Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took a two-day trip to India, where he met his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar. Lavrov then traveled to Pakistan from New Delhi. A statement from the Russian Embassy in Delhi stated that “[a] special and privileged strategic partnership with India is one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities.” During their joint press conference, the two foreign ministers reiterated the “time-tested” nature as well as the “the remarkable resilience” of their bilateral ties in the face of the increasing difficulties that have affected India-Russia ties in recent times.
Both Jaishankar and Lavrov did everything they could to show that all is well in the India-Russia bilateral relationship and they are looking at ways to reinvigorate their partnership further. It does not appear to have been enough.
India-Russia relations have seen their fair share of problems recently. Lavrov’s visit was meant to repair frayed ties. Jaishankar in his remarks at the joint press conference stated that bilateral ties continued to be “energetic and forward looking” and that the two sides reviewed their cooperation in areas such as nuclear and space technology and the defense sector. The two sides also took stock of economic ties that have been affected negatively by the pandemic and agreed to pursue new opportunities in Russia’s Far East. Highlighting the potential of connectivity in the bilateral context, Jaishankar and Lavrov talked about the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor. Jaishankar invited Russia to play a major role in India’s Atmanirbhar Bharat (“’self-reliant India”) economic vision that can provide new openings for a more contemporary dynamic economic relationship between the two sides.
On the Indo-Pacific strategy, which has caused some irritation in India-Russia bilateral ties, Jaishankar reiterated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s characterization of the Indo-Pacific and emphasized India’s view of ASEAN centrality and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, which India has been championing at the East Asia Summit. He further said that “contemporary challenges require countries to work together in new and different ways” and as India executes its “Act East and beyond policy,” he highlighted Russia as “a very important partner.
Lavrov, for his part, agreed with Jaishankar’s assessment of the bilateral ties, which he said were “valuable, mutually respectful and they are not subjected (sic) to political fluctuations.” Responding to a question on the possibility of an emerging Russia-China military alliance, Lavrov said that Russia-China relations “are at the highest in the history. But these relations do not pursue a goal of establishing a military alliance.” While dismissing the potential for a Russia-China military alliance, he opposed the Quad, which some commentators have described as akin to an “Asian NATO.” He went on to argue that Russia’s position is the same as that of India; he said that Moscow is interested in “inclusive cooperation that is for something not against somebody.”
These sentiments come against the backdrop a troubled 2020 in the bilateral. The annual India-Russia summit was cancelled for the first time in two decades last year. While the respective ministries in both India and Russia reiterated that the summit was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and that it was a decision taken by both sides together, a media report in New Delhi indicated something more serious: That all was not well between India and Russia and that the annual summit was possibly cancelled on account of Russia’s “severe reservations on New Delhi joining the Indo-Pacific initiative and Quad.” Even though the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson’s response to the media report reiterated that “this was a mutually agreed decision,” it did not allay the suspicions about the state of the relations between New Delhi and Moscow. It was also unconvincing because throughout the pandemic, India held bilateral and multilateral meetings virtually with other partners.
Moreover, Lavrov’s earlier comments on India’s Indo-Pacific engagements and the Quad did not go down well in India. Much to New Delhi’s discomfort, Russia has been essentially parroting China’s concerns about the Quad and the evolving Indo-Pacific strategies as mechanisms to counter China. Lavrov raised this first at India’s annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in January 2020. In December while speaking at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, he once again undermined India’s own concerns saying that “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.”
The lack of Russian understanding of and appreciation for India’s security concerns especially in the wake of the Galwan crisis will continue to be an issue. That Russia fails to demonstrate any sensitivity to India’s security concerns about China and that it continues to bat for Beijing has been surprising. Lavrov’s statements in December triggered a response, with the MEA spokesperson commenting that India will continue to have an independent foreign policy based on its own national interests and its Indo-Pacific strategy was not aimed at any particular country. He went on to add that “India’s relationship with each country is independent of its relations with third countries. We hope that this is well understood and appreciated by all our partners.” Nevertheless, the conflict between India and China does put Russia in a tight spot, and it is having to do a balancing act between New Delhi and Beijing, which it is not doing very well. On the border stand-off and the disengagement process between India and China, Lavrov in an interview to an Indian newspaper stated a carefully neutral position.
As Aleksei Zakharov argues, “Russia’s dalliance with China has run too far, but Moscow’s reliance on Beijing is likely to stand unaffected for a long time, probably as long as Russia is facing financial and political pressure from the West. At the same time, admittedly, it is high time that Moscow recalibrated its relations with India, which is a key to achieving a genuine geopolitical equilibrium in the region.” These are clear indications that the troubles on the India-Russia bilateral front are far from over. Clearly, China is likely to continue as a sore spot in the relationship.