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Indian-Russian Relations Are Being Tested Like Never Before

Problem is each of them has all the wrong friends:

  • Russia wants to cooperate with Pakistan, India wants to isolate it as a pariah state
  • India under Modi wants American and Japanese backing versus China, but Russia is crossing swords with the US while China is its most powerful friend

The Russian public diplomacy has become media savvy, compared to the crudeness in the Soviet era. The latest statement by the Foreign Ministry in Moscow is a gem, making a valiant attempt at damage control when word leaked out that Russia is showing interest in Gwadar Port and in using the infrastructure of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Juxtapose the Pakistani (and Russian) media reports – herehere, and here– with the official Russian press release. Simply put, the Russian drafting and play with words is superb. The press release neatly sidesteps the main issue. The point is, the real issue is not about Russia ‘joining’ the CPEC – although Pakistani reports cited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as ‘welcoming’ the Russian decision to join the CPEC. How can anyone think of Russia ‘joining’ a Chinese investment project? The CPEC is being built with Chinese money and unless Russia has money to invest in Pakistan, how can it ‘join’ this mammoth $46 billion initiative? Besides, it is not enough if Russia holds ‘secret talks’ with Pakistan for ‘joining’ the CPEC. The FO in Moscow is spot on.

But then, the thrust of the Pakistani reports was on something else –Russian ships using Gwadar Port. The reports said Pakistan approves of the Russian intention to use Gwadar. Interestingly, however, the press release doesn’t say a word on that issue. Again, the Pakistani reports disclosed a visit to Gwadar in November by the Russian spy chief Alexander Bortnikov, who heads the Federal Security Services (successor to the KGB). Now, why should a spy chief from a superpower visit Gwadar? Here too, Russian press release doesn’t say a word.

On the other hand, the press release blandly maintains that Russian-Pakistani economic and trade cooperation is a bilateral matter and that Moscow intends its “further strengthening”. Now, that is a statement of fact, and the FO is absolutely correct. Ironically, that is also what the Pakistani press reports essentially sought to convey.

Moscow waded into similar public diplomacy once earlier also recently when the FO maintained that Baltistan was not a location for the Russian-Pakistan military exercise in October. Whereas, Russian Ministry of Defence did initially announce Baltistan, only to abandon the idea fearing Indian displeasure.

The problem with such sophistry is that in the long run it erodes the credibility of Russian statements. As the saying goes, it may be possible to deceive some uninformed people for some time, but it is not going to work in the long run.

Clearly, regional politics is in flux and new alignments are taking place. Russia and India have a growing need to adjust to the new realities. Shoving the realities under the carpet will not make then go away. The bottom line is that India is moving closer and closer to the US by the day, while Russia is crossing swords with the US. There is a contradiction appearing here, which cannot be ignored much longer.

Russia’s dilemma appears to be that India is a milch cow, which generates lucrative business, while Pakistan on the other hand happens to be a serious geopolitical partner . The Russian business interests are under no imminent threat in India until and unless Washington showed willingness to share high technology with India in the military field, and the American vendor of nuclear reactors actually opened shop in the Indian market. But that is a matter of time.

On the other hand, Russia’s entente with China makes India uneasy. Given the heavy dependence on Russian weaponry, India learns to live with the reality of the Sino-Russian relationship in the new context. A normalization between India and China is not on the cards under the present Indian government. In fact, things may get worse if India and Japan embrace each other tightly. (By the way, Russia also has a problematic relationship with Japan.)

Meanwhile, Russia needs Pakistan’s cooperation to strengthen regional security, whereas India wants to ‘isolate’ Pakistan as a Pariah state. One sincerely hopes that Russian diplomacy can cope with the challenge of making money in the Indian market and playing the great game with the Pakistani generals. After all, Russia is doing splendidly well in the West Asian quicksands – partnering with Iran, Hezbollah and the Israelis at the same time. If wishes had wings, Indian elites would have liked a US-India-Japan-Russia alliance against China in the Asia-Pacific!

Quite obviously, transparency in mutual dealings between India and Russia is becoming more important than ever. To what extent a strategic dialogue is taking place between the two countries is hard to judge. Russia’s own experience should show that greater transparency in its dealings with the West in the recent years might have prevented the breakdown in trust. Trust lost is difficult to regain.

The crunch times comes for all of Russia’s friends in the region — China and India, in particular — if and when Donald Trump decides on a bromance with Vladimir Putin. India will be happy if they can sort out the Russian-American tensions. But there is no certainty as to which way the wind will blow. At any rate, Chinese media already displays much angst. (Global TimesPeople’s Daily)

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