The year is ending with Lavrov once again accusing the West of adopting an “aggressive and devious” policy to engage India “in anti-China games”.(AP)
The year is ending with Lavrov once again accusing the West of adopting an “aggressive and devious” policy to engage India “in anti-China games”.(AP)

Moscow must come to terms with India’s security imperatives

As India reconfigures its China policy with the Indo-Pacific at its core, India-Russia ties won’t be able to escape this strategic reality
By Harsh V Pant
UPDATED ON DEC 13, 2020 08:39 PM IST

This year began with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticising the idea of the Indo-Pacific at the Raisina Dialogue, calling it a “divisive approach” to disrupt existing regional structures and contain China’s influence in the region. Arguing that India was “smart enough to understand the trap,” he said the United States (US) Indo-Pacific ploy was an attempt to “reconfigure the existing structures” and to move away from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-centric consensus.

The year is ending with Lavrov once again accusing the West of adopting an “aggressive and devious” policy to engage India “in anti-China games”. He argued that India is currently an object of the West’s persistent, aggressive and devious policy by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called Quad. He also alleged that the West is attempting to undermine Russia’s “close partnership and privileged relations with India”.

What is extraordinary in these sentiments is that a close strategic partner of India such as Russia is failing to acknowledge how India’s security environment is deteriorating because of China’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo at the border and the growing anti-China sentiment in India in light of these tensions. But what is more significant is that Moscow seems blind to the agency of India in shaping its own priorities. As long as India joins Russia and China in railing against the West, New Delhi can be hailed for its strategic autonomy but if India builds ties with the US and other Western nations, it is merely because there is a devious game at play to ensnare India into relationships that make it an object of other nations’ priorities.

Russian foreign policy is predicated on challenging the West, and every single relationship is assessed through that prism. Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is critical to give Russia a sense of being some kind of a global power even as it is finding that it can’t even manage its own backyard.

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh saw Turkey gaining a foothold in South Caucasus when an Armenian army, trained and armed by Russia, faced defeat by an Azerbaijani army, trained and armed by the Turks. China is gaining a profile in areas such as Central Asia where Russian dominance is eroding.

But such is the need for Chinese support that Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that a military alliance between Moscow and Beijing cannot be ruled out. And what better way to show Russian commitment than to challenge the idea of the Indo-Pacific even more loudly than the Chinese themselves.

For India, the Indo-Pacific is a strategic imperative — a political geography which is the centre of gravity of global challenges and opportunities. In 2018, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi dismissed the Indo-Pacific concept as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like sea foam”. As this year draws to a close, from Oceania to western Europe, the idea of the Indo-Pacific is being operationalised in foreign and national security policies of nations, something few had anticipated.

This has been one of the biggest diplomatic defeats for Beijing which had tried so hard to discredit the idea and pressured nations into abandoning it. Instead, India’s commitment towards and a robust defence of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific saw nations underscoring the centrality of this emerging political geography in their foreign policy agenda.

New Delhi has tried to bring Moscow into the Indo-Pacific ambit much like its support for Russia’s Greater Eurasia, without much success. Russia’s resistance to acknowledging this reality is perhaps understandable given its dependence on China but it does no service to either India-Russia ties or to Russia’s role in the wider region where its approach can lead to its marginalisation despite it having some real stakes in the Indo-Pacific. India’s ties with Russia cannot escape the Indo-Pacific.

As India reconfigures its China policy with the Indo-Pacific at its core, India-Russia ties won’t be able to escape this strategic reality.

Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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