Russia’s re-emergence as a strategic player in West Asia and Gulf and its close monitoring of Afghanistan revives its relevance for India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is maintaining a relentless schedule of foreign visits despite the grim economic news of the first-quarter GDP plummeting to five per cent, a sharp drop from the eight per cent in the same period last year, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam rendering 1.9 million persons stateless (adding 20 per cent to the existing 10 million globally) and Kashmir remaining largely in lockdown for nearly a month. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar has meanwhile ploughed through Russia, Poland and Belgium as Prime Minister Modi prepares to attend, as a special guest, Russia’s fifth Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) at Vladivostok on September 4-6.
Pakistan and its Prime Minister Imran Khan have maintained a daily diatribe of anti-India rhetoric, nuclear war threats and public protests over India’s Kashmir policy. The first round at the United Nations was won by India when the UN Security Council (UNSC) refused to go beyond a pre-meeting consultation, without issuing a statement or a press advisory. However, the continuing lockdown in the Kashmir Valley is beginning to make even India’s friends a little nervous and uncomfortable. Three days after Prime Minister Modi met President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, the United States expressed concern over the communications blockage and detentions. Two major Islamic nations, Iran and Turkey, have voiced support for the people of Kashmir. India may take assurance from the silence of the Saudis and Mr Modi getting a major award in Abu Dhabi, but they realise that with the United Nations high-level General Assembly summit approaching end-September, the window to restore normality is shutting rapidly.
Russia, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and Poland and Belgium as non-permanent members, are vital for foiling Pakistan’s persistent attempts to draw the UN into India-Pakistan affairs. India just cannot afford to get its internal handling of Kashmir wrong. The Supreme Court on August 28 took cognisance of the issues raised in 14 PILs and 10 other petitions challenging the government’s Kashmir gambit, including the constitutionality of the abrogation of Article 370. The allegations range from constitutional jugglery to anti-federalism and curtailment of freedom of speech and movement. The matter will be heard next on September 4, as Prime Minister Modi arrives in Vladivostok. The attorney-general and the solicitor-general have argued that an examination by the Supreme Court of these issues has international implications. Similar arguments have been made by the BJP and the government’s spokespersons to counter the Opposition. Pakistan has opportunistically chosen the domestic debate in India to build its argument against this country. Politicians aside, it is surprising for the two top law officers to employ such a defence when their concern should be constitutionality and the rule of law.
The EEF meeting in Vladivostok is to showcase investment opportunities in the eastern regions of Russia and promote international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. Significantly, Russia avoids the US coinage “Indo-Pacific”, preferring instead the traditional “Asia-Pacific”. Last year’s guest of honour was Chinese President Xi Jinping. Other attendees would include the President of Mongolia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Indo-Russian trade and investment have lagged for two decades. The Russian investment in India is $18 billion, while India’s in Russia touches $13 billion. Russian investment in telecom got entangled in the 2G scam, resulting in much recrimination. The Indian investment in Sakhalin oil fields fared better. Understandably, Russia wants bigger Asian powers like India and Japan to balance the Chinese push into Russia’s underpopulated east. Russia also desperately needs to diversify its economy beyond oil and gas, while fighting sanctions by the United States and the West over its annexation of Crimea and interference in Ukraine, besides the alleged assassination of Russian dissidents in Britain. But there is rising realisation among the G-7, as its next chair US President Donald Trump put it, Russia is better inside their tent than outside.
It is thus timely Indian balancing between the United States, and its divided camp-followers in the Gulf, and Russia, which has closed ranks with China on a variety of global issues. Ensuring Russia’s pro-India bias, even when it engages Pakistan, or at least its neutrality, is necessary considering the strategic uncertainties caused by President Trump in the region and beyond. Russia has been a reliable partner in the defence and energy fields. It has shared advanced technologies used in nuclear submarines, space launch vehicles, etc. However, cost escalation in the refit of aircraft-carrier INS Vikramaditya and its unwillingness to involve India in the joint production of fifth-generation fighter aircraft have remained irritants. Russia has concerns over India buying more American weapons and aircraft. India is signalling that it will take decisions as per its supreme interests, as demonstrated by not backing off from the purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence system, despite American pressure Thus, the visits by the external affairs minister, who began his diplomatic career in Moscow, and now Mr Modi give an opportunity to translate into reality the decision, taken at the 2010 annual meeting of the Russian President and the Indian PM, to lift bilateral ties to a “special and privileged strategic partnership”.
Russia’s re-emergence as a strategic player in West Asia and Gulf and its close monitoring of Afghanistan revives its relevance for India. President Vladimir Putin’s Gulf Security Plan was announced but not revealed, awaiting perhaps America’s next steps in Afghanistan. French President Emmanuel Macron’s play to have Mr Trump accept a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opens up new possibilities. But India’s Kashmir gambit and its excessive cosiness with Abu Dhabi will inhibit a role in the emerging realignment. The UAE may have anticipated this and thus begun its own de-escalation with Iran, noticed by its troop scale-back in Yemen and the engagement between the coast guards of the two nations. The US also realises that peaceful containment of Iran is necessary for stability in Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon. In any case, it is critical for stability in the Gulf. The lesson for India is that ideological and populist domestic decisions do not always square with strategic advantage abroad, beyond its arm-wrestling with Pakistan.