Updated: December 21, 2021 11:18:36 am
Thirty years ago this week, the Soviet Union collapsed — after seven decades of an expansive global role. The breakup of the Soviet Union put an end to the global power structure that emerged after the Second World War. The disappearance of the Soviet Union was an international shock like none other to the Indian political classes as well as the national security establishment.
Few countries have been as significant as Russia for modern India’s evolution. The 1917 Revolution, the Soviet model of economic development, and Russian geopolitics had a profound impact on 20th century India’s worldview. The twists and turns in Russia’s relations with the West have always had consequences for India’s international relations. The Great Game of the 19th century between the British Raj and imperial Russia, the Soviet support for revolutionary movements in Asia, the Russian role in World War II, Moscow’s extended Cold War with the West, and post-Soviet Russia’s turbulent ties with the US and Europe have all deeply influenced India’s national choices. As Russia and the West begin a new dialogue on European security, India is deeply invested in a positive reorientation of Moscow’s ties with the West. The rise of China and the consequent geopolitical churn in Asia, have raised India’s stakes in US-Russia relations.
But first to December 1991. The loss of the long-standing Soviet ally left Delhi in a deep strategic funk amidst fears of a unipolar world dominated by the US. These anxieties were accentuated by post-Soviet Russia’s quick embrace of the US and the West. That bonhomie, however, did not last long. By the turn of the millennium, relations between Russia and the West had begun to sour. That drew India once again closer to Russia. Moscow also roped in Beijing to build a new coalition — the RIC — to promote a multipolar world that would limit the dangers of American hyperpower. India’s fears of the unipolar moment turned out to be overblown and Delhi’s ties with Washington began to see rapid improvement since 2000.
The upswing in India’s ties with America, however, coincided with a steady downturn in the relations between Russia and the US. This began to complicate India’s great power politics. One widely noted problem has been the prospects for US sanctions on India triggered by the purchase of advanced Russian weapons like the S-400 missiles.
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The continuous escalation of tensions between Russia and the West culminated in the last few weeks in Ukraine — at the heart of Europe. Moscow’s military mobilisation on the frontier with Ukraine — that was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 — raised alarm bells of a new war between the forces of Russia and the US-led European military alliance, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The US and Russian presidents, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, have been in touch to defuse the crisis. While warning Russia that the costs of its military attack on Ukraine would be severe, Biden has offered to address Putin’s concerns. Russia and the West are now expected to launch a new dialogue on European security in the coming days.
Last week, Russia presented several proposals for a new European security architecture. Moscow is calling for an end to NATO’s further eastward expansion. Moscow also wants NATO to rescind its earlier promise to make Ukraine and Georgia — two former Soviet Republics — members of the military alliance. Russia is also proposing an agreement on reducing provocative military activity on its borders. It also wants to work out new arms control and military confidence-building measures in Europe.
While the expert reaction in the West has been dismissive of Russian proposals, Washington and Brussels see the Russian framework as an opening gambit in the inevitably tough negotiations on European security. While pessimists see no hope for shared understanding between Russia and NATO, optimists note that the current effort to reset bilateral ties comes after some serious rethinking in both Washington and Moscow and high-level political consultations between the two sides.
The resolution of US-Russian differences, however, involves some major compromises. That in turn will generate strong political objections in Washington and Brussels to any accommodation of Russian interests and concerns.
If the Democrats opposed President Donald Trump’s efforts to normalise ties with Russia, the Republicans can now be expected to take the lead in opposing Biden’s outreach to Moscow. Charges of appeasement will fly against any deal that Biden might cut with Putin, especially on the future of Ukraine and limiting NATO expansion. In Europe, France and Germany support a reset in relations with Russia. But most of the countries that border Russia oppose any deal that smacks of ceding a “Russian sphere of influence” in Central Europe. But there are factors propelling a new engagement between Washington and Moscow. The US, which is now focused on the China challenge, appears interested in easing the conflict with Russia. Despite its extraordinary military resources, Washington can’t afford to fight in both Asia (with China) and Europe (with Russia).
While Russia has demonstrated that its interests can’t be simply ignored by the West, it also recognises the costs of a prolonged confrontation with the US and Europe and the dangers of relying solely on China to secure its geopolitical interests. While Moscow is unlikely to abandon the partnership with China, there is no doubt that an accommodation with America and Europe is a high priority for Russia.
While coping with the complex dynamic of Russia’s relations with the West has been an enduring element of independent India’s foreign policy, Delhi’s thinking on Russia has too often been coloured by ideological sentiment. While ideology has been important for both the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, Moscow’s international policies have been driven more by national interest and geopolitics.
In Delhi, the tendency is to over-determine Russia’s contradictions with the West. It is not Russia’s national destiny to forever confront the West. Russia’s current problems with the West are not about ideological principles. It is about the terms of an honourable accommodation.
Prior to the 1917 revolution, Russia was a leading part of the European great power system. If its alliance with the West forged against Nazi Germany had endured, Communist Russia would have remained part of the global order in the second half of the 20th century. The collapse of the Soviet Union offered a second (missed) opportunity to re-integrate Russia into Europe.
Delhi can’t influence the new effort to build a mutually acceptable security order in Europe, but it can welcome and support it. That the pressure for this attempted reset in Russia’s relations with the West is coming from Asian geopolitics is of some significance.
In the past, Delhi’s strategic enthusiasm for Moscow was shaped by India’s difficulties with the West. Today a reconciliation between Russia and the West will make it a lot easier for India to manage its own security challenges.
Delhi knows that stabilising the Asian balance of power will be difficult without a measure of US-Russian cooperation in Europe. If Moscow — at odds with the West in the last two decades — deepens its current close alignment with Beijing, it will be a lot harder to prevent Chinese dominance over Asia.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 21, 2021 under the title ‘Three decades after a break-up’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor of international affairs for The Indian Express
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