India watches warily as Russia deepens ties with neighbors

Jhinuk Chowdhury
Jhinuk Chowdhury is a former journalist based in India and is currently working as an independent writer. She has worked as a business correspondent for the leading Indian daily – The Times of India – covering human resources, IT, jobs and careers. You can follow her on Twitter @jhinuk28.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) waves to a gathering as Russian President Vladimir Putin.(Reuters / Ahmad Masood)
How Moscow’s relationships shape up with Beijing and Islamabad will determine not only Indo-Russian ties, but also what kind of influence India will have in the region at large.

From Crimea, to Western sanctions over Ukraine and now falling oil price and the devaluing of the ruble, 2014 hasn’t been easy for Russia. What Russia went through and the consequent actions it might take will have a lot of implications for its long-term ally India, and New Delhi’s influence in the South Asian region.

Limiting India’s influence?

With a loosening grip over the Western market, Moscow – “India’s closest friend” as described by Indian PM Narendra Modi’s - is slowly picking up its own pivot towards the East, drawing closer than ever to China and finding new friends like Pakistan.

Recently Moscow closed a landmark military deal with Islamabad – the first in many decades - while its relationship with Beijing continues to develop with commercial contracts such as the massive $400 billion energy agreement.

India has tense relations with both China and Pakistan over border conflicts. Although there were reports of Indian and Chinese border troops celebrating the New Year, border flare ups have been reported as recently as mid December, 2014. Border violations in India’s northern region bordering Pakistan continue unabatedunabated.

New Delhi is also striving to expand its influence in neighboring South Asian countries including Nepal and Bhutan – a region where Beijing is fast establishing its footprint.

The security situation in Afghanistan is a huge concern for both India and Russia. India worries that extremists targeting it might find safe haven in the country. It has signed a pact under which it will pay Russia for supplying arms to the Afghan military. Moscow has been critical of NATO pulling out of Afghanistan because it feels there could be dire security consequences, which might spill over to Russia’s immediate neighborhood.

Another key concern for Moscow is the drug-trafficking emanating from Afghanistan and illegal substances ending up in Russia – a threat that’s leading the Russians to team up with Beijing to control drug production in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is also keen to have Moscow’s and Beijing’s involvement in Afghanistan. The three have met several times to discuss conditions in Afghanistan.

Reuters / Yannis Behrakis

While the tripartite effort is laudable, it might have implications for India, which apart from security concerns also has interests in accessing Central Asia energy via Afghanistan. Traditionally not a donor nation, India has already assisted Afghanistan with a cumulative amount of $2 billion, as well as participating in mid to large infrastructure projects.

These efforts are viewed by Islamabad as deliberate attempts to grow India’s influence in Afghanistan in a bid to encircle Pakistan. China too is bidding for a bigger role in Afghanistan. So the competition is heating up in the region; both China and Pakistan – already deepening their ties – will try to limit India’s influence.

That considered, the way Moscow’s relationships shape up with Beijing and Islamabad will also determine what kind of influence India will have in the wider region. An overly close convergence of Russia, China and Pakistan may run the risk of isolating India, unless Moscow strikes the right balance in its relations with the three nations.

A looming ‘two-front war’ on India?

New Delhi’s main concern is not really Sino-Russian trade - much higher than Indo-Russian business - but the nature of defense cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

While most of the weapons China purchased from Russia – Amur submarines and C-400 air defense systems - will seemingly be used in the East and South China Sea, there’s a growing apprehension: what if the deployments are changed in a way that’s detrimental to Indian security? What if China chooses to transfer this military technology to a rival country? The implication is clearly Pakistan. This is all the more alarming because of the recently signed nuclear deal between China and Pakistan.

Defense circles in India feel strongly that the country’s security frontier is getting more challenging with the growing bonhomie between Islamabad and Beijing, who both possess nuclear weapons. India’s Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff Air Marshal PP Reddy even stated that India must be prepared for a “two-front war with China and Pakistan.”

In that context, when Russia decides to sell lethal equipment like Mi-35 attack helicopters to Islamabad, New Delhi fears this may complicate India’s security implications further. The question is whether, with its growing ties with China, Russia would be convinced to side with Beijing’s allies in case of any military escalation?

Some claim that Moscow is befriending not the civilian government of Pakistan, but the country’s army establishment which treats India as an existential threat. India fears its deeper military relationship with Russian may be divulged to the rival country.

However, Russia is trying to allay the fear saying sensitive technology used for creating cruise missiles like the BrahMos, nuclear submarines or fifth generation fighter aircraft will be guarded from falling into the hands of any third party.

Russia so far has refrained from supplying any lethal weapons to Pakistan fearing upsetting India. However, with India diversifying its sources of weaponry to the US and with Israel catching up fast, Moscow has started looking for alternate buyers.

Some Indian experts regard it as a Moscow tactic to ‘arm twist’ India and stop it from diversifying its defense procurement sources.

Nevertheless, defense ties between India and Russia are here to stay as even today Moscow accounts for over 50 percent of India’s weapons supply. During the recent visit to India by President Vladimir Putin, a number of significant steps towards defense cooperation were instigated, including partnership to develop Russian fighter helicopters to be sold in India.

Trucks carrying Bhahmos cruise missiles.(AFP Photo / Ravi Raveendran)

India is also apprehensive of Russia transforming its stance on Kashmir. So far Moscow has supported India by voting for New Delhi at the UNSC. But during his visit to Islamabad in November, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was reportedly appreciative of Pakistan’s efforts to tackle terrorism. This is quite a shift from an earlier stance, when Moscow was critical of the country’s establishment utilizing extremist groups to achieve its strategic goals.

However Russia is unlikely to jeopardize relations with New Delhi for Pakistan. After all, India isn’t only its largest defense customer; Moscow also sees the sub-continent as a potential energy export destination. India is the fourth largest energy consumer in the world in coal, oil and natural gas.

India, on the other hand, while needing Russia to balance against China’s rise, will also have to get closer to the US to keep up its newfound policy of cooperating with multiple world powers. A strategy many feel marks a departure from India’s long held non-alignment policy.

So when it comes to choosing between Russia and the US, India might throw a lot of rhetoric acclaiming the New Delhi–Moscow’s ‘all weather’ friendship, while still strengthening ties with Washington.

At the same time, India fears growing Western alienation will result in Russia getting closer to China. So New Delhi will continue to project its support for Russia multilaterally, such as abstaining from voting at the UN over Crimea or ‘not supporting Western sanctions on Russia. In turn Russia – also trying to avoid over dependence on Beijing – will try to secure a greater role for India at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and close alignment with the BRICS countries.

Overall, while business between the countries will continue as usual, both New Delhi and Moscow will be active on a multilateral front that supports each other.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.