The trouble with Russia | HT Editorial
There remains convergence but the China factor is too important to ignore
Russia has become the Cheshire Cat of Indian foreign policy, in danger of slowly fading away, with a friendly smile its last visible remnant. Russia remains close to India, but increasingly only when it comes to secondary interests. There is shrinking convergence when it comes to India’s most important strategic concerns. New Delhi’s task is to manage this important bilateral relationship, preferably by reimagining Indo-Russian bonds but otherwise by dragging out the process of dissolution. The source of dissonance between India and Russia is a third party, China. Even before events in Ladakh, the growing aggression of Beijing was becoming India’s overriding strategic problem. Even relations with Pakistan are often little more than an offshoot of the larger Sino-Indian confrontation. For Russia, on the other hand, the Middle Kingdom has become the primary geopolitical and economic partner, especially when it faces Western sanctions. Squaring a spiky China circle with Russian desires to remain friends with India is proving increasingly difficult.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently claimed that the Indo-Pacific and the Quad are Western attempts to seduce a naïve India into joining an anti-China alliance. This is untrue. India’s embrace of these strategic concepts, including its increased proximity to the United States (US), has been driven by unilateral Chinese acts of hostility over the past decade. Moscow’s attempts to serve as an intermediary between New Delhi and Beijing are an implicit recognition of where the problem lies. India has sought, equally unsuccessfully, to reduce friction between the US and Russia. That Vladimir Putin can publicly contemplate the possibility of a formal Sino-Russian alliance is a sign the China gap is almost too wide to bridge.
India and Russia continue to cooperate closely in almost any diplomatic arena that does not involve Chinese interests. New Delhi has defied US sanctions to preserve its defence relations with Moscow, but as relations with China worsen, there will be an inevitable erosion of confidence in Russia. On the positive side, there is a widening economic relationship revolving around energy and, potentially, strategic minerals. While this will mean a relationship on a less intimate level than that which once existed, they are the sort of new foundations that would help mitigate the hard geopolitical logic that is driving these two middle powers apart.