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Are India and Russia Drifting Apart?

President Vladimir Putin visited India this week to attend the 19th annual summit of the leaders of India and Russia as announced by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs before the summit. The Kremlin revealed that during his visit to India, the Russian president would discuss the military-technical cooperation between the two countries. New military deals were announced after Putin’s meeting with Prime Minister Modi including purchasing five S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, four Krivak-class frigates, 48 Mi-17 helicopters as well as 200 Komov Ka-226 helicopters.

Historically, New Delhi had a solid strategic relation with Moscow during the Cold War, as India had a strong bilateral relationship with the Soviet Union in the spheres of trade, military, security, energy, and high-level diplomatic ties. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, New Delhi enhanced its strategic partnership with the United States in areas that include trade, nuclear energy, defense and security, counterterrorism, etc. while maintaining a close and stable relationship with Russia. Both India and Russia closely work on military-technical cooperation, security, trade, energy, and space and they are members of the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), G20 and other multilateral organizations. In addition, Moscow supports India’s bid to become a member of the UN Security Council in a reformed United Nations. However, the shift in the geopolitical landscape of Asia requires both India and Russia to pay closer attention to strengthening bilateral cooperation by bolstering the foundation of the relationship, while evolving new areas of cooperation

A new area that both countries can cooperate on is the situation in Afghanistan. Working on a peace process in Afghanistan while strengthening the current Afghan government provides a new opportunity for Russia to work closely with India and other regional powers to enhance its involvement in Afghanistan under the six-party talks (Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia) that it hosted last year. Although Washington in principle is not ready to engage in a Russia led initiative for the peace of Afghanistan, the US military is still in Afghanistan after 17 years of war. While the new South Asia strategy by President Trump encouraged India to boost its presence in Afghanistan by further developing the US-India strategic partnership, especially in the economic and development sphere of the country, the strategy completely ignored the significant involvement and presence of other regional powers in the war-torn country (namely Russia, China and Iran). Russia is increasing its involvement in Afghanistan by engaging with both the Afghan government based in Kabul as well as the Taliban, in order to address Moscow’s security concerns regarding the threat of the rise of ISIL in Afghanistan, as well as its counternarcotics mission.

While Afghanistan provides an area of mutual interest for Moscow and New Delhi, it is nonetheless important to point out areas that could challenge the historic ties between the two countries. First and foremost, the shift in the balance of power in South Asia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a close partnership with India, while India’s archrival neighbor, Pakistan, was a close ally of the United States. Pakistan was part of the US-led Baghdad pact alliance that included other Middle Eastern countries to contain the Soviet Union from expanding to the Middle East and South Asia. In addition, Islamabad was a US ally during the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan by arming the Afghan rebels in an attempt to prevent the Soviets from expanding west to the Persian Gulf and a key partner of the US in the global war on terror.

Pakistan is no longer a key partner of the US in the region, as the strategic interests of Washington and Islamabad towards Afghanistan are not converged. Indeed, Pakistan’s national security perception and the US interests in Afghanistan diverge. Although both the Bush and Obama administrations recognized the reality that the two countries are not on the same page in Afghanistan, both were supporting Islamabad to prevent a total collapse of the country and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of extremists. In contrast, the US and India developed a close relationship in the security and economic spheres, and Washington wants New Delhi to play a more active role in both South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region to contain the rise of China.

In contrast to previous administrations, the Trump administration took a hardline position vis-a-vis Pakistan and announced a reduction of American military aid to Pakistan in an attempt to pressure the Pakistani government to make a compromise in its strategy in Afghanistan, but Washington realises that they need Pakistan to work on a solution to the war in Afghanistan. Islamabad also recognizes the reality that the US-Pakistan partnership is no longer working, and in an attempt to expand its reach, Pakistan is expanding its cooperation with China and Russia. The new rapprochement between Moscow and Islamabad by buying military equipment from Russia while holding joint military exercises emphasizes the significance for Moscow to expand its presence in South Asia by “completely turning around two centuries of fear” as Kamal Alam from the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) argued. This new rapprochement worries India and may increase tensions in the Indo-Russian partnership.

Second, there is tension between China and India over Russia’s expanding cooperation with China. Recently, the Russian and Chinese military along with Mongolia’s armed forces conducted Vostok 2018 war games, the largest that Russia has hosted since Zapad-81 which the Soviet Union held in 1981. While this exercise indicated the improving military to military cooperation between Russia and China, Moscow used this as an attempt to signal to its strategic rivals, the US and the EU, that their economic sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea did not isolate Moscow from the global stage, and instead they found a new partner, China. In contrast, China was signaling to its regional adversaries including India as well as the US that Beijing is a close partner of Russia and will continue to flex its muscle across Asia militarily, which threatens India’s position in both South Asia and the Indian Ocean. If Moscow continues to engage closely with Beijing, India has no option but to align with the United States to prevent a Chinese dominant South Asia region.

Third, India’s close ties with the US and Washington’s deteriorating relations with Russia poses a great challenge to India for having robust ties with Russia. In an attempt to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election, the US Congress approved new legislation known as Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions (CAATSA) which imposes sanctions on countries that deal with Russia’s defense and energy sectors. This prevents India from acquiring S-400 surface to air missile defense system from its biggest arms supplier, Russia. The United States recently imposed sanctions against China’s state-owned Equipment Development Department for engaging with Russia to acquire S-400 defense system as well as the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. Although India is engaging with the US to receive a waiver for its military cooperation with Russia, the agreement is already signed without an exemption from Washington.

This issue which was raised during the recent 2+2 strategic talks between the US and India would test the US-India relations, and whether India could be successful in balancing its relations vis-a-vis Washington and Moscow. Policymakers in Washington have different views on granting waivers for countries that have military agreements with Russia. The defense department, especially Secretary Mattis is trying to find a national security waiver for India as well as other US partners (Indonesia, Vietnam, and Turkey), but there are some voices in the White House as well as in Congress that are not in favour of pursuing a flexible strategy towards Moscow.

Although India sees Russia’s growing relations with China as a great challenge to the Indo-Russian relations, in reality, there is a lot of mutual suspicions that prevents both Beijing and Moscow from merging a new alliance, although the current US strategy helps Russia’s rapprochement to China. India was also concerned that if Trump’s Asia strategy focuses on North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, New Delhi’s strategic significance for the US is set to decline. However, although the US-India relations improved quite dramatically under Trump, the new US hawkish policy towards both Iran and Russia poses a new danger to India’s foreign policy especially its close partnership with Tehran and Moscow.