India and Russia have made persistent efforts in recent months to scale up their bilateral engagements.
Since the Covid-induced lockdown in India, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s first two trips were to Russia. Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar too will take his first international trip since the end of March when he visits Moscow from Wednesday to Friday this week. Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Delhi later this year for an India-Russia bilateral summit.
Given India’s ongoing border standoff with China, Russia may be concerned about New Delhi firmly becoming a part of the US-led framework to counter Beijing. On the other hand, there is a perception in Delhi that Russia can be weaned away from Chinese-oriented frameworks through collaboration with other countries.
For instance, New Delhi has been favorably inclined toward Moscow’s participation in an expanded Group of Ten, after it was articulated by US President Donald Trump earlier this year. Moreover, India’s recent attempts to explore a Russia-India-Japan trilateral will push Moscow toward plurilateral frameworks sans Beijing.
It is likely that Russia is concerned about Chinese activities in the region. In July, there were discussions on Chinese social-media platforms about China’s territorial claims extending up to Vladivostok. Moscow in June had charged a “Russian scientist with treason” after he was accused of passing classified data on submarine-detection technologies to Beijing.
Earlier, in December 2019, a Russian defense company had accused China of “illegally copying” Russian military hardware. In July, Russia decided to suspend the delivery of its S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to China. Moreover, Moscow is uneasy with Beijing’s economic and military inroads in Central Asia.
These developments do indicate the emergence of new uncertainties that have the potential to dent the relationship.
Beijing’s actions are also impacting Moscow’s partnerships elsewhere. China in the past few months has sought to undermine territorial sovereignty of both Vietnam and India, which are close strategic partners of Russia and also important markets for the Russian weapons system. India has already decided to pull out of Russia’s Kavkaz 2020 military drills, reportedly because of Beijing’s participation.
However, while Moscow must maintain an autonomous strategic posture, independent of China, there are several challenges that impede Russia’s decoupling from China and a rapprochement with the West.
First, unlike in the 1970s, when Chinese dependence on Russia was minimal, today Moscow significantly depends on Beijing for trade. For instance, in 2018, while Russia’s trade with China accounted for 15.5% of its total, only 0.8% of China’s total trade was with Russia. Moreover, the trade has been concentrated on raw materials, with energy exports from Russia accounting for more than 70%.
On technological cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin signed a roadmap for 2021-22. Huawei, besides the use of its equipment in Russia’s 5G (fifth-generation telecom) trials, has opened an artificial-intelligence research lab in Moscow. There have also been reports that the two countries are collaborating to integrate their respective satellite navigation systems.
Beijing has created dependencies for Moscow and is better equipped to prevent Russia from significantly altering the balance-of-power dynamic in Asia.
Second, Russia today does not provide as significant an economic opportunity as China. After rapprochement at the political level, China has provided cheap labor for American and European companies to benefit from the engagement. Given the current structure of the Russian economy and its demographics, it is highly unlikely that similar opportunities would exist for American and European companies in Russia.
Hence, even if there is US-Russia rapprochement to contain China, the economic pivot to sustain such a move will require considerable hard work.
Third, despite a relatively weaker economy, Moscow generates considerable anxiety among Western capitals.
In the 1970s, while China was a big country, its influence was confined to only some parts of Asia. On the other hand, in recent times, Moscow has been suspected of conducting influence operations in Western democracies and was also recently accused of stealing research outcomes pertaining to Covid-19, which Russian officials regularly and vehemently deny.
Because of these concerns, calls for building a robust relationship with Russia may be seen by some as an act of collusion and not necessarily a response to geopolitical developments.
Fourth, in terms of worldviews, the Western liberal establishment, which seeks to export its democracy and propagate its human-rights agenda, has always distanced itself from Moscow. Many in the West have questioned the totalitarian tendencies of Russian politics.
Finally, while some elements of the American political leadership in the recent past have been conciliatory and have made attempts to reach out to Moscow, the deep state in the United States still views Russia through a Cold War prism. For instance, the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (2019) categorized Russia as a “revitalized malign actor.”
Therefore, to a large extent, the possibility of the Kremlin breaking free from the special strategic partnership with Beijing will be contingent also on whether the US political and bureaucratic class is able to alter its security perspectives.
The intent here is not to argue that India or the West should refrain from developing a robust relationship with Russia. Instead, New Delhi and Washington need to surmount many challenges if they wish to build a formidable coalition and counter Beijing’s threat.
To counter its economic challenges, Russia can utilize India’s human resources for mutual benefits. Apart from collaboration in manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines, Moscow and New Delhi can also explore other avenues in the pharmaceutical sector.
India should also rope in non-Western partners to create new frameworks that can alter the balance of power in Asia. The Indian proposal for a Russia-India-Japan trilateral, therefore, is a step in the right direction.
The West, on its part, must explore non-punitive measures to promote human rights and democracy in Russia. While the concerns may be genuine, sanctions will only push Moscow closer to Beijing without significant improvements in Russia’s human-rights record. If the US could build bridges with Mao Zedong’s China in the 1970s, the possibility of the West moving closer to Russia to counter Xi Jinping’s China can be a serious proposition.
However, even though Russia today has some concerns about China, it is still too early to think of a void that is difficult to bridge between the two. Ultimately, a more pragmatic assessment of Russia’s relations with China and the West will prevent disappointments and prompt genuine attempts by India and its friends to build a stronger partnership with Moscow.
Authors’ note: The views expressed here are personal.