Russia's support in organising two recent high-level political meetings with China in Moscow shows that the Kremlin still remains an important pole for the Indian foreign policy establishment. This relationship could help shape the free world's pushback against a rising new hegemon.
Recent developments, in the wake of two back-to-back meetings between India and China in Russia illustrates the steadfastness of the friendship between New Delhi and Moscow. It is also a shining example of India's evolving and effective foreign policy tactic and Moscow remains a major axis in this foreign policy matrix. As China rachets up military tensions along the disputed trans-Himalayan Indo-Chinese border it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who is playing a major role in trying to calm things down between the nuclear-armed Asian rivals. Keeping in mind New Delhi's well-known aversion to third-party interventions in its bilateral disputes with neighbours, the Russian role is significant and overt.
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Two meetings in the space of a few days between Indian Defence and Foreign Ministers Rajnath Singh and S. Jaishankar with their Chinese counterparts Wei Fenghe and Wang Yi, both in the Russian capital, were cases in point.
Obviously, Putin and his very able Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov must have set up the first high level face-to-face meetings between the political leaderships in New Delhi and Beijing to break a military impasse. Putin remains a major player in India's foreign policy paradigm.
So, what is providing this fresh ballast to what Jaishankar and Lavrov described as a “special and privileged partnership”
The most important factor fuelling this bilateral relationship is, of course, India's dependence on Russian defence equipment, notwithstanding its recent multi-billion-dollar arms purchases from the US, France and Israel.
Russia has continued the legacy of the erstwhile Soviet Union and provided steadfast support to India's defence and strategic requirements. In fact, India still depends on Russia for 58 per cent of its defence imports. Moscow has, at the risk of offending Beijing, agreed to sell 33 advanced fighter jets to India on a fast-track basis to shore up the Indian Air Force's warplane fleet.
Russia's Federal Service for Military and Technical cooperation (FSVTS) has revealed that India has placed orders for almost $15 billion worth of arms platforms from that country. This includes the $5-billion order for the S-400 air defence system.
Besides, there is also an order to supply the Indian Navy with Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 1135.6P/M) guided-missile frigates and the deal to manufacture the top-of-the-line AK 203 assault rifle in India under the Make in India initiative.
Russia is the only country that would lease nuclear submarines, critical for India's defence, to this country. And recent reports in the India media that Russia has agreed to desist from supplying arms to Pakistan can only serve to endear Putin and his government to the Indian establishment.
That is the pull factor that is keeping India and Russia close.
There is also a push factor: China's growing footprint and influence in the mineral-rich Central Asian republics. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well as Azerbaijan and Belarus are increasingly coming under the influence of China. These republics were all part of the Soviet Union and Russia, as its successor state, considers these countries to be in its own sphere of influence. Moscow has watched with growing alarm as China has bought influence in these countries with its multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other large infrastructure and mining projects.
Russia and China also have unresolved border disputes. These are, admittedly, not military flashpoints but Moscow has reasons to be wary of Chinese designs in this resource-rich region, especially in the light of Beijing's recent gambit to suddenly raise the temperature on its border dispute with India.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping making no secret of his ambitions of replacing the current West-led world order with a China-dominated one, where every neighbour is expected to play a subordinate role, Russia obviously does not wish to be forced into a subservient position vis-à-vis its former Communist rival.
Given these strategic considerations, it also makes sense for Putin to build on his relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi - as a counterweight to any future Chinese adventurism on the border. This is another factor that is acting like a glue for India's age-old and tested relationship with Russia.
An insight into India's thinking can, perhaps, be gleaned from an article written by Seshadri Chari, Member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in a leading Indian news portal. Although the article came with the caveat that it expressed the personal views of the author, it is significant that he wrote: “... New Delhi is attempting to forge a new regional alliance and Moscow is slowly appearing to move away from Beijing... Notwithstanding the stark reality of geopolitics, in which Russia no more enjoys the power of the Cold War era, New Delhi values Kremlin's friendship highly. Importantly, it is necessary to wean Russia away from the ongoing China-Iran-Russia partnership.”
An influential section of Indian political thinkers seems to think there is merit in pursuing the relationship with the Kremlin if only to “wean Russia away” from China.
This does not in any way imply that India will move away from its alignment with the West. On the contrary, it could lead to a new, for want of a better nomenclature, West-plus (or Russia-plus) paradigm in the Indian foreign policy playbook.
The democratic world is now more or less in agreement on the need to join forces to face the hegemonistic designs of a rising China. The world order is currently in a state of flux, with the US under Trump reluctant to continue in the role it has played since the end of the Second World War and China clearly unacceptable to most countries.
In such a situation, India, which enjoys good relations both with the West as well as with Russia, can act as a bridge between the two sides. In many ways India is in a position to return the favour by endorsing Russia's credentials as a responsible global citizen when it seeks validation from the West. The Indo-Russian tango can, thus, play an important role in squaring the circle of the complex geo-political equations that will unfold in the years ahead.