The ties that bind: India’s long infatuation with Russia must end

Seven months after China and Russia announced their “no limits” partnership, the two countries seem closer than ever. In the face of growing Chinese belligerence, this augurs ill for India, which should urgently reconsider its diplomatic dependence on a weakening Russia.
PM Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin .
PM Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin .

NEW YORK: During a parliamentary debate in April, I expressed my concerns about India’s relationship with Russia. My words were met with grim-faced silence. But the events of the last five months have only strengthened my case.

The debate was on the Ukraine war. While deploring India’s reluctance to call a Russian shovel a spade, I acknowledged that India has historically depended on the Kremlin for defence supplies and spare parts, and appreciated Russia’s long-standing support on vital issues like Kashmir and border tensions with China and Pakistan.

But the Ukraine war and Western sanctions had weakened Russia considerably, I noted.

The ban on semiconductor chips, for example, had significantly eroded its ability to produce advanced electronics and defence goods that form the basis of India’s dependence.

Worse still, I argued, the war had highlighted and reinforced Russia’s reliance on China as its principal global partner – a relationship that would intensify as Russia grew weaker.

India could then scarcely depend on the Kremlin to counter Chinese aggression, exemplified by the People’s Liberation Army’s territorial encroachments and killing of 20 Indian soldiers in June 2020.

My Russian (and Russophile) friends pooh-poohed my fears privately, expressing confidence that Russia was doing far better than the Western media had led the world to believe.

India’s purchases of discounted oil and fertiliser have increased significantly since the war began – though a 30% discount on oil prices that have gone up 70% because of the war can hardly be considered a bargain.

More important, China and Russia do indeed seem to be deepening their ties, which augurs ill for India’s relationships with both countries.

Russia invaded Ukraine just a few weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced their “no limits” partnership. And since the war began, both countries have repeatedly affirmed their geopolitical concordance.

Last month, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, denounced the United States for permitting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit Taiwan. “This is not a line aimed at supporting freedom and democracy,” he declared. “This is pure provocation. It’s necessary to call such steps what they really are.”

A week later, China returned the favour. In an interview with the Russian state news agency TASS, China’s ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, called the US “the initiator and main instigator of the Ukrainian crisis.” Echoing another favourite Kremlin line, Zhang also stated that America’s “ultimate goal” is to “exhaust and crush Russia with a protracted war and the cudgel of sanctions.”

While this sort of reciprocity points to a growing awareness of shared geopolitical interests, it cannot obscure the fundamental imbalance in the bilateral relationship.

Straining under the weight of Western sanctions, Russia depends heavily on China, not least as an export market and a source of vital supplies.

Chinese imports from Russia have increased by more than 56% since the war began, and China is the only country that can provide Russians with consumer goods that once came from Europe and the US.

Moreover, according to Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Chinese renminbi could well become “the de facto reserve currency for Russia, even without being fully convertible.”

Xi, who will soon be confirmed as China’s paramount leader for an unprecedented third term, is well aware of this imbalance and is reaping massive rewards from it. In backing Russia diplomatically, he demonstrates his refusal to be cowed by the West.

At the same time, he is benefiting from China’s increasing dominance over Russian markets and the renminbi’s enhanced status.

And it doesn’t hurt that Chinese companies – which have been reeling from regulatory crackdowns since late 2020 – can turn a tidy profit from their sales to Russia.

The Kremlin is in no position to complain about Chinese price-gouging, let alone alienate China by failing to support its stance on key issues like Taiwan. As Gabuev put it, “Russia is turning into a giant Eurasian Iran: fairly isolated, with a smaller and more technologically backward economy thanks to its hostilities to the West.”

With few friends, Russia knows that it has little choice but to stick with China – a stance that will likely be on display when Putin meets with Xi at this month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.

Against this backdrop, India must urgently review its geopolitical options.

It must recognise that it has never needed Russia less. Its dependence on Russian military supplies – for which it pays top dollar – has fallen from 75% in 2006-10 to below 50% in 2016-20 to an estimated 45% today.

This reflects India’s efforts to diversify its defence purchases, with the US, France, and Israel becoming key suppliers.

Furthermore, US support means that India no longer needs Russia’s veto power to keep Kashmir off the agenda at the United Nations Security Council.

India must also recognise the need to cooperate with others to constrain China’s overweening ambitions.

Given its gradual transformation into a satellite state of a rising Chinese imperium, Russia is an increasingly implausible partner in any such effort.

The need for India to establish and shore up its own partnerships is magnified by the risk of a hostile China-Pakistan axis on its borders. Russia will be ambivalent, at best, about such an axis; at worst, it will be complicit.

The Russia of the foreseeable future, severely weakened by its Ukrainian misadventure, is not a Russia on which India can rely.

The war in Ukraine has created new geopolitical fault lines, forcing countries to make difficult strategic choices. India must do the same.

-- Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Minister of State for External Affairs, and for HRD, is a Congress MP.

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