In the two decades since India and Russia declared a new strategic partnership, the global geopolitical landscape has undergone major transformations. While the partnership retains a strong strategic content, its course has inevitably been impacted by shifting equations between major global powers. This aspect is likely to figure prominently on the dialogue agenda of President Putin and Prime Minister Modi on December 6.

By Amb P S Raghavan

Over these two decades, India-US political and economic relations surged and, after the India-US nuclear deal of 2008, defence and technology cooperation took off as well. Among the US motivations to strengthen partnership with India was that a strong, democratic India could be a useful partner for the US in Asia, where China was emerging as a formidable rival. India welcomed this premise, as well as the opportunity to diversify military acquisitions from near-exclusive dependence on Russia.

Russia-US relations were already somewhat strained in the early 2000s, but as long as they remained functional, India could progress relations with both these countries along roughly parallel tracks.
US-Russia relations reached a tipping point in 2014 over Ukraine, when the West moved to isolate Russia politically and imposed economic sanctions. This put pressure on India from both sides of the divide. India did not recognize the unilateral sanctions (not approved by the UN). In practice, however, they added fresh barriers to India-Russia trade and investment exchanges. India constantly comes under pressure from each side of the divide to support its positions against the other. Strategic autonomy dictates issue-based decisions in line with our national interests. This meant that both sides have been less than satisfied by India’s positions on various subjects of their interest.

Secondary sanctions introduced by the US added to the challenge. The CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) legislation threatens sanctions against any entity, which enters into a ‘significant’ defence transaction with Russia, debarring that entity from business with the US or with a US entity. This struck at the core of the India-Russia defence partnership. Despite India’s concerted effort to diversify its defence acquisitions, and the consequent increase in arms imports from the US, France, Israel and others, major military technologies and weapons systems are still sourced from Russia, because modalities are not yet in place for getting such platforms from other countries. Russia’s willingness to transfer technologies exceeds that of others. Invoking CAATSA for India’s defence imports from Russia would dent our strategic autonomy and worsen our military vulnerability, thereby undermining the premise of a strong India in Asia that underpins the India-US strategic partnership.

In particular, the Russian S-400 air defence system is uniquely suited to our requirements. India decided to go ahead with its acquisition, despite public threats of sanctions under CAATSA. There are indications that the Biden Administration may find a way of avoiding imposition of sanctions for the S-400 acquisition, in consideration of the India-US strategic partnership. Even so, CAATSA will remain an irritant in India-Russia and India-US relations, if every major weapons acquisition has to go through the tortuous process of seeking a waiver. A long-term solution is required.

The US-Russia fallout galvanized Russia-China relations. The settlement of their border disputes and complementarities in their economies had promoted an intensive economic engagement. But there was always some caution in the Russia-China relationship, because of their long history of conflict, border disputes and strategic rivalry. But Western hostility encouraged Russia-China collaboration in sensitive sectors. Defence cooperation extends to advanced weapons systems, new technologies and elaborate military drills. With its fraught relations with China, India is obviously concerned that the Russia-China quasi-alliance (particularly their technology- and intelligence-sharing) should not impinge on its political or security interests. While Russia (at the level of President Putin) has extended assurances in this regard, it requires constant vigilance, in the light of the external pressures on Russia.

The flip side of India’s concerns about the Russia-China embrace is Russian unease about the India-US engagement, especially in the Quad dialogue (of India, Japan, Australia and the U.S.) and Malabar joint naval exercises in the Indo Pacific region. Russia sees the Quad as a nascent politico-military alliance, particularly since the Trump Administration described its Indo Pacific posture as an ideological and military confrontation.

India projects these initiatives as an effort to promote a cooperative order in this region, in which India has important economic, security and strategic interests. Our message to Russia is that, given its ambitions for an independent role in a multipolar world, it should welcome efforts to draw China into such an order – this is compatible with President Putin’s own vision of a Greater Eurasian Partnership, now enshrined in Russia’s National Security Strategy 2021.

President Putin has occasionally hinted at an understanding of India’s concerns (even if his Foreign Ministry has not). However, as long as US-Russia tensions remain at the current elevated levels, Russia would continue to see itself (along with China) as a target of the US’ Indo- Pacific strategies. The Biden-Putin summit in June appeared to promise a thaw, but the current military faceoff on the Ukrainian border belies it. The pathway to squaring this circle is not yet visible.

The US-Russia standoff influenced Russia’s actions in Afghanistan prior to the US troops’ exit. Russia claimed that the threat of the US and its allies destabilizing Russia through the porous Central Asian borders, led it to cultivate the Taliban as a deterrent. When the Trump Administration abruptly decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, Russia organized and coordinated the “extended troika”, with the US, China and Pakistan, to facilitate the US exit by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. All four agreed on this outcome. India was left out. After the Taliban takeover, there have been closer consultations: telephone contact of the leaders and consultations between the security establishments. In the long-term, Russian and Indian interests coincide: an Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours, which prevents terrorism, extremism and drugs from spilling out of the country.

The importance of geography in geopolitics is often underestimated. The Eurasian landmass to India’s north and west, including Iran and Afghanistan, Central and West Asia, is our extended neighbourhood, wedged between Russia and China. With the exit of NATO troops from Afghanistan, this region is seeing fresh competition for presence and influence. Russia and China have had a tacit understanding that, in Central Asia, Russia would play the dominant politico-security role, while China would focus on economic presence. China, however, seems to be getting more directly involved in security. Other regional powers like Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are also taking the opportunity to expand their influence in this space. India’s security interests and strategic ambitions dictate that it should have a robust presence in this region: we cannot leave it to the machinations of others. These perspectives influenced India’s decision to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Iran and India, despite unease about aspects of its structure and political outlook.

Connectivity is key to vibrant engagement. India’s direct overland route to Afghanistan and Central Asia is blocked by political and security issues with Pakistan. An alternate route is the multimodal International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) from India’s west coast to Iran and onwards to Central Asia (with spurs to Afghanistan and Russia, connecting onward routes to Europe). India has developed a container terminal in Iran’s Chabahar port and is committed to establishing a rail link northward. The operationalization of this corridor could boost India’s trade with Central Asia and Russia manifold. The Free Trade Agreement under negotiation between India and the Eurasian Economic Union – comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – could provide further impetus to this process. While India, Russia and the Central Asian countries are keen on this project, it is hostage to the US hostility to, and sanctions on, Iran.

The India-Russia relationship interacts with these external dynamics. The challenge for each country is to maximize benefits from this partnership, without prejudicing gains from other partnerships. The strategic partnership will remain vibrant, as long as the national interests of one partner do not collide with the core interests of the other.

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