Is India Losing Russia?

INS Vikramaditya with a Sea Harrier. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Indian Navy

The two countries still share values, as well as interests.

With the international system in a state of flux, we are witnessing significant political changes between nations. U.S.-China relations have come under great strain, as evidenced by their adversarial stand with regard to the South China Sea. Russia is ceding space to China with regard to East Asia. There seems to be a return to Cold War–like dynamics between Russia and the United States. It is being reported that Russia has placed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, which borders Poland and Lithuania. The missiles are capable of hitting targets as far away as Berlin. Their differing positions with regard to the crisis in Syria and ISIS underline the tension between the two.

To the surprise of many observers, India-Russia relations, which have stood the test of time, also appear to have been affected by this trend, with Russia apparently upping its security ties with Pakistan, India’s traditional rival. For many in India, Russia’s decision to go ahead with its Druzhba (Friendship) 2016 military exercises with Pakistan immediately after the Uri terrorist incident, and its reticence in fully backing India on terrorism emanating from Pakistan at the recently concluded eighth BRICS Summit in Goa, are seen as worrying developments. From the perspective of a stakeholder in this bilateral relationship, the questions that come to one’s mind are: How worried should one be about these developments in India-Russia relations? Also, what should be done to ensure that there is no fundamental realignment in the relations between the two nations?

If one disregards the almost seventy-year history of relations between the two nations, it would appear that the observation of Rajan Menon, a close follower of India-Russia relations, is being proven wrong: “The two countries have established substantial trust and understanding, a convergent worldview, and a stake in preserving a relationship that few countries can claim to have.” A perusal of the bilateral relation will show that is all not particularly well. On the security front, the Russians have been stepping up joint military exercises with Pakistan since 2014. The two naval exercises, Arabian Monsoon 2014 and Arabian Monsoon 2015, were followed up by Druzhba 2016, which was a two-week long military exercise conducted in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province involving seventy Russian service personnel.

While the naval exercises had combating crime groups and drug trafficking as their objective, Druzhba 2016 went a step further and had more conventional objectives, like training for combat in mountainous areas and taking on armed groups. India made its dislike of these military exercises known to Russia when India’s ambassador to Russia, Pankaj Saran, pointed out that “military cooperation with Pakistan which is a State that sponsors and practices terrorism as a matter of State policy is a wrong approach and it will only create further problems.” Parts of Druzhba 2016 were to be held in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan, an area India considers to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan. The spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, told the press that “India repeatedly brought up its concerns about the venue of the exercise with Russia” and that the said province was “part of Indian territory.” This led the Russian embassy in New Delhi to issue a clarification that the military exercises would not be held in any “sensitive or problematic areas.” The exercises were subsequently held in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Additionally, Russia has been selling military hardware to Pakistan. It is believed that the two nations are in discussions regarding the possible sale of Russian Su-35 warplanes to Pakistan. Pakistan also bought four Mi-35 helicopter gunships from Russia in 2015. The Hindustan Times reports that over the last fifteen months, the army, navy and air force chiefs of Pakistan have visited Russia to explore other such military deals. Given the fact that Pakistan is the world’s seventh-largest importer of defense equipment, it could prove to be a lucrative market for Russian arms manufacturers. This could have serious consequences for India-Russia relations.