In a brave new world, India–Russia are adjusting to geopolitical realities

With 9000 Russians fighting alongside ISIS and Ashraf Ghani increasingly losing control, Moscow has started engaging with the Taliban

Written by P S Raghavan | Updated: June 5, 2017 11:48 am
Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Modi in Russia, Pakistan Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia. (AP/PTI Photo)

Prime Minister Modi embarked on his visit to St Petersburg for the 18th annual India-Russia Summit amidst growing opinion in India that the relationship is in a stage of irretrievable drift.

The two-day event in St Petersburg may have corrected this perception somewhat.

The two leaders exuded cordiality – a warm Modi-Putin embrace, the hand-in-hand walk in the park and President Putin’s handsome compliment to Mr Modi at the public discussion on his strong leadership in upholding India’s sovereignty in the face of many challenges.

The agreements for two additional units of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant were signed. Two-way hydrocarbons investments are increasing. Satisfactory progress seems to have been recorded on the major defence projects announced at Goa last year – the joint manufacture of helicopters, construction of frigates and the acquisition of the S-400 air defence systems. The joint declaration contains satisfactory formulations on our permanent membership of the UN Security Council, membership of NSG and Wassenaar Arrangement, terrorism and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, it continues to be asked whether all this is not merely superficial gloss over the widening cracks in the relationship.

The intensifying Russia-Pakistan relationship is one such perceived crack: arms sales, joint military exercises (one of them was barely a week after the Uri terror attack) and the apparent Russian reluctance to mention cross-border terrorism at the BRICS Summit in Goa.

Added to this were revelations of Russia’s contacts with the Taliban, followed by a Russia-China-Pakistan meeting on Afghanistan in Moscow in December last year. It indicated a break from Russia’s hitherto policy (convergent with India’s) of unequivocal support for the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban and its efforts for national reconciliation.

The strengthening Russia-China strategic partnership involving close political relations and Russian transfers of advanced military technologies to China was an additional concern. Russia supported China’s rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) verdict against China’s claims to the disputed South China Sea islands. Russia also supported the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): President Putin was treated as a principal guest at the recent Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, which India boycotted for perfectly legitimate reasons.

Most analyses of India-Russia relations approach them from one of two directions. One is the nostalgia stream, which bemoans the fact that the uniqueness of the bond has been diluted. The other assumes that our interests have diverged to the extent that only a shell of the relationship remains today. Both approaches are invalid. The India-Russia relationship has to be placed in the larger context of the global geopolitical environment of the 21st century, which has transformed the realities in our neighbourhood.

For Russia, there is a compelling logic for its strategic partnership with China, which has been developing since 2000. As two large neighbours with a 4000-plus kilometre border, they have economic complementarities and political convergences. The Chinese appetite for natural resources, raw materials and military technologies match Russia’s strengths. The final settlement of their long-standing border disputes in 2005 paved the way for a broader relationship.

However – and like the India-China strategic partnership – the flourishing trade and investment relations coexist with a measure of caution, which the meteoric rise in China’s international profile has accentuated. As a country seeking to regain its status as a great power, Russia continues to view China as a potential strategic adversary of the future. It does not transfer the latest generation of weapons or technologies to China; it is also careful about the level of Chinese investment in its hydrocarbons industry or Chinese presence in its Far East, bordering China.

The freeze in Russia’s relations with the West after the annexation of Crimea (or accession of Crimea, depending on your political allegiance) in March 2014 changed the complexion of the Russia-China relationship. As the West sought to isolate Russia and put a financial stranglehold, China’s political support in multilateral forums (particularly as a permanent member of the UN Security Council) and its economic cooperation became particularly valuable. Russia was locked into a tighter embrace of China than it had bargained for.

However, Russia gradually manoeuvred itself out of the political and economic crisis. With its active involvement in the Iran nuclear deal and the military strikes in Syria, it emphasized its geopolitical influence. The economic sanctions also lost their bite as businesses and banks found their way around most of them.

Some nuances in the Russia-China relationship need attention. Contrary to a general impression, Russia has not endorsed the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. It has publicly refrained from taking sides and declares that it is for the parties to settle the dispute among themselves. In fact, when President Putin supported the Chinese position on the PCA verdict, it was on the narrow ground that a judgement delivered without hearing the views of China was not valid.

Meanwhile, Russia has strengthened its strategic partnership with Vietnam, executing joint hydrocarbon projects which may encroach on disputed areas of the South China Sea. It also supplies advanced weapon systems to Vietnam.

A major initiative is also underway to rebuild bridges with Japan – another country with prickly relations with China. Discussions are ongoing to resolve the Kuril Islands dispute and the two countries are stepping up economic cooperation as a confidence-building measure. President Putin has publicly invited Japanese investors to the Russian Far East, promising tax concessions, infrastructure support and other investment-friendly measures. He has also said Russia and Japan are natural partners in resolving regional security issues in the Asia Pacific. The Chinese would not have taken kindly to these expressions.

