In a recent interview to Izvestia, the new Ambassador designate of the Russia Federation to India Denis Alipov said that India occupies a central position in Russians foreign policy priorities and that Russia was interested in India’s growing influence as an independent power centre both in the world and in particular in the “Asia Pacific Region”.
While the good ambassador’s words are admirable, this has become a common refrain of late – not just encouraging or wishing for India”s rise as a major power, but rather acknowledging India as a power centre. On his India visit for the bilateral visit, President Vladimir Putin himself said this in Delhi: “Russia views India as a major power, whose people have been very friendly to us.” And with good reason too.
A cold war era joke goes that the only truly non-aligned countries then were the USA and the USSR. In the current context India may be a truly non-aligned country. It’s excellent current relations with the US notwithstanding, India is purchasing the Russian S400 Triumf missile at a time when US-Russian relations have hit a nadir. India’s decision, despite the threat of US sanctions under CAATSA (though improbable) is a manifestation of its strategic autonomy, assurances of its own ability.
India’s recent decision to abstain from the procedural vote ahead of the United Nations’ Security Council first meeting to discuss ways of de-escalating the Ukraine crisis is yet another powerful demonstration of the same. Russia, has in fact, welcomed India’s stand on the Ukraine situation at the United Nations Security Council, calling it a “balanced, principled and independent approach”.
“India’s interest is in finding a solution that can provide for immediate de-escalation of tensions taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond,” said S Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, at the Security Council briefing on the implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreements on Thursday. In other words, India has let know that it is not buying into the war mongering by countries with which its bilateral ties have been rapidly deepening.
On the other hand, Russia’s ally China has not taken any overtly pro-Russian position vis-a-vis the situation around Ukraine. In fact, China has not recognized or acknowledged the incorporation of the Crimea into the Russian Federation. While Russia remains an important source for energy and defence technology for China, much needed Chinese investments in the cash-strapped Russian economy has slowed down. According to Russia’s Central Bank, in 2020, China withdrew its investments in the Russian economy. Direct investment fell 52% in three quarters, from $3.735 billion to $1.83 billion. Analysts have often pointed out to the tactical nature of Russia-China alliance – countering a common enemy in the USA.
This is what makes India, in comparison, a more reliable and safer for Russia in its security strategy as outlined by Putin’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP). The points of mistrust with China are simply missing in Russia’s relations with India. Unlike China, India has no irredentist claims either on Russia or the five former Soviet central Asian countries, where slowly but surely territory continues to be yielded to China and where cooperation is major plank of GEP. That is partly why India’s cooperation in Russia’s Far East is sought – an alternative to Chinese migration which has both demographic and territorial implications for Russia.
Other major contenders for Eurasia remain Iran and Turkey. While India has good relations with Iran, which is currently mired in issues of the nuclear deal and a flailing economy, Turkey is a challenge for both India and Russia. Turkey has demonstrated its potential to foment trouble in South Asia. In the near future, with American and Qatari backing, Turkey is all set to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. Initially welcoming of the Taliban, Russia is increasingly on unsure ground regarding the group, which remains banned in Russia, the differences between India and Russia on Afghanistan are increasingly narrowing.
Russia’s relations with Turkey have always been complicated, often clashing, while on occasion cooperating. The more recent threat of pan-Turkism may threaten Russia’s role in Eurasia. The Organisation of Turkic States, being led by Turkey currently has sought to bring the four Turkic Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan together with Azerbaijan and Turkey to form a yet another economic and socio-cultural bloc. Along with military, Turkey’s soft power is thriving not only in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia, but also in the Ukraine where, albeit in a limited role, Turkey has demonstrated its military prowess to the detriment of Russian interests. More worryingly, the concept of ‘Greater Turan’ is taking hold within Russia’s borders amongst its Turkic population. This has the potential of sparking unrest and weakening Russia from within.
The GEP locates India as a major power and partner. A strong India, with its close and historical relations with all the Central Asian states, well as with Armenia can thus help Russia both balance and counter these threats. In fact, India has good relations with all the former Soviet Republics, including with those like Georgia and the Baltic countries, whose relations with Russia remain strained. Even in the Indo-Pacific India-Russia cooperation can yield a positive impact. In this context the decision by the Philippines to purchase the Brahmos missile – jointly produced by India and Russia- from India is an important moment.
A strong India is therefore beneficial to Russia. In his interview the Ambassador suggested that Indo-Russian cooperation in Central Asia can begin within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is a good beginning where Russia facilitated India’s entry even as China facilitated Pakistan’s. But the China-Pakistan-Turkey cooperation may in fact in the future compel India and Russia to look beyond the SCO for cooperation in Eurasia.
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