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Russia's Indian Ocean pivot

Russia's anti-American posture and engagement with China complicate India and Russia's Indian Ocean engagement
Last Updated : 23 November 2021, 09:46 IST
Last Updated : 23 November 2021, 09:46 IST

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On November 17, Russia was made a dialogue partner of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The IORA is the premier regional organisation of the Indian Ocean countries. Russia's inclusion as a dialogue partner suggests the implicit acceptance of its important role in the evolving geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.

The IORA was formed in 1997, and in the last decade, reflecting the rising geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean, it has steadily grown in importance. India is a major driving force in the IORA, and other members include South Africa, Australia, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). France, owing to its territories in the Indian Ocean, such as Réunion, is a member of the IORA.

Overall, the IORA has 23 member-states spread across the Indian Ocean rim and ten dialogue partners. China, the United States (US), Japan, South Korea, Britain and Germany are dialogue partners. Pakistan is neither a member nor a dialogue partner.

Russia's foreign ministry said that the decision reflected "the high assessment of Russia's tangible contribution to ensuring sustainable dynamics in the development of the Indian Ocean zone." With the Russian inclusion, IORA is now engaged with all the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent members.

Russian priorities in the IORA will include working on issues like "maritime security, resistance to piracy, trade and investment, prompt emergency response, tourist and cultural ties, education, science and technology."

Russia in the Indian Ocean

The development comes amidst Russia's expanding presence in the Indian Ocean region. Russia is taking purposeful, incremental steps to extend its presence in the Indian Ocean through building partnerships in sectors like defence, energy and technology. Russian companies are active in these sectors across the region.

Russia has announced that it will open a military base in Sudan at Port Sudan. The base, once operational, would regularise Russian presence in the western Indian Ocean. Russia was willing to establish a base in Djibouti as well, but the tiny state refused.

Russia has emerged as a major partner for Mozambique and Madagascar. Russian mercenaries have been spotted in Mozambique to support the fight against the Islamist insurgency. In Madagascar, according to reports, Russian operatives helped the incumbent president influence the electoral process in 2018.

Russia's security presence in the Indian Ocean is expanding gradually, and it is an active player in the anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. In a demonstration of its capabilities, in 2019, Russia had sent two long-range bomber aircraft to South Africa. It has conducted naval exercises with Iran, South Africa and China in the Western Indian Ocean.

Russia is a key player in the geopolitics of Afghanistan and has been strengthening its ties with Pakistan as well. Russia has engaged with the Taliban leadership and was one of the few countries which did not shut down its embassy in Kabul after the Taliban takeover.

Russia is an important strategic partner for the military junta of Myanmar and a major weapons supplier to Southeast Asian countries. Russian arms are considered more reliable than the Chinese weapons systems and cheaper than the American ones.

By building ties with the countries located along the Indian Ocean rim, Russia is expanding its politico-military influence in the region. It is a permanent member of the UNSC and wields veto power. These factors increase the attractiveness of building a partnership with Russia.

India's Russia Dilemma

For India, Russia is an important defence partner and has begun supplying an S-400 air defence missile system, which will bolster India's defence capabilities. Besides, the military, energy and technological support of Russia is critical for India.

Yet, India and Russia do not always agree on strategic matters. Afghanistan is one such area. Recently, India organised a meeting of National Security Advisors (NSAs) of Central Asian countries, Iran and Russia, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. While a joint statement was issued, Russia immediately issued a separate statement which was much more diluted.

Russia is building a strategic partnership with China and is engaged in undermining the US-led world order. The strong Russia-China partnership is not in India's interest, and India is also uncomfortable with the growing closeness between Pakistan and Russia.

A major point of disagreement between India and Russia is the concept of the Indo-Pacific. Russia does not support the "Indo-Pacific" as a strategic framework, and it believes that Indo-Pacific is directly opposed to China and is aimed at containing the Chinese power. Such a position helps China and undermines the efforts of India and its Quad partners: the US, Japan and Australia.

Russia's growing presence in the Indian Ocean signifies India's strategic dilemma. Russia considers India as the most important partner in the Indian Ocean region. However, Russia's anti-American posture and engagement with China complicate India's Indian Ocean engagement. India has defied the US' domestic law, known as CAATSA, for purchasing the S-400 missile system.

India is the only major player with a robust partnership with the US and Russia and can engage both in the Indian Ocean. The Russian base in Sudan would perhaps be utilised to boost India's strategic reach in the Red Sea region.

Engagement with the IORA will further boost Russia's efforts to expand its strategic presence and influence in the Indian Ocean. India has welcomed Russia's entry as a dialogue partner in the IORA. Despite the strong bilateral relationship, the Indo-Russian strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean will have to navigate the difficult terrain owing to the prevailing geopolitical scenario.

(The writer is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 23 November 2021, 09:46 IST

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