There are nuances in Russia’s support for China’s BRI. It is wary of increased Chinese economic and political influence in Central Asia – historically Russia’s backyard. At the same time, it can get benefits – like the US$1.2 billion investment of China’s Silk Road Fund in its Yamal LNG project in the Arctic. In his speech in Beijing, President Putin said BRI should take into account specific national needs and should be implemented transparently – the same points as were made by India’s spokesperson on BRI.

Russia’s perspectives on Afghanistan and Pakistan should be viewed through the prism of the Russia-West standoff. Since late 2015, the Russian National Security Council has been warning of western intelligence agencies plotting to infiltrate terrorists and promote drug trafficking into Russia through the porous Tajikistan border. About 9000 Russians and Central Asians are fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The prospects of their return to Russia through Afghanistan, when they are squeezed out of these countries, are real.

For some time now, Russia’s assessment is that the Ghani government in Afghanistan is increasingly losing control of much of the country to the Taliban and is incapable of retrieving it. Under the circumstances, Moscow started engaging with the Taliban as an insurance against it being used against Russia. It may be noted that Iran, which should have an even greater antipathy to the Sunni Taliban, openly admits its links with it and explains it as insurance against Western mischief in Iran from Afghanistan. In the present scenario of Russia-US confrontation, American embarrassment at the hands of the Taliban suits Russia tactically, though American allegations of Russia arming the Taliban may be somewhat far-fetched.

Russia seeks a level of political and economic cooperation with Pakistan. One motivation is that Pakistan’s intermediary role could help contacts with the Taliban. Besides this, Pakistan’s links in the Islamic world may be of some use to Russia as it takes centre-stage in various West Asia issues. Indian sensitivity was an important deterrent to such initiatives, but as India broadened its international engagement, Russia embarked on its AfPak strategy.

Our assessment of India-Russia relations has to be set in this international context. Recognizing that Russia will pursue its national interests, we should assess, without nostalgia or value judgements, how it ties in with our interests. What we expect of our strategic partnerships is that they should meet our core political, economic and security concerns.

Where does Russia stand on this yardstick?

Russia remains our principal supplier of weapons systems and equipment. As President Putin said publicly, it supplies to India sensitive technologies which are not sold to any other country (read, China). For obvious reasons, the full extent of our defence cooperation with Russia cannot be put out in the public domain, but it is a fact that no other country is willing to supply such technologies. This is a crucial element in our defence preparedness which we cannot ignore. Our efforts at diversification of defence imports have not made sufficient headway: in 2012-16, Russia supplied 68% of our arms imports. USA with 14% was a distant second. Despite our best efforts over a decade, we still cannot get cutting-edge US defence technologies. We need to pursue these efforts, and use the Russian example to nudge others to part with more technology.

Russia is still the only foreign country involved in nuclear power generation in India. Much of the cost of the Russian collaboration plants is covered by soft loans. Our hydrocarbons investments have been mutually beneficial.

Intensive exchanges of senior security-related officials on both sides (including two recent visits to Moscow by NSA Ajit Doval) have helped to coordinate our Afghanistan approach. The support expressed in the Joint Declaration for the Moscow dialogue process, involving all stakeholders, reflects India’s satisfaction at Russia’s present course.

President Putin may have parried a question in St Petersburg on Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross border terrorism in J&K, but Russia has been very forthcoming on military supplies to counter cross-border infiltration. The action is more important than the words. The Russians have privately admitted that the joint military exercises soon after Uri were a bad misjudgement. The head of their military-industrial complex said publicly in Goa last year that no further arms exports to Pakistan are in the pipeline. This remains the situation, at least so far.

There is much else that is discussed behind closed doors that keeps the trust levels between the two countries high; one can only gauge this by the public statements of the leaders.

There is, however, one area of the India-Russia relationship, which stubbornly shows little progress – economic cooperation. A cursory glance through the joint declarations of recent years would show the repetitions of items. The determination to diversify trade and investments, areas of promise identified and joint ventures in prospect are permanent features, with little to show in achievement.

Both sides recognize the International North South Transport Corridor as a strategically important project, but progress remains slow. The Customs Green Corridor, direct diamond trade, banking links and other such trade promotion measures do not require complicated action, but they just do not get done. Since 2014, Mr Modi has repeatedly emphasized that strengthening the economic pillar of the India Russia strategic partnership needs special focus. Government departments functioning in silos or sometimes at cross-purposes have failed to effectively pursue this objective. Broad-basing the cooperation beyond its over-dependence on defence, nuclear energy and hydrocarbons would enhance mutual stakes in the relationship and promote greater sensitivity to each other’s core concerns.

P S Raghavan is Convenor, National Security Advisory Board and a former Ambassador of India to Russia from 2014-16. The views expressed here are personal.

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