Russia remains critical to Indian security interests

Vodka  Cocktails  Again


Brahma Chellaney

The Economic Times, December 19, 2010


The heads of government of the UN Security Council’s permanent members have made a beeline to India in recent months, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev being the latest. From British Prime Minister David Cameron to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, each signed multibillion-dollar deals during his India visit. Medvedev will be no exception. Foreign governments have been courting India to try to get a piece of its lucrative, fast-growing market. But Indian diplomacy, oddly, does not lay emphasis on securing foreign contracts for domestic industry.


Russia, however, is the only P-5 state with which India has enjoyed a close, stable, enduring and mutually beneficial relationship over several decades. Unlike the vicissitudes that have characterized Indo-US ties, the Indo-Russia relationship has been relatively steady. The interests of the US and India may converge on larger Asian issues but they diverge on regional matters, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar. The vaunted Indo-US strategic partnership has turned into an opportunity for Washington to win major commercial and defence contracts and co-opt India into strategic arrangements, without a concomitant obligation to be on India’s side.  By contrast, there is a greater congruence of Russian and Indian national-security objectives.


Which power is willing to sell critical military technologies, not just weapons, to India? Which power is transferring a nuclear-powered submarine on a 10-year lease to India? Which country sells India an aircraft carrier, even if an old one? Which arms supplier to New Delhi does not offer matching weapons to India’s adversaries? Russia is the common answer to all these questions. Little surprise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, calling Russia a “tried and tested friend” of India, admitted in 2007: “Although there has been a sea-change in the international situation during the last decade, Russia remains indispensable to the core of India’s foreign-policy interests”.


For Russia, India is a force of stability in a region where Moscow, as the WikiLeaks’ disclosures have underlined, is deeply concerned about jihadists within the Pakistani establishment gaining control of weapons of mass destruction. With the US and its NATO partners now announcing plans to start within months to gradually withdraw forces from Afghanistan so as to end all combat operations by 2014, Russia and India need to work together and with countries like Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to frustrate Pakistan’s aim to reinstall the Afghan Taliban in power.


However, even as Moscow tries to restore its influence in the former Soviet republics, its humiliating military retreat from Afghanistan in the late 1980s still weighs heavily on the Russian psyche. Moscow thus seems reluctant to get directly involved in Afghanistan again, with the focus of its concerns centred more on the flow of illicit drugs to Russia, where drug addiction has emerged as a major public-health problem. But with the US now set to make its own military retreat from Afghanistan, Russia and India will have little choice but to work together to avert a destabilizing power vacuum there. Otherwise, India in particular and Russia to a lesser extent will bear the brunt of the terrorism blowback from the Af-Pak belt.


In the larger Asian theatre, Russia shares a common strategic objective with India (and America) for a stable power balance in a continent that China wants to dominate. Sparsely populated Russia, the world’s wealthiest country in natural resources, and densely populated, resource-hungry China are anything but natural allies, with Han influx into the Russian Far East stoking visceral historical Russian fears of a Chinese demographic invasion. With Russia and China seemingly reverting to their traditional suspicion and competition, their two-decade-old honeymoon may now be ending.


Russia’s future, however, remains clouded by major challenges, including an excessive reliance on hydrocarbon exports to power its economy and the looming threat of depopulation. Still, it should not be forgotten that Russia remains a nuclear and missile superpower. Geopolitically, Russia is one of the most important “swing” states in the world. For example, there can be no hope of Asian power equilibrium without Russia working with India and other likeminded states.


In the Russia-US-China-India-Japan strategic pentagon in Asia, if Russia, India and Japan were to work closely together, with the US lending a helping hand, China would find itself boxed in from virtually all sides. That would not only extinguish any prospect of a Sino-centric Asia, but would create the ultimate strategic nightmare for China. After all, as the geographical hub of Asia, China is vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against India — strategic encirclement. But fortunately for Beijing, recent developments have highlighted that a Russian-Japanese rapprochement remains distant.

However, the China factor that led to the 1971 Indo-Soviet friendship treaty is gaining greater salience, given the present spectre of Asian power disequilibrium.

The US and India are now strategic buddies. But Indira Gandhi entered into the friendship treaty containing a mutual-security assistance clause because she was fearful that the US and China would make serious trouble if India intervened to help East Pakistan become Bangladesh. Her fears proved right: The US responded not only by dispatching the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal, but also (as the declassified Nixon-Kissinger transcripts later attested) by egging on China to attack India.

Indeed, former US President Richard Nixon candidly wrote in 1985: “There were three other instances [besides Vietnam] when I considered using nuclear weapons … there was 1971, the Indo-Pak war. After Mrs. Gandhi completed the decimation of East Pakistan, she wanted to gobble up West Pakistan. At least that’s the way I read it. The Chinese were climbing the walls. We were concerned that the Chinese might intervene to stop India. We didn’t learn till later that they didn’t have that kind of conventional capability. But if they did step in, and the Soviets reacted, what would we do? There was no question what we would have done”.

Today Russia, with its vantage location in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s long-term strategic interests. In fact, Medvedev’s visit, just nine months after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s New Delhi trip, is part of the new tradition of an annual summit meeting — a symbol of the continuing India-Russia closeness, despite the shrinkage of economic ties.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of a 2010 international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (HarperCollins USA).

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