India cannot afford to lose Russia as an ally

India cannot afford to lose Russia as an ally

Russia in December 2017, delivered the second batch of 10 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets to China.

Not many in the audience were amused when Nikolay Kudashev, Russia’s ambassador to India, recently said at an event in New Delhi that Islamabad has taken serious measures to fight terrorism as well as has squeezed the flow of fund to terror outfits. He went on to say that the credibility of counter-terrorism measures by Pakistan was growing after it joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

“I believe in the old dictum that if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary,” retired diplomat S K Lamba, who served as India’s envoy to both Pakistan and Russia and was chairing the event, quipped to convey the sentiment of many who gathered to listen to Kudashev.

Days, when India and Russia agreed on almost all issues are indeed long gone. The erstwhile United Soviet Socialist Republic has been steadfastly supporting New Delhi on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir — the core issue of conflict between India and Pakistan — since 1955. Moscow exercised its veto five times at the United Nations Security Council to support New Delhi on the issue of J&K – in 1957 and 1962 and thrice during India-Pakistan war in 1971. India and Russia, both being victims of terrorism, have been echoing each other in denouncing the menace, particularly its use by one state against the other.

So, if Russia’s envoy to India vouches for the credibility of counter-terrorism measures by Pakistan, it may not go down well with an audience in New Delhi. But in the wake of recent Moscow-Islamabad bonhomie, it is not a surprise. While the then Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s visit to Pakistan in 2007 was a watershed point in Moscow-Islamabad relations, the two countries have since traversed quite a long way. Russia has since long been the largest supplier of military hardware to India and has been maintaining a low-key defence cooperation with Pakistan.

But with the changes in geopolitical landscape and New Delhi’s growing ties with Washington DC, after the landmark India-US civil nuclear agreement of 2008, Moscow, too, responded to Islamabad’s overtures to improve bilateral relations. They started discussing the sale of Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan in 2014 and the delivery of the choppers purportedly begun a few months ago.

Russia, in November 2015, also inked a defence cooperation agreement with Pakistan and the two nations had their first military drill in September-October, 2016 – just weeks after India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the US.

As US President Donald Trump’s new policy on Afghanistan in particular and the South Asia in general, further strained Washington-Islamabad relations, Russia and Pakistan of late renewed their efforts to build closer ties. The US has been accusing Russia of providing support to Taliban. Moscow has dismissed it, saying it was an attempt to shift the blame for the US’ failure in Afghanistan to Russia.

Russia has been stepping up its strategic partnership with China, with the important milestones being the settlement of the border dispute in 1991, signing of the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001, and elevation of the relations to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2014. Russia signalled its willingness to consider the transfer of technology to China, as its military sales to the communist country increased substantially. Russia in December 2017, delivered the second batch of 10 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets to China — about a year after the delivery of the first batch of four aircraft.

During a visit to New Delhi in December 2017, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov nudged India to drop its opposition to Belt and Road initiative of China. He even tacitly disapproved India’s move to re-launch the quad initiative with the US, Australia and Japan to counter the hegemonic aspirations of China in the Indo-Pacific.

Growing acrimony

The prospects of Russia-China-Pakistan axis already caused unease in New Delhi. What is likely to pose a new challenge for India’s ties with Russia, is the growing acrimony between Moscow and the West. New Delhi has been trying to tread cautiously, avoiding taking sides so far. India, earlier this month, abstained from voting on a proposal by Moscow in the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for a “joint investigation” into the recent nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.

New Delhi called for strict adherence to the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention in the investigation into the alleged nerve-agent attack, thus, opposing a joint probe demanded by Russia. India also tacitly criticised the US and the UK for blaming Russia, by noting that all countries should wait for the outcome of the probe by the OPCW. India also called for restraint after the US, Britain and France launched air-strikes on Syria accusing President Basher al-Assad government of using chemical weapons against civilians in a rebel stronghold near Damascus.

New Delhi stressed on the need for an “objective and impartial probe” by the OPCW into the allegation against Assad government – a position, which appeared to be in sync with that of Moscow. Notably, although New Delhi in 2012 disappointed Moscow by voting with the US at the UN Security Council against the Assad government, it subsequently re-worked its position on the conflict in Syria, aligning its stand with that of Russia since 2013.

India did not join the US to criticise Russia’s moves on Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, instead, opposed the sanctions imposed by the US and European Union on Russia, but avoided supporting secession of Crimea from Ukraine.

But, if the current tension between Moscow and the West escalates, India may find it difficult to strike the delicate balance. India fears that Russia’s escalating tension with the West might prompt it to seek closer ties with China. Besides, New Delhi is concerned that its military hardware procurement from Russia could make it liable for actions by the US under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

New Delhi, however, conveyed to Washington that given the long history of its defence cooperation with Moscow, it would not be possible for India to abruptly bring down its reliance on military hardware from it.

The US needs to realise that India’s military capability will be severely affected if its defence procurement from Russia is affected, and a weak India is not in the interest of America, particularly when the two nations are working to build on strategic synergy to counter an expansionist China.

“India’s interest is in maintaining its partnerships with Russia,” P S Raghavan, India’s former ambassador to Russia, said.