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No, Russia-India chasm isn’t deepening with Ukraine. It counters US’ divide-and-rule ploy

Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recently wrote an opinion article for ThePrint titled, “Here’s why India-Russia rift will deepen with Ukraine crisis. It’s foolish thinking otherwise”. I respectfully disagree with his primary thesis as well as many of the supplementary points that he made. My intent in publishing this response is to generate a discussion about the future role of Russian-Indian relations in Eurasia’s emerging bi-multipolar order.

Rajagopalan wrongly regards it as a fait accompli that “Russia-Ukraine crisis…will deepen the confrontation between Russia and China on the one hand and the US on the other.” If the US and its NATO allies agree to Russia’s three security guarantee requests – no further expansion of NATO, no deployment of strike weapons near Russia’s borders, and returning to the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act – then this crisis will be resolved.

He’s correct in writing that “Indian interests are clearly opposed to anything that strengthens China or weakens the US” but it’s not the case that this is “a fundamental contradiction with Russian interests” since Moscow sincerely wants to resolve the crisis with Washington through peaceful means. That explains the several rounds of talks that both sides have had on Russia’s security guarantee requests. Whether or not they succeed is an altogether different matter, but the ongoing diplomacy is undeniable.

Russia’s security stance

Rajagopalan writes that “a particularly foolish notion is that the US should allow Russia a sphere of influence over Eastern Europe.” I agree, precisely because Russia itself isn’t asking for a so-called “sphere of influence” over Eastern Europe. All that it’s requesting is that the US take tangible and legally binding steps to ensure that it won’t continue threatening to undermine Russia’s nuclear second-strike capabilities and thus risk placing the Eurasian Great Power in a position of nuclear blackmail.

It’s important to point out that Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded the world on 1 February during a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that “we sign[ed] the treaties and related agreements in Istanbul and Astana (with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE]) that say that no country can ensure its own security at the expense of another’s security”. Regrettably, the US didn’t respect these by “ensuring its own security” at Russia’s expense.

In reality, it’s the US that exercises an actual sphere of influence over Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), one that indisputably occurs at the expense of Russia’s national security and in particular with respect to its nuclear second-strike capabilities. Russian intelligence is concerned that the US will seek to deploy strike weapons, including hypersonic ones, to the region under the pretext of supporting Ukraine if Kyiv initiates a third round of civil war hostilities with Donbas, and so made its security proposals.

Also read: Here’s why India-Russia rift will deepen with Ukraine crisis. It’s foolish thinking otherwise

Moving along, Rajagopalan writes that “It might appear pragmatic to suggest that the US should reduce its commitments to Europe so that Washington can concentrate on Asia…(but) Washington is unlikely to risk strengthening Russia by leaving it to the dysfunctional Europeans to handle the challenge alone.” That’s not what Russia is requesting though, and any such moves in that direction would be at the US’ own discretion similar to the grand strategic vision of former US President Donald Trump.

The esteemed Indian expert then rhetorically asks “Indeed, as wishful thinking goes, why not wish that Russia becomes more considerate to its neighbours so they do not seek protection from the US?” This is a common misrepresentation of the situation since it’s objectively the case that the US itself “ensured its own security at the expense of [Russia’s]” as evidenced by NATO’s eastward expansion, Russian intelligence’s suspicions of the US’ strike weapon plans, and the US’ unilateral withdrawal from arms agreements.

Another point worth responding to is when Rajagopalan predicts that “reality that has to be faced is that irrespective of how this crisis plays out, Russia is likely to end up even more insecure than it is today.” Once again, if Russia’s security guarantee requests are respected, then everyone in Europe would actually be more secure due to President Putin’s support of the OSCE’s principle of indivisible security that requires all countries to respect each other’s security interests equally.

Rajagopalan’s other prediction that “Sweden and Finland, traditionally neutral, may consider NATO membership, bringing the alliance to Russia’s borders” also isn’t set in stone either. In fact, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on 19 January that it is “very unlikely” that her country will join NATO during her term. Similarly, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said a few days later on 24 January that “we have no intention to request NATO membership now.”

Also read: China’s tech decoupling with the US is trouble. It’s one of their ‘top 10 risks in 2022’

The Russia-India strategic partnership

I must also respectfully object to Rajesh Rajagopalan’s conclusion that “the US is essential to anchor any effort to balance China. Without this anchor, there is little hope that China’s domination over Asia can be countered.” I actually believe that Russia is much more essential since China can only be sustainably balanced through friendly, gentle, and non-hostile means, not the aggressive, harsh, and hostile ones that the US envisions. The latter are counterproductive for India since it’ll bear the brunt of this policy.

