Of late, observers in India have expressed growing concern regarding Russia’s continued drift toward Beijing, especially following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Moscow visit where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in late March.
For instance, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran recently opined that Russia’s vulnerable position vis-a-vis China empowers the latter to restrict the former’s engagement with India. While the possibility of such a prospect should certainly inform Indian policymakers, the issue is slightly more complex than what is highlighted.
It is true that China has emerged as Russia’s closest informal ally in the last decade following the West’s consistent effort to isolate Moscow after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in early 2022 further compelled the US and Europe to increase pressure on Russia through various sanctions.
Consequently, Russia has found itself diplomatically cornered and increasingly drifting towards China. The shared anti-American sentiment and contempt for Western values have enabled a strategic convergence between Moscow and Beijing.
Russia’s increasing economic dependence on China against the dwindling alternatives for both its exports and imports does make it vulnerable to conceding to the latter’s demands with respect to India.
However, it is still too superficial to assume that Russia has lost all the bargaining power vis-a-vis China. Despite the constraints that Russia has found itself in following its annexation of Crimea and later its invasion of Ukraine, it still enjoys a certain degree of relative autonomy vis-a-vis China, especially when it comes to its relationship with India. The following arguments substantiate the above assertion.
Convergence of Interests Alone Drives Cooperation
As realists argue, national interests are the supreme determinant of a country’s foreign policy. Accordingly, shared interests are the foundation of all partnerships. Similar to the US-India strategic convergence that is primarily founded on apprehensions around China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific, the Russia-China relationship is also founded on similar apprehensions about the West, particularly the US. Furthermore, if interests define the convergence between states, it also sets the limit to their strategic alignment.
Both China and Russia are united in their opposition against the Western worldview of the global order, led by the US, that is hostile to them. But similar convergence might not exist between them regarding the nature and character of their idea of alternative world order and India’s role in it. If the former can drive cooperation, the latter might drive cleavage as well.
While Beijing views India as a potential strategic competitor in Asia, Moscow does not think of New Delhi as a strategic threat to itself despite the latter’s relationship with the US. While China seeks to displace the US as the global hegemon, Russia seeks an alternative order where it is treated as equal to Beijing, and India is a pole – a proposition China is unwilling to concede.
Besides, the India-Russia relationship is a time-tested one forged through years of bilateral trust and strategic cooperation. For Russia, India is the only friend other than China that exercises considerable global influence that it can turn to. Sabotaging its relationship with India would be strategic suicide for Russia as it will permanently reduce it to a subordinate of China. Russia has already lost the confidence of its partners in the EU following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 Alienating India would extinguish any leverage or diplomatic space Russia currently holds globally and against China.
Furthermore, it would lose India’s trust permanently. It is against this backdrop that a Sino-Russo alignment against India seems a hasty conclusion. Russia made the above sentiment evidently clear in its recently approved foreign policy concept paper which identified India alongside China as the two “friendly sovereign global centers of power.”
The dilemma in India-Russia relations arises from their respective strategic relationship with the US and China. And thus, the meeting point for India and Russia lies in conveying that neither of their partnerships with their adversary is directed against the other.
The fact that India held its ground on the Russia-Ukraine war despite the Western pressures to condemn and criticise Russia and maintained near-neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine war evident in its voting in the UNGA was a step in this direction. India further succeeded in conveying the nature of its relationship with Russia to the US and its Western partners. Russia has attempted to repay India’s ‘support’ by allocating it a place alongside China as a friendly power. If anything, one should expect Russia to walk the tightrope and balance its interests with both its ‘friends’.
China Cannot Afford to Alienate Russia
Another pertinent question worth answering here is what are Beijing’s options if Russia chooses to resist the Chinese pressure on India. It is unlikely that Beijing will risk penalising Moscow as the latter is too important a partner in its crusade to subvert Western order to lose it over India.
This sentiment was evidently clear in Xi Jinping’s parting words to Putin before concluding his Moscow visit wherein he said, “Change is coming that hasn't happened in 100 years. And we are driving this change together.” The change undoubtedly referred to the challenge to the west dominated world order. If anything, China would want to convince India to support its condemnation and criticism of the Western liberal order, albeit without offering it its due respect.
Besides, China has already leveraged its tacit support to Russia amidst the ongoing war to secure cheap and discounted energy deals. Furthermore, Russia continues to be China’s only major defence partner and the source of some of its most sophisticated and advanced weaponry. Thus, there are limits to which China can coerce Russia. The bottom line remains that areas beyond the ambit of Sino-Russo convergence are open to negotiations based on interests.
For instance, despite the no-limits rhetoric, China is yet to recognise Crimea as Russia’s territory. Furthermore, instead of joining Russia in vetoing the UNGA resolutions on Ukraine, China abstained from voting on every occasion. If national interest guides China’s abstention despite its tacit support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so should it guide Russia’s resistance against Chinese pressures.
Lastly, to think that a revisionist power like Russia will agree to submit to the Chinese demands is counterintuitive especially as all of Putin's efforts are directed toward restoring Russia’s glory to the yesteryears of the Soviet-era and erstwhile Russian empire. The pursuit of ‘status’ and ‘pride’ are two underrated factors that drive a country’s foreign policy, and it is especially true for revisionist powers like Russia.
However, it is not the essay’s argument to suggest that the China-Russia partnership should not concern India’s foreign policy decisions. But the possibility of a Russo-India split appears overstated. Nevertheless, while it is necessary for India to reduce its dependence on Russia, it is equally important for it to sustain a relationship with Russia that is substantially robust to prevent Moscow’s ultimate fall into China’s lap. The challenge for India is to find the optimum balance in its relationship with Russia.
(Amit Kumar is a Research Analyst with the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)