WHAT is happening to Indo-Russian relations? Are they slipping? And would that be good for India? During the Cold War, the then Soviet Union stood solidly by India on the Kashmir issue. During those tense months when East Bengal was fighting for freedom, the USSR again was a reliable supporter of India much against US pressure. But now Moscow seems to be developing a new approach towards South Asia. And India had better watch out.
One of the greatest ironies of our times is the growing relationship between Russia and Pakistan. Both want to improve their mutal relationship. Obviously both want to forget the time when under prodding and financial support from Saudi Arabia and US, Pakistan trained jihadis to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union has to quit after suffering grievous losses. To think that Russia now wants to woo Islamabad is mind-boggling. When Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on a visit to Delhi in November 30 was asked why his country was seen to get close to Pakistan, his answer was revealing. “I sincerely hope” he said, “that you are not asking this question of the belief that India and Pakistan will be foes for ever”. Lavrov’s argument was that Russia finds it necessary to cooperate with all countries and “it is absolutely important to do it”.
According to Lavrov “cordial India-Pakistan ties are in Russian interest” and also strengthening relations with India is one of Russia’s “foreign policy priorities”. Lavrov did not speak of “strategic priorities”. Evidently Moscow does not want or is reluctant to ask for a “strategic partnership” with India as US President Obama so expressively seeks. That by itself is intriguing. At a press meet in Delhi, Lavrov sounded very supportive of Pakistan, refusing to criticise state-sponsored terrorism. Actually he drew a line of distinction between the Pakistan government and “terrorist hot-beds” operating within Pakistan. He seemed impervious to the existence of the ISI and its malevolent intentions towards India. He also seemed to ignore General Kayani’s observations that the Pakistan Army’s entire thinking was ‘India-centric’. India has never been-and has no reason to be-anti-Russia. Indeed India, politically, has been dependent on the Soviet Union during some of its worst days and has every reason to be grateful for Moscow’s support. Then how does one explain the latest developments? One, Moscow may have felt hurt at India, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seemingly cosying up to the US. Two, if that is true, Moscow may be feeling that cosying up to Islamabad is fully in its own interests to put an ungrateful India in its place. Three, with China acting as Pakistan’s god-father, Russia may be feeling that it is also in its own interests to befriend Islamabad to get easy access to the Indian Ocean for geo-political reasons. Four, a brief chill in Indo-Russian relations was apparently felt when India joined a short-lived quadripartite forum with Japan, the US and Australia, three years ago. With Russia’s waning power it is important that India treats it with warmth and high respect.
According to Vladimir Radyuhin, a well-known Russian media expert, India’s reluctance to upset the US in the slightest way, displayed at the tripartite meeting of Russian, Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers in Wuhan, China, and which came on the heels of Obama’s visit to India has raised concerns that New Delhi may be cosying up to the US “a little too far for Moscow’s comfort”. It may be true or it may be a fig of Russia’s sensitive imagination, but India should take that into full consideration.
Dr Manmohan Singh may argue that with changing times, international relations will only change, but that is poor consolation to Moscow which has long been our consistent friend. One thing India should never attempt to do is to be seen as marginalising Russia. Happily, in the communiqué issued after the Wuhan meeting, Russia and China said they welcomed India’s “constructive participation” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and attached “importance” to India’s desire to play a larger role in the Group. Indeed, in order to give a higher profile to the RIC (Russia, India, China) trilateral, India’s own Foreign Minister SM Krishna proposed three “flagship initiatives” in each of the three countries.
Significantly, India persuaded Russia and China to subsume their fears and look for an “open, transparent, inclusive and balanced security and cooperation architecture in the Asian Pacific.” As far as Indo-Russian trade is concerned, a protocol has been signed by the two countries to achieve mutual trade to the amount of $ 20 billion by 2015. And unspoken fear prevent in Beijing is of what Indo-US “strategic alliance” signifies. Actually, if Vladimir Radyuhin is to be believed, most Russian experts think that India is not willing to play the role of a “fulcrum of US anti-China policy”. One thing is clear: If India wants to play an important role in Asia it has to show that it is unwilling to play second fiddle to the US. It has to follow its policy consistent with its national interests, Right now, with China behaving like an unbridled power, India has to keep its option open, and hopefully, Russia understands that. One hopes that China, too, will realise that it cannot cross certain Laxman rekhas and give needless offence to India.
As for India, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao noted in a recent talk that for Delhi “the situation is complex, since China is not only our largest neighbour, but also because China is today a major power in the world both from the traditional geo-political point of view and the more current geo-economic point of view”. More to the point, she said: “Neither of us has the luxury of seeing each other in antagonistic terms… I believe the proposition of competition and rivalry should not be exaggerated in a manner that it overshadows our genuine attempts to manage and transact a rationally determined relationship”. That says a lot. As a friend, Russia must inform both China and Pakistan that it is in nobody’s interest to be provocative. There is a whole lot to be gained if Russia can persuade its new-found friend Pakistan and its collaborator in the RCI trilateral, China, to treat India with understanding. An appreciation of India’s concerns will go a long way in establishing stability in South Asia and the Indian Ocean periphery.