Play along with US but don’t take Russia for granted

Foreign policy has always been Bharat’s Achilles Heel. We are infamous for taking loyal friends for granted. Our self-righteousness invariably comes in the way of making good mates. The mindset of the current dispensation was not drastically different till circumstances compelled it to change tack. Continuity may be the cornerstone of a robust foreign policy, but if that continuity rests on a flawed premise, the adamant pursuit of it can only harm the national interest – which it irretrievably has in the last few decades.

We persisted in courting Pakistan till JeM sponsored terror attacks at Uri (Sept. 2016) and Pulwama (Feb. 2019) brought us to our senses. Appeasing China has cost us dear, and serenading America has not made our borders any safer. When Narendra Modi was voted to power in 2014 a shift in focus was expected. Tabled instead was the same stale fare beginning with the infructuous invite extended to Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the swearing-in followed by an ill-conceived stopover for a “cup of coffee” with him at Lahore in December 2015.

Within four months of assuming office Modi was chatting up China and CCP super boss Xi Jinping on the promenade of the Sabarmati waterfront in Gujarat. Again, five months into his second term, he was sipping coconut water and holding hands with Xi amid the backdrop of the seventh-century world heritage site at Mamallapuram at a meet called the “Chennai connect”.

It has taken the death of over 400 security personnel in Kashmir in ISI aided terror attacks since 2014, and the recent loss of 20 brave hearts along the eastern Ladakh border at the hands of the vicious People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to finally realize that neither neighbour can ever be trusted. Pakistan remains the viper it was, and China the crocodile itching to devour others around it. Defence has been ignored for much too long. Plugging the gaps in our preparedness will now be an uphill task.

Had Modi expended even one-fourth of his energy to strike a deeper bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bharat would have been better placed to deal with the twin threats on our northern flanks. The Russians have always helped us militarily, no questions asked, and regardless of who says what. The claim may seem facile on the face of it, but there is no better imprimatur than recorded history to shut up sceptics. Bharat’s rock stable relationship with Russia, and its earlier avatar, the Soviet Union, right through the Cold War is cast in stone.

Which is not to say that we should neglect our relationship with the US. That we cannot afford given the economic compulsions. But laws like Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) pose a permanent threat to our defence interests. The prospect of policy shifts in other areas also remains a source of friction with a change in guard at the White House every four or eight years. America’s growing insularity cannot be comforting.

Contrast the political ground realities in the US with Russia which Putin is set to rule for another 12 years after the expiry of his current term in 2024. Like Modi, he is nationalist to the core, a non-nonsense man, assertive, beyond being bought, a chastiser of liberals, and a man of his word. Critics of the former KGB spymaster will catalogue out a longer list of faults as they did with Modi since 2002 which the electorate ignored. Russia under Putin has prospered economically. Food shortages are a thing of the past with agricultural growth.

Militarily too the Russian military complex is beginning to acquire the old lustre of the Soviet era. Enough to worry NATO. Military manoeuvres conducted in 2018 with 300,000 troops in Siberia were the largest since the cold war. Russia’s low defence spending compared to US ($61 billion versus $649 billion in 2019) is often cited as evidence of its declining military prowess. But this is a red herring. With sizeably lower costs and lack of long involvement in war zones beyond its borders (Syria being the lone exception), it gets markedly more bang for the buck.

Cold facts attest that Modi met Putin a number of times in the last two years, but always on the sidelines of summits like the Eastern Economic forum at Vladivostok in September 2019, at the BRICS parleys 2-3 months later, Sochi in May 2018, and G20 in the winter of the same year. Putin visited Bharat in December 2014 and October 2018, but neither occasion was accorded the status of a State visit. Why? Because the atmospherics would not have been eye-catching, and made the Americans squirm. And yet when Chinese wolves came barking at our door, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh lost no time in rhapsodizing the “special and privileged strategic partnership and defence relationship” with Russia for nearly 50 years. The compliment seemed labored.

An invitation to the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War along with the meeting of the Russia-China-India (RIC) foreign ministers in Moscow between June 23-26 came handy. The Russians were importuned to expedite deliveries of the weapons systems under the 14 memorandums of understanding (MoUs) signed during at the Defexpo 2020 in Lucknow earlier this year. The agreements cover the entire gamut of developing and manufacturing land, air, and naval systems, making of Kalashnikov AK-203 machine guns, Kamov 226T helicopters, 200 of which Bharat intends to buy, plus hi-tech civilian products. Defence deals with Russia are on the verge of crossing $16 billion, the center-piece of which is the supply of the S-400, the world’s most powerful air defence missile systems. The missile deal alone will burn a $5 billion hole in the Bhartiya exchequer.

It would be naïve to think that Putin is unaware of New Delhi’s diffidence in dealing with Moscow. But unlike us he doesn’t squander his country’s interests at the altar of an imaginary equivalence. Putin travels the world but knows whom to implicitly trust. He knows Bharat’s national interests converge with Russia’s even if we have not given the relationship the attention it deserves after the Soviet break-up. Which is why he did not fob off our overtures when Rajnath Singh self-servingly sought an early supply of the near outdated Sukhoi 30s and upgraded MIG-29s to deal with the Chinese threat. Russia meets 65 per cent of our military needs. Still the man running the country since 2000, briefly as PM, and since 2012 as president, was found undeserving of a “Howdy Putin” moment. See the irony.

