With the Soviet Union collapsing in 1992, its Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who became Prime Minister in 1998, realised that Russia needed India and China as major partners to balance American power and hegemony, particularly in Asia. Under American economic and diplomatic pressure after the Pokhran nuclear tests, India readily agreed to Primakov’s suggestion.
This was a grouping of convenience, with each member using its position to separately leverage and improve its relations with the US. Russia, however, soon lost its pre-eminent position to an economically dynamic China. Russia, which contributed substantially to strengthening China’s armed forces, now depends on selling its Siberian gas to China. Moscow has been reduced to a junior partner of Beijing.
India has remained a steadfast partner of Russia in defence purchases, an investor in the Sakhalin gas fields and the largest buyer of Russian nuclear power plants. It has also tacitly backed Russian military interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and in Syria, with discreet support for the Russian-backed, secular Assad Government.
Russia has, in turn, backed moves to end global nuclear sanctions against India. But one can sense that Russian support for India’s admission into groups like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which China has opposed, is now clearly waning. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed China, by implicitly linking India’s membership of the NSG to that of Pakistan and stating Russia “might support” India’s membership.
Observers in Delhi took note of gratuitous advice given by Lavrov during his visit to New Delhi. While acknowledging Russia had its own Eurasian Transport Corridors, Lavrov urged New Delhi to find ways to “benefit from” the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR), which traverses through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Lavrov held that despite this “specific problem” of violation of its territorial integrity by China, India should not make everything else conditional for “resolving political differences”. This, while waxing eloquent on the benefits of the OBOR and ignoring the fact that many recipients of such Chinese “aid” were feeling wary of the tough financial and other conditions the Chinese were imposing. He also obliquely expressed concern about the US, Japan, Australia, India Quad, which is widely perceived as aimed at balancing Chinese coercion and assertiveness, across the Indo-Pacific Region.
Even as Lavrov was talking about the benefits of China’s projects, his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi was dwelling on how the military stand-off in Doklam had put a “severe strain” on Sino-Indian relations. China’s Foreign Minister held India responsible for the tensions, stating: “The viciousness caused by the cross-border infiltration of the Indian border guards put bilateral relations under severe pressure”.
He also held that progress in Sino-Indian relations in 2017 was “not very satisfactory.” Clearly the Doklam episode has dented China’s image of infallibility in its military adventures beyond its borders. New Delhi should constantly bear this in mind.
There is now a congruence of Russian and Chinese positions on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia is supplying attack helicopters to Pakistan. Well-informed Afghans have told me that the Russians have provided arms to the Taliban. Russia is now working in tandem with China to promote Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan. Our relations with Russia, however, remain important, despite these differences, which need to be pro-actively addressed and not glossed over.