region, it needs Afghanistan as a transit to access the energy rich Central Asian region. India’s influence in the region, especially Afghanistan, depends on the shape growing proximity between Russia, China and Pakistan will take.
Relations between Russia and China have witnessed an upward trend since the end of the cold war. In the light of the recent stand-off with the West, Russia’s ties with China have grown from strength to strength, with the economic foundation being complemented with military ties. They have conducted joint military exercises in eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific, signed a $400 billion gas deal for 30 years, and exported in high-tech armaments (including the S-400 air-defense system to China).
Moscow also joined the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank this year. China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” initiative was seen as an attempt to drive Russia out of the Central Asian region, once it’s backward, where Moscow is trying to promote its own integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Marking a departure from the tug of war over influence in Central Asia, the two countries discussed the possibility of combining the two projects under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization during the SCO summit in Ufa, Russia. Russia’s deepening relations with China have implications for India. As Russia moves closer to China, India’s maneuvering space in the region would shrink. In the past, Russia and India shared apprehensions about China and had coordinated policies. That might not be possible under the changing circumstances.
The kernel of India- Russia relations has been defense trade, as for more than half a century Russia has been New Delhi’s largest source of defense equipment. In absolute terms the defense trade still remains impressive, but in relative terms it is on a steady decline. India has been diversifying its defense markets and is working towards establishing an indigenous defense sector.
Furthermore, there had been problems with Russian supply in the past due to delays in delivery, sub-standard material and over-pricing. The widespread perception is that Russia’s importance for India has declined, with the loss of big-ticket projects adding weight to it. It would be wrong to conclude that the decades long defense cooperation has been undermined, rather it has transformed from a supplier-client relation to one of partnership.
Russia is helping India in its effort to build an indigenous defense sector- technology transfer and joint R&D. 200 helicopters will be manufactured in the country in collaboration with Russia, which would include transfer of technology and license production. Moreover, Russia still remains India’s primary defense supplier, accounting for over 70% of India’s defense needs, a reality that cannot change overnight. As for Russia, importance of Indian market for Russian defense trade cannot be undermined by Pakistan due to its sheer size and its ability to pay in hard currency.
Russia and India share an enduring friendship that has proved crucial at critical junctures in the past. The strategic partnership between India and Russia that was established in 2000 was elevated to the level of ‘special and privileged’ relationship in 2010. As strategic Partnerships go, none has been as successful as that between India and Russia. Even in the changed context, Russian-Indian relations give strategic advantage to both the countries.
Though only a shadow of its former glory, Russia remains a force to reckon with. It has the power to veto in the UNSC, has played an instrumental role in negotiations on issues of international peace and security, as in the case of Iran nuclear deal, and no resolution is possible without its support in many areas, including the four-year long Syrian crisis. Russia supports India’s candidature for full membership in SCO, NSG and UNSC.
India gains a strategic edge due to its relations with Russia in critical areas like the issue on Kashmir, energy security, its relations with China and access to Central Asia. India-Russia relations are important to meet India’s ever increasing thirst for energy supply. Unlike China and Pakistan, India does not have direct access to energy rich Central Asian Republics and hence needs Russia that has historic ties with the region. India is seeking to increase its energy imports from Russia and has made investments in projects like Sakhalin I and II. More recently, in 2014, Russia’s state-controlled oil company Rosneft signed a memorandum of understanding with ONGC, paving the way for joint projects in Russia’s offshore Arctic.
On its part, India abstained in voting against Russia in the UNSC regarding the succession of Crimea and has opposed Western sanctions on Moscow. Russia is fast entering into the Chinese orbit, but not as an equal partner. Russia needs India to maintain its leverage over China, a situation that suits New Delhi as an independent and resurgent Russia is in India’s interest. Importance of Indian market for Russian defense trade cannot be overstated.
Notwithstanding the developments in the recent past, there are imperatives that make it prudent for India and Russia to cooperate and arrest the decline. Russia and India both support a multi-polar world, a desire originating from the perceived arrogance of the west. They share similar concerns on the rise of China and its intentions in the region. Russia supports India’s ambitions to play a more significant role at the international and regional level. They are both part of groups of emerging powers- BRICS and RIC. There is ideological compatibility in the norms the two countries propagate that should underpin the international system- sovereignty, non-interference in domestic affairs and both distance themselves from Western endeavors to promote democracy or intervene on humanitarian grounds. Both have a similar approach to dispute resolution – they support a political, as opposed to a military, solution for crisis in West Asia.
*Meenakshi Sood is with the Ananta Centre and is a Research Scholar on international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She can be reached at [email protected]