A friendship for keeps

Russia’s support to India has stood the test of time

G Parthasarathy
Chancellor, jammu central university & former high commissioner to pakistan

Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on August 14 and asked for Russia’s support to Pakistan’s move, together with China, in the UN Security Council to condemn India’s action to amend Articles 364 and 35-A. His demarche included the usual Pakistani propaganda about alleged violations of ‘human rights’ in J&K. Lavrov, in response, ‘emphasised the need for de-escalation of tensions’. He added: ‘There is no alternative to resolve differences between Pakistan and India, except bilaterally through political and diplomatic means. Representatives of Russia to the UN adhere to this consistent position.’

Barely 48 hours later, the effort by China and Pakistan, in a closed-door meeting of the UNSC, was rejected almost unanimously by other members, including the US, Russia, France and Germany. Some eyebrows were raised on the actions of the British Deputy Permanent Security, who was seen encouraging the Chinese delegation to demand an open meeting. Given the attacks on Indians and the Indian High Commission in London in the days that followed, it is obvious that the British government is condoning, and perhaps even encouraging, less than friendly actions against Indian interests. New Delhi will hopefully respond appropriately on issues like British requests for a Free Trade Agreement after Brexit. 

Russia has consistently supported India on Kashmir. In 1955, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev referred to the decision taken by the Kashmir Constituent Assembly in 1953 to join the Indian Union. He remarked: ‘The people of Kashmir had already decided to join the Indian Union.’ Russia’s 100th veto in the UNSC on June 22, 1962, was against a resolution moved by Ireland, duly backed by the US and its allies, seeking selective implementation of parts of past UN resolutions, alluding to a plebiscite in Kashmir. Interestingly, this came a year after a Soviet veto of a US-led resolution in 1961, seeking to reverse the liberation of Goa by India. 

The Soviet Union vetoed three resolutions directed against India during the 1971 Bangladesh conflict. Some non-permanent members, backed by a virtual Sino-American alliance, initiated these resolutions. The UK and France abstained from backing these resolutions. The Russians warned the Chinese against any involvement in the Bangladesh conflict, with a huge deployment of their mechanised forces and air power along the Kazakhstan border. When the US Seventh Fleet’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, entered the Bay of Bengal in December 1971, a Russian nuclear submarine trailed it. When the Soviet Union collapsed, President Clinton persuaded Russian President Boris Yeltsin to halt all cooperation with India’s space programme. Bypassing Yeltsin, Russian scientists passed on designs of cryogenic engines to us.

Given US hostility aimed at ‘containing’ Moscow, a cash-strapped Putin’s Russia naturally moved towards a closer relationship with China, while it watched what it believed was an increasingly close embrace of Washington by New Delhi. While Moscow and New Delhi had cooperated closely in countering the Taliban in Afghanistan, India worked closely with the US, after the US intervention in Afghanistan, post 9/11. The Sino-Russian global entente today primarily aims at containing US unilateralism. While Putin has opened the door for arms purchases by Pakistan, Islamabad does not have the hard cash to pay for Russian weapons. Russia has also joined China to cooperate with Pakistan on attempts to broker peace in Afghanistan, as the US prepares to withdraw. Putin has, however, consistently held that the Kashmir issue should be resolved bilaterally. The Russian position on its border disputes with Ukraine is also that these issues should be settled bilaterally. Moreover, Crimea has historically been a part of Russia. Nikita Khrushchev had rather impetuously handed it over to Ukraine in 1958. 

Moscow’s concerns about the India-US relationship were substantially assuaged when, disregarding threats of US sanctions on arms purchases, India announced that it was going ahead with a $5.43 billion deal to purchase S 400 missiles from Moscow. It is also clear, especially after Modi’s recent visit, that India is not going to bow to threats of sanctions on its acquisitions from Russia, including indigenous production of AK 203 rifles, lease of nuclear submarines, purchase of TU 22 bombers and modernisation/upgrade of current Russian equipment. Modi’s visit to Russia’s resource-rich Far East has given a new ‘Look East’ dimension to India’s ties with Russia. 

While India was already an investment partner in the production of natural gas in Russia, Modi’s allocation of $1 billion for Russia’s Far East will set the stage for expanding cooperation. Trade in items like LNG and coal is set to get a boost with the energy corridor between Vladivostok and Chennai. India also has a keen interest in imports of Russian diamonds. Russia helped in ending global nuclear sanctions against India. It now leads in building nuclear plants in India. 

The Russians have for long feared that Chinese would move in and take control of their sparsely populated northeastern borders. Despite the present Sino-Russian bonhomie, the Russians deeply distrust long-term Chinese intentions. Even today, Moscow hedges its bets and keeps it channels of communication and cooperation open with both India and Vietnam. The US also today seeks maritime and economic cooperation with both India and Vietnam to counter Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific Region. Indian diplomacy will, in coming years, remain focused on the emerging power equations between the US, China and Russia, in a world where the US and Russia will be the major players in the global energy sector.

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