India concluded its participation in war games taking place in Russia’s Nizhniy district on 16 September this year. Russia had welcomed a 200-personnel contingent of the Indian Army for its multi-nation military exercise ZAPAD-2021. The Indian contingent personnel were from the Naga regiment and Mechanized Infantry, and commandoes of the Indian Air Force.
However, a much-highlighted fact in some Indian media outlets during the two-week-long exercise was that China and Pakistan were observers and not full participants, when India and Russia showcased their joint skills. This leads to a genuine question that whether ZAPAD-2021 had any strategic signalling by India, or India and Russia together, like many of the military exercises happening around the world often do.
What is ZAPAD-2021?
Basically, ZAPAD is one of the four major training events for the Russian military, which happen on a rotational basis every year. The names of these events correspond to the geographical location of these military districts. While ZAPAD means ‘west’ in Russian, the other exercises are Vostok (east), Tsentr (centre), and Kavkaz (Caucasus).
One of these four have happened every year since 2009 and have become an important mechanism for showcasing the readiness of Russian armed forces, to test and develop new military doctrines, increase inter-operability with other nations by conducting the exercises on a multi-lateral basis, and more importantly, for sending signals of compatibility and coordination between the participating nations.
While it can be argued that today an increasing number of military exercises around the world are posed towards counterterrorism and counter-insurgency operations, ZAPAD-2021 is one of the exercises which are also directed towards countering any possible aggression from NATO forces towards Russia and its allies. This is why whenever the ZAPAD exercise takes place, there is a sense of heightened discomfort among Russia’s west-oriented neighbours like Ukraine, Poland, and Latvia.
This year, the ZAPAD exercise took place in a geopolitical setting of strained relations of Belarus and the West over the sanctions imposed on Belarus in retaliation for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on mass protests, which contested the results of the recent presidential elections.
The strained relations have made Belarus move closer to Russia and the joint exercises like ZAPAD show that Belarus can put aside any concerns or disagreements it might have with Moscow when it comes to countering the West.
What Does India‘s Participation in ZAPAD-2021 Mean?
Russian exercises like ZAPAD have taken an increasingly multi-national character in recent years. In 2018, Russia had invited China to participate in Vostok-2018, which is said to have marked the starting of intensification between the two nations’ military engagements.
In 2019, India was invited along with Pakistan and other Central Asia nations (SCO members) to Tsentr-2019, which marked the first time India was present in Russia’s quadrennial exercise.
However, while 2019 witnessed a joint exercise between Russia, India, Pakistan, China, and others, since 2020 the discourse has shifted in light of the tensions between India, Pakistan and China in aftermath of abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which ended the separate constitution for Kashmir and brought it to an equal standing with other states of India.
It has been argued by experts that even though participation in Tsentr-2019 provided a good avenue for India to improve relations with China in 2019 after the 2017 Doklam ‘stand-off, a downturn in India-China relations was the main reason for India to avoid participating in Kavkaz-2020.
Although New Delhi cited logistical difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic as reason for not participating, it was seen as strategic signalling subtly conveying a decreasing appetite to work in tandem with China in military aspects, even if it is coordinated by Russia. It has to be noted here that India’s own bilateral exercise with China – ‘Hand-in-Hand’ – has not been organised since 2019, which was the eighth edition of the joint India-China military exercise.
Interestingly, this year China as well as Pakistan participated in ZAPAD-2021 as ‘observers’, along with Vietnam, Myanmar, and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, India, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia, and Sri Lanka were the fully participating nations.
This has been seen by some in India as a signalling by Moscow to convey a message of discomfort towards Beijing’s stance of supporting the Taliban in a post-US Afghanistan. However, this argument deviates from the very discourse that Russia itself has followed when it comes to Afghanistan by being in active communications with Taliban factions.
China’s Observer Status & What It Means
Also, with the United States now absent from the Central Asian region, Moscow has an easier option to gain back influence in Central Asian nations through military support and presence for security reasons, instead of solely competing with China’s economic projects, which Beijing could have leveraged to influence political decisions of these Central Asian nations.
So, China’s observer status in ZAPAD-2021 does not convey in any terms that there is going to be any falling-out between Russia and China.
A good reason for this can be seen in the fact that Russia and China had concluded a version of ZAPAD, named Interaction-2021, in August this year, where Russian troops participated in joined military drills in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous region. According to the Chinese side, this was the first time when Russian military was invited to China on such a large scale to participate in a strategic campaign.
A Chinese military spokesperson also commented that the exercise has charted the course for a new high point in bilateral relations between Russia and China and opened new horizons for military drills.
While the western observers have seen this as a geopolitical signalling directed towards increasing activities and goals of the QUAD grouping to counter China (as well as Russia) in the Indo-pacific region, for India it serves as a reminder of how close the military relations between Russia and China stand in the present scheme of things.
For New Delhi, it will also be obvious to consider that if India is projecting QUAD as a mechanism not pointed towards Russia, then Russia-China exercises, too, will have to be considered as mechanisms not pointed towards sending any sort of signal to India.
What Lies Ahead for India and Russia?
There is an increasing sense of understanding between New Delhi and Moscow when it comes to realities of geopolitics. The two nations are actively looking for new areas of cooperation – connectivity projects, Arctic exploration, and investment in energy domains.
Also, Russia’s wariness of being over-reliant on China is an open secret when it comes to discussions in Russia’s political circles.
India has been a longstanding supporter and partner for Russia, and it can be said without hesitation that Moscow has in no way lost the sense of importance of keeping New Delhi as a close partner, especially considering how even the West now sees India as the best bet for being a counter to Chinese hegemony in the subcontinental region and even beyond.
On its part, New Delhi, too, will want to keep multiple avenues of cooperation open with the likes of QUAD members, while still keeping active the strong ties with Moscow. The role of strategic or geopolitical signalling through military exercises has long been an important one, but in case of India-Russia ties, the media might be trying to over-analyse the situation.
(Divyanshu Jindal is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)