Indira Gandhi was the only PM who knew the US can never be a stable ally. Not necessarily due to an ideological preference like her father, but more because she was a realist in global affairs. No self-respecting Bhartiya should forget that Richard Nixon called her an “old witch”, and Indians a “slippery treacherous people” during her visit to the US in 1971 to explain the reasons behind Bharat’s refusal to withdraw its troops from Bangladesh. Nixon’s devious secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, spat out an actual expletive. “Indians are bastards anyway,” said he. Ever heard the Russians utter anything remotely derogatory about any of our leaders?

Putin is Bharat’s best bet in the coming years for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the instability plaguing the American body politic. Though President Donald Trump is outwardly an ally, it would be churlish to deny that his mercurial temperament makes him unreliable. Trump’s understanding of geopolitics, much less our culture and ethos, is shallow if not non-existent. His bonhomie stems solely from his desire to use the country as a counterweight to China. Which is just as well. But there is no guarantee that the Don will stick his neck out for us in a military emergency. His position on the recent Chinese incursion in Ladakh gave no firm signal. Should he fail to get re-elected this fall, the spectre of which looms large, the next incumbent will almost certainly be anti-Bharat. Running after Russia will then be a compulsion. Why not restore the old warmth shorn of selfishness before circumstances compel?

A military alliance with Russia during the Soviet days was not politically palatable to the Right largely due to the handle it gave to the indigenous communists and their Leftist allies to extend their influence, and mischief monger on the margins. Not anymore. Putin himself has shuffled off his Stalinist coil. Glasnost by his own volition engendered the realization that communism was a “blind alley disconnected from the mainstream of civilization”.

Russia offers geopolitical convergence over a wide spectrum which cannot be overlooked. Humouring Uncle Sam must have its limits. Quite apart from weapons, Moscow can also prioritize our oil imports. Though both US and Russia back Bharat’s demand for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, Russia has also batted for our entry into the exclusive Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) regardless of whether we sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Moscow also pushed Bharat into becoming a full member of the China initiated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance with the largest regional footprint.

Above all is Russia’s unequivocal support for Bharat’s decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and accepting our stand that it was “carried out within the framework of the Constitution of the Republic of India”.  Washington’s official response was muted. We can take comfort from the fact that nothing reproachful was said. But Trump’s sullen remark that he was not consulted cannot be interpreted as outright support compared to Russia’s clear stand.  Can there be a more telling affirmation of sincerity? But do we care, and how much?

Admittedly, the elephant in the room is Russia’s strategic partnership with China. Mutual trade on paper crossed the $100 billion mark two years ago. China is the largest overseas market for Russian oil. Together with minerals they constitute 76 per cent of Moscow’s exports to its communist neighbour. What it imports are consumer items like clothes, shoes, machinery, and automobiles. Bilateral trade is thus hugely skewed in favour of the Dragon, a potential source of friction in the future.

Russian hopes rest on the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline, a massive cross-border undertaking which holds the key to China’s energy security. It is a $400 billion project spread over 30 years in which one trillion cubic meters of gas will be carried along a whopping 8,000 km (over 5000 kms of which lies in China’s terrain) stretch from Siberia to the River Yangtze.

Militarily too Russia and China have expanded their cooperation. Two regimental sets of Russia’s powerful S-400 interceptor-based missile defense systems have already been delivered to Beijing. Early warning missile systems, land-based radars, space-based satellites, and data analysis centers are also in the pipeline. Joint military training exercises have been conducted.

None of this, however, should worry Bharat. Economic interests compel Russia to break bread with the Dragon with whom it has a long border. No country can afford to ignore geographical realities. Deep down, however, Russia has never taken too well to Beijing’s expansionist mindset. Especially its adventurism along the South China Sea. In fact, many Russian analysts feel Beijing may already have begun to cast a long shadow on Moscow’s global ambitions.

The $3 billion contract signed with the Bhartiya Navy this March for the 10-year lease of a nuclear submarine to be known as Chakra III drove a message. The submarine will be delivered by 2025. No prizes for guessing whom it will be used against if necessary. The Russian military complex may have seen some decline since the Soviet era, but it is still daunting and a step ahead of China. This the latter knows only too well. Hence, the deference. Power is the only reality Beijing respects.

With China trying to emerge as a bipolar power in a hitherto unipolar world, Russia and Bharat are well placed to influence geostrategies in Asia and West Asia on a spate of issues if they join hands. Only a strong regional balancing force can checkmate Chinese ambitions. There is no reason why America should object as long as the Dragon can be checked. In any case we really cannot afford to be in either camp if an Atma Nirbhar Bharat is the cherished goal. But, as they say, abhi Dilli duur hai. Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, howsoever challenging, is the only option till the dawn of that bright morn.


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.