Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (center), Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization foreign ministers meeting in Moscow on September 10, 2020. Photo: AFP

On April 5, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov undertook a two-day trip to India, where he met with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. During the two foreign ministers’ joint press conference, they emphasized the “time-tested” and “remarkable resilience” of their bilateral partnership against the backdrop of increasing geopolitical tensions that have affected India-Russia ties in recent times. 

On December 9 last year, Lavrov blamed the West for creating an anti-China coalition with India and compromising the latter’s strategic partnership with Russia. This implies that Russia is dissatisfied with the fact that India-US relations are gaining significant momentum, especially at China’s expense. However, this understanding clearly demonstrates Russia’s insensitivity to China’s continuing assertive behavior toward India. 

From the Cold War to the post-Cold War era, Russia and India have enhanced their strategic partnership especially in the security domain. However, with the current structural shifts in the global distribution of power, both states seem to be entering a complex and challenging environment.

With China’s assertive rise coupled with its interest in expanding in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India has forged closer relations with the United States and its allies to counter the former’s plans to revise the regional order. However, Russia has expressed dissatisfaction with the warming of relations between India and the US to contain China’s assertion and revisionism. 

“Obviously, the West is trying to restore the unipolar model of world order,” Lavrov said.  “‘Poles’ like Russia and China are unlikely to be subordinate to it.

“However, India is currently an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy as they are trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called ‘Quad,’ while at the same time, the West is attempting to undermine our close partnership and privileged relations with India. This is the goal of the US’s very tough pressure on New Delhi in the military and technical cooperation [area with Russia].” 

The string of statements recently by the Russian Foreign Ministry illustrates an unfortunate turn in India-Russia relations. Russia seems to be ignoring the geopolitical reality facing India vis-à-vis China’s intrusion.

China is embroiled with the aspiration of altering the status quo in the IOR and shaping the regional order based on its narrowly defined objectives. This has led to provocative actions along the border with India and its neighbors in South Asia such as Bhutan and Nepal.

On top of that, China’s deepening partnership with Pakistan aims to compromise the strategic interests of India in the region. All these factors must be taken into consideration when assessing India’s actions and foreign policy choices.

These events have significantly compelled India to forge closer relations with the US and its allies to create a formidable balance against China’s revisionist agenda. With the development of a more robust partnership between India and the US, Russia feels ostracized from its historic friend; however, this is not the case. India significantly prioritizes its relationship with Russia and has openly expressed its willingness to enhance this partnership. 

India has been consistent in trying to send out positive signals to Russia through recent high-level engagements, including the visit of Defense Minister Rajnath Singh to Moscow to attend the 75th World War II Victory Day parade on June 24, 2020; Jaishankar’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Russia-India-China (RIC) Grouping meetings in September 2020; and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s reassuring statement that India is steadfast in further developing its “time-tested relationship” with Russia despite the warming of its ties with the US.

Moreover, the S-400 missile system deal, the manufacturing of AK-47 203 rifles and the bilateral deal on Kamov Ka-226T helicopters are among the many recent illustrations of closer defense cooperation with Russia. In fact, India has even gone to great lengths to invite Russia to become more involved in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Furthermore, on April 13, Jaishankar explicitly stated that the Quad is not an “Asian NATO,” and India never had a “NATO mentality.” He further stressed that the Indo-Pacific construct is about overcoming the Cold War, and not reinforcing it.

Russia must not limit its perception of its relationship with India based on a pro- or anti-West dichotomy. Professor Harsh V Pant has elaborated that “Russian foreign policy is predicated on challenging the West, and every single relationship is assessed through that prism.”

Russia has developed a close partnership with China throughout the years mostly because of its disdain for the West. China has indeed become a problem as well for Russia’s national interests as it has been enhancing its strategic footsteps in Central Asia and shows apparent dissatisfaction with the status quo border with Russia. However, these factors are disregarded just because Moscow assumes that China can be a major bulwark against the West.  

India’s policy orientations go beyond the traditional prism Russia uses to engage with states. As a result, the need to look more pragmatically into New Delhi’s foreign-policy position is important.

China has clearly become a major challenge and impediment to India’s national interest. Russia must acknowledge this. Considering that Russia will not act as a balance against China, it must accept the fact India will have to engage with other major powers to offset the strategic losses it is facing due to China’s revisionist and assertive actions. This, however, does not mean that India is forgoing its partnership with Russia. 

Don McLain Gill is a Philippines-based geopolitical analyst and a lecturer at the Department of International Studies, De La Salle University (DLSU).