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Russia Loses its Strategic Sheen with India:

Paper No. 5948                            Dated 8-June-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Russia in 2015 has lost its strategic sheen and strategic utility to India after more than four decades of being the sheet-anchor of India’s security. The onus of this Indian perception gaining ground lies on Russia squarely for switching to China as sheet-anchor of Russia’s foreign policy.

Russia’s imperatives for resurgence and re-emerging as an independent global power centre and nurturing the Russia-India Strategic Partnership by India were intensely advocated in my writings of the last decade. SAAG Papers of that period would adequately reflect that advocacy.

Russia somewhere along the way in the last five years has floundered from the avowed foreign policy aim of President Putin himself of being a major power to reckon with, by moving into a Chinese strategic bear-hug resulting in a visible diminution of Russia’s strategic stature

The above image and perception sticks today despite considerable strategic resurgence. In the process Russia is seen by the United States and the West as wobbling on Chinese strategic crutches. Is that the image which President Putin wants to go around in world capitals?

Surely, even today Russia is capable of standing up to the United States and the West and does not require ‘Made in China’ crutches.

Russia’s obsessive over-reliance on China bordering on subservience to China’ geopolitical interests have cost Russia heavily strategically and geopolitically in terms of its traditional and strategic partnerships with India and Vietnam and even a promising evolution of a better relationship with Japan. The predominance and giving overwhelming priority to the “China Factor” in Russian strategic calculus has brought to naught Russia’s ‘Strategic Pivot’ to the Asia Pacific announced by President Putin in late 2012.

Strikingly evident in today’s geopolitical landscape that in any ‘Strategic Pivot’ to Asia Pacific by either USA or Russia cannot succeed without taking on board India, Japan and Vietnam. China which is in confrontation with all these three pivotal countries, namely India, Japan and Vietnam, in the Asia Pacific and with which China has border disputes cannot off-set strategically the loss Russia has to bear by losing its strategic sheen with the three major nations mentioned.

India’s disappointment with Russia in being insensitive to India’s national security and strategic interests may not spill-over into the public domain in terms of political statements but if that is the logical analysis that emerges to me would surely be a matter of concern to Indian policy planners also. The Indian disappointment is more painful when viewed in the context that other than evolving an effective US-India Strategic Partnership, India has not worked in any way to undermine Russia’s national security interests.

The US-India Strategic Partnership was an “inevitable” as my SAAG Paper heading of 2000 would indicate, but then implicit in this evolution was India’s imperative to seek an alternative countervailing power to face the burgeoning “China Threat” that Russia in changed geopolitical circumstances did not have the power or inclination to provide.

More disturbing has been the Russian petulance in attempting to signal to India that it is now moving closer to Pakistan by striking a defence and arms supply relationship. This again spells out clearly that it does not seem to be an independent Russian initiative, but Russia acting under Chinese pressure to further Chinese strategic interests in South Asia through its Pakistan-proxy.

What is then India expected to make and discern from an erstwhile staunch and tested strategic partner like Russia indulging in strategic dalliance with “India’s major military threat countries”, namely China and Pakistan?

Russia as a trusted source of Russian armaments and military supplies for the Indian Armed Forces as a strength on which India could count is also dwindling due to high costs, long delivery times and costs over-runs. Possibly this could also be speculated, though it should be unlikely, to the “China Factor” in Russian policy planning. Whatever it may be, the fact is that India consequently seems to be engaged because of above stated Russian limitations in reducing the dependency of Indian military inventories on Russia.

Recent reports in media also indicate that Vietnam too, another trusted ally of Russia, is exploring its future arms purchases from other sources, even though its military inventories are basically Russian. Presumably, the “China Factor” in Russian policy priorities to the detriment of its erstwhile strategic partners may be in play here too.

The Indian Prime Minister on his forthcoming visit to Russia due later this year would have to factor-in Russia’s losing strategic sheen to India and consequently its strategic utility to Indian national security interests as he discusses the Russia-India Strategic Partnership and its longevity.

Concluding, it is Russia which ultimately has to take a final call on what should be given primacy in the Russian strategic calculus, China or India. Russia cannot give primacy to both these major contending Asian powers, whose relationship with each other is marred by border disputes, history of armed conflict and adversarial postures likely to persist for decades to come.