Russia-India relations entering a “difficult phase”: Analyst

C.Raja Mohan.

C.Raja Mohan.

Lowy Institute for International Policy
The relationship between India and Russia is entering a ‘difficult phase’ despite the leadership of both countries being committed to a strong strategic partnership, feels C.Raja Mohan, one of India’s leading strategic analysts and the Director of Carnegie India. Responding to questions for an exclusive interview with RIR, he also said BRICS was losing relevance for India.

RIR: Is 2017 and the arrival of Donald Trump as President of the United States likely to see global realignments? Is the US- Russia relationship likely to assume centre-stage in global politics?

CRM: The election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States and his declared commitment to improve relations with Russia opens the door for a global realignment. To be sure, there is considerable resistance in Washington and skepticism in Moscow about the prospects for a potential rapprochement between America and Russia. But some early and decisive moves by Trump and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin could provide the basis for a restructuring of relations between the two countries and make the partnership between the two a critical element of global politics. 

RIR: Do you think that would render the current rising emphasis on multi-polarity in the world, embodied in groupings like BRICS, increasingly irrelevant? Because a closer US-Russia relationship could throw BRICS out of sync. Is the BRICS likely to survive as an entity? 

CRM: The idea of multi-polarity at the end of the Cold War emerged as a result of the widespread fears of America as a hyper power and its unilateralism. The passing of the uni-polar moment after the 2008 global economic crisis and the failure of American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the logic for the second tier powers to band together has weakened. Anti-Western agenda is losing its relevance.

If we exclude anti-Westernism, and take into account all the other contradictions – on what basis will we keep this organization together? I have no confidence in the viability of the BRICS.

There are problems, and these are very serious. The Chinese are pressing us on the border issues, and support Pakistan, which India sees as a direct terrorist threat. China's dominance over the BRICS and its deteriorating relations with India has made the forum less attractive to Delhi.

A reset of relations between Moscow and Washington, and the American push back against China will make BRICS more important for Beijing and less important for other members.  Brazil and South Africa practically do not actively participate in its activities, being completely absorbed with their internal problems.

Even before the Trump election, the BRICS project had become a two-wheeled cart. Russia and China were pulling it more and more towards their own goals, while Brazil, India and South Africa are gradually moving away.

Russia needed an anti-Western front. The Chinese have cleverly taken advantage of this to achieve their economic goals. They have created a supposedly common, but in fact completely Chinese, bank, thus raising the status of their own currency. Russia assumed that the proposed agenda would be beneficial to all participants, but China has used this organization to increase its own weight. Russia was used as a battering ram; it became the recipient of all the counter-attacks of the West, while China was getting all the benefits.

RIR: How would you categorize the current state of Russia–India relations? What would your outlook be on the trajectory of this particular relationship? 

CRM: Russia-India relations have entered a difficult phase. Despite strong commitment to the strategic partnership from (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi and Putin, Russia's dalliance with China and Pakistan has begun to undermine the genuine popular warmth for Moscow in Delhi. Moscow's alignment with Beijing and Islamabad in Afghanistan is likely to make matters worse in the near term. There will be much political work to do to preserve the essence of this partnership in the new era.

The Russian military exercises with Pakistan came as a shock. Everyone in India was very surprised with the exercises. Russia was considered a loyal ally of India in the Indo-Pakistani conflict over the Kashmir. We have had problems with Washington and the Europeans over this issue, while Russia has always clearly supported the Indian position. And in India, this is always very much appreciated. The most negative thing was that these exercises came during a very bad week for Indo-Pakistani relations (after the terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Uri in September) and Russian support of Pakistan inflicted a serious blow to Moscow’s reputation in India.

RIR: Is the India–Russia relationship a limited one, with undue emphasis on strategic (defence and nuclear) issues? Or is it one of the defining relationships that will determine the course of events, particularly in this part of the world?

CRM: The relationship is a limited one, despite the strong strategic quotient. There are two main problems in Russian-Indian relations. Firstly, we are not developing cooperation outside the military, nuclear and the oil and gas sectors. Human ties between our peoples are insufficient, and this is bad. To ensure that our bilateral relationship is not unduly influenced by our relations with third countries, we need to step up our bilateral economic base.

Secondly, India is seeing an increasing threat coming from a rising China. For Russia, China is a partner when it comes to its confrontation with the West. This may, of course, give rise to some discord in the future. Similarly, in this regard, India is committed to maintaining good relations with the United States, which can also cause dissatisfaction on the part of Russia.

In recent years the Chinese have supported Pakistan, and are pushing Russia in the same direction. For example, this applies to the RD-93 engines, which are used in the Chinese JF-17 fighter jets. Russia does not sell these directly to Pakistanis, but sells them to China, which then resells them to Pakistan. Russia must know that this is happening. The China factor is starting to play a disproportionately large role in our relations.

Mr. Modi is continuing on the course that India has been followed since 1991 – economic reforms and building cooperation with the USA and Japan, while maintaining good relations with Russia. The contract for the construction of a nuclear power plant with Russia was initiated by the previous government, but Narendra Modi is successfully continuing it. He feels confident that he can build good relations with everyone. Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Narendra Modi in Goa went well.

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