India’s long infatuation with Russia must end

Since the war in Ukraine began in February, both Russia and China have repeatedly affirmed their geopolitical concordance. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

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 had 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 war in Ukraine and Western sanctions have weakened Russia considerably, I noted. The ban on semiconductor chips, for example, 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 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 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 percent discount on oil prices that have gone up 70 percent because of the war can hardly be considered a bargain. More importantly, 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 US 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 (Ukraine) crisis."

While this sort of reciprocity points to a growing awareness of shared geopolitical interests, it cannot obscure the fundamental imbalance in the bilateral relationship. Chinese imports from Russia have increased by more than 56 percent 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 before the sanctions. 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.

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.

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 percent in 2006-10 to below 50 percent in 2016-20 to an estimated 45 percent 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 UN Security Council.

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


Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general, is an MP for the Indian National Congress.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022
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