President Putin’s visit to India in early December saw the two sides agree to a whopping 99-paragraph “Partnership for Peace, Progress and Prosperity” that reaffirmed their special and privileged strategic partnership of the past half-century. Paragraph 93 is especially important since it asserts that “the sides agreed to explore mutually acceptable and beneficial areas of cooperation in third countries especially in Central Asia, South East Asia and Africa.”

I interpreted this as signifying their unofficial intent to jointly assemble a new Non-Aligned Movement for creating a third pole of influence in the increasingly bi-multipolar world order. I expanded my thoughts about this in an analysis for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) later that month titled “The Neo-NAM: From Vision To Reality”. It builds upon Sanjaya Baru’s bi-multipolarity concept that I analysed in October for Force magazine in my article titled “Towards Bi-Multipolarity”.

I’m convinced that this forms the basis of the Russian-Indian partnership’s joint 21st-century grand strategy. With this outlook in mind, readers should also understand why I object to Rajagopalan’s claim that Russia desires to weaken the US in order to “strengthen China, much to India’s detriment.”

For those who are interested, I explained “China’s & India’s Interplay Of Importance For Russian Grand Strategy” last month. From Moscow’s perspective, the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership is the joint engine for accelerating the emergence of the multipolar world order while the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership is the only pragmatic and sustainable means of ensuring balance across Eurasia within this context in a friendly, gentle, and non-hostile way that counteracts the US’ divide-and-rule schemes.

Also read: Here’s why India-Russia rift will deepen with Ukraine crisis. It’s foolish thinking otherwise

More than undermining the US

Finally, Rajesh Rajagopalan criticises close Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation when writing that “the argument that India’s strategic autonomy requires it to maintain high levels of political and defence relations with Russia is particularly thoughtless.” While the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released a report in March 2021 noting that there was a 53 per cent drop in Russian arms exports to India between 2011-15 and 2016-20, a Russian official proved this was rectified last year.

Head of Russian arms exporter Rostec’s International Cooperation and Regional Policy Victor N. Kladov said in August that they reached $15 billion worth of deals in the last three years. Furthermore, India bravely defied the US’ “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) threats to remain loyal to its deal with Russia for purchasing the S-400 air defence systems. Its leadership did this after concluding that it’s in their civilisation-State’s grand strategic interests to do so.

Rajagopalan is entitled to his own opinion as a respected expert but his criticism of close Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation doesn’t currently align with his government’s policies. He’s also wrong in writing that “a China-dominated Asian order…will be the consequence of Moscow’s efforts to undermine the US”. Russia isn’t aiming to “undermine” America, it wants to reach an indivisible security arrangement with it, and Russia certainly doesn’t want to see an Asian order “dominated” by anyone.

For these reasons, I regard Rajesh Rajagopalan’s primary thesis of a “deepening chasm in India-Russia relations” to be inaccurate. On the contrary, bilateral relations have significantly strengthened despite prior uncertainty as I explained in my latest RIAC analysis about “The Twists & Turns Of Russian-Indian Ties Over The Past Few Years”. Their 99-paragraph reaffirmed strategic partnership pact from early December objectively proves this observation, which is driven by their complementary grand strategies.

Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst who often writes about South Asia. Views are personal.

Rajesh Rajagopalan responds

Andrew Korybko writes in his response to my article that if the US and NATO agree to Russia’s security requests, the crisis can be resolved. As I wrote, a compromise is much to be hoped for, but hopefully, the Russian position would be a bit more flexible than Korybko suggests, which reads more like an ultimatum. Korybko ably defends the Russian case but litigating this misses the point that such disputes are usually the consequence of the nature of great power politics itself. There is little point in looking at whose case is more justified. 

Regarding balancing China, I am unconvinced that Russia is interested in any such effort, especially after the recent Putin-Xi summit. Korybko’s suggestion about a multipolar world is odd. Polarity in international politics is determined by the distribution of power, not by what States want. Russia (and even India) may want a multipolar world but they have little capacity to change the current trajectory towards a bipolar order. Korybko hopes for a new nonaligned movement, but that will be as useless as the last one in helping defend India against China. On India buying Russian arms, Korybko suggests the data does not show any decline. I see that as a problem, and it only reinforces my concern about Indian dependence on Russia. Finally, I do recognise that my opinion does not fully align with the Indian government’s position, which is indeed why I wrote it. 

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

Source: The Print

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