Russia's recent threat to put pressure on Tajikistan to evict India from its first foreign military base at Ayni is all the more credible with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Russia is acquiring a reputation for playing hardball where its interests are concerned. If Yeltsin-era Russia was somewhere between being dismissed and taken for granted, Putin's Russia has come to distinguish itself as a determined, even aggressive geopolitical player.
That Russia should take such a position with its longstanding "ally" India and an important defense equipment customer should not come as a surprise. Russia has repeatedly used the levers at its disposal to coerce a number of countries-ranging from its former Soviet-era vassals to the European Union. It's India's turn now. But why is Russia playing hardball?
The immediate answer is that Russia is trying to compel India to award a US$10 billion contract for the purchase of multi-role fighter aircraft to Russian manufacturers. Even though India's overall defense technology relationship with Russia is worth a lot more, Moscow may be willing to issue the threat because it has insurance. So what is Russia counting on? Well, China.
While they have their differences, the Russia-China relationship has strengthened over the last few years. China's military modernization project makes it an attractive market for Russian defense exporters, regardless of India's opposition and even if such exports risk damaging Russia's technological advantage in the medium-term. Furthermore, the two countries anchor the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which aims to impose its hegemony over the entire Central Asian region, and more importantly, to keep the United States out. The situation is not unlike that of two bank robbers: They know that they have to cooperate to get the loot out, but compete over how it is subsequently shared. The heist, as far as the SCO is concerned, is not yet complete.
What does this mean for Indian foreign policy? First, that the system of negotiating with Russia in the context of "traditionally close ties" is approaching its end. Realpolitik now guides Russian foreign policy, and India would do well to engage Russia accordingly. Second, that India must develop a reputation for being able to stand up to such threats. India has in the past prided itself on its "independence of foreign policy"-its resistance to American pressure. Yet, India has a poor record of resisting Russian and Chinese pressure-and this reputation must be set right. Defusing the Russian threat over the Tajikistan base offers an opportunity. And lastly, while it would be desirable that the multi-role aircraft purchase be evaluated on the merits of the proposals received, India would do well to consider the strategic costs of overdependence on Russian military hardware.
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance.