India-Russia Relationship: Putin's Concerns With QUAD Impact Ties
Delhi will have to continuously nurture its Russian relationship and agree to disagree on some initiatives.
Russian President Vladimir Putin set the cat amongst the pigeons when he was asked about India joining the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue amongst India, Japan, Australia and United States), which his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had called the ‘Asian NATO’.
Not one to mince words, the former KGB spymaster and judo blackbelt, Putin oozes two instincts that define his aspired persona – no holds barred aggression and ruthless guile.
But in answering the obviously loaded question, Putin was unusually measured, even reticent, by his own standards. More known for his Cossack-like bravado rather than the balance of a Russian trapeze artist, he conveyed his fundamental angst with rare delicacy and deliberation that implied his geopolitical discomfort with the calculus of QUAD, but didn’t suggest any specific upsetting of the Indo-Russian applecart.
US-Russia Cold War Hangover Remains
Given the unmistakable underpinning of Sino-wariness that besets and ‘binds’ QUAD, Putin accepted that there were ‘some issues related to India-China relations’ but was clearly more concerned with the larger dynamics - ‘but it is important that no other extra-regional power is interfering with that’ – the finger was unequivocally pointed at his bête noire, the United States.
The warrior from the Cold War-era and its binaries, excels in the disruptive narrative. The authoritarian who has ‘reset’ his Presidential term to outlast fellow-journeyman Joseph Stalin’s reign - with potential leadership till 2036 - has ironed his own legitimacy by invoking conspirators ‘from across the oceans’ (read, USA) – who in Putin’s world and spiel - demonise and deny Russia its rightful destiny!
In such a Putinesque narrative, all foreign acts entailing the United States are ‘forced impositions’ under the cover of ‘democracy’ like the Middle East or even the ‘colour revolutions’ in its backyard of former USSR breakaway states.
The purported phraseology of the QUAD spirit besetting the Indo-Pacific realm - ‘we strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion’ - fits the wariness of Putin’s algebra. Intrinsically, the idea of QUAD as the ‘Asian NATO’ perpetuates the sense of claustrophobic suffocation by the ‘closing-in’ of the forces ‘from across the oceans’, that got accelerated post the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the NATO wall started inching closer to Russia.
With India, Putin Must Exercise Nuance & Restraint
So, India is not part of his recently defined list of ‘unfriendly countries’, as it is neither a beholden sovereign like Belarus nor a piffling irritant like the Czech Republic, which Putin can openly demean.
It is a large regional power that has been historically friendly and extremely useful to Moscow, therefore necessitating nuance, from the strongman.
On India in specific, while expanding on the contentious QUAD issue, the usually dour man noted rather generously that they had, "deep profound relations with India based on trust" and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a ‘reasonable’ leader.
Despite knowing and understanding India’s own grouse with Beijing, cold realpolitik, ‘larger stakes’, and an element of undeniable selfishness demanded that Putin acknowledge India’s Chinese concern, but still slam the logic of QUAD, the implications of which are directly inimical to Putin’s own existence and posturing.
Willy-nilly, the exasperating and militantly anti-US presence of the Chinese in the room adds to Putin’s own muscularity, theatrics and abilities against the West and USA, in specific. Similarly, the Chinese indulge Putin’s Russia in the same coin, even as Moscow and Beijing suffer no illusions about each other, except of what their ‘jointness’ brings to the table to tactically derail American democracy’s global gravy train.
Commercial Considerations Matter for Russia
Revving up parallel optics, Russia and China recently extended the Treaty of Good-neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, which the Chinese CPC mouthpiece Global Times, noted presciently ‘sets an example for a new type of international relations’ and one which enables them to ‘safeguard global strategic stability’.
The zero-sum game of the alternative ‘authoritarian bloc’ coalescing against the ‘free world bloc’ of QUAD, just got reiterated. As the master of unpredictability, Putin does not shy away from occasionally and knowingly spicing up regional undercurrents by hosting joint military exercises with Pakistan i.e. ‘Friendship-2020’, that understandably gets decoded across the Line of Control (LOC), in another way.
To an extent, these cat and mouse games of geopolitical manipulations and counterintuitive posturing is par for course, as they are invariably accompanied by sending subtle messages to reinstate the status quo ante – the brewing warmth on military/security matters between Delhi and Washington DC, would not have gone unnoticed in Moscow, too.
Additionally for countries like Russia, commercial considerations matter immensely and despite Indo-Russian bonhomie; it hasn’t stopped Russia from suppling the state of art Su-35 fighters, S-400 air defence system, Mi-171 combat helicopters amongst various other technology platforms and transfers to China.
The fundamental understanding is clear, for both Moscow and Beijing, the principal ‘enemy’ is assertion of the ‘free world’ or ‘democracies’, and amidst that calculus, Delhi is either the fall guy (for Russia) or the prickly threat that needs to be taken on (for China), as QUAD targets both Russia and China, differently but surely for now.
Despite Posturing, India-Russia Will Mostly 'Agree to Disagree'
For now, QUAD is not a military alliance but only a dialogue-construct that entails civic-administrative considerations to foster greater cooperation amongst ‘like-minded democracies’, though the unsaid extrapolation of the same to the security realm, is only natural.
The parallel adoption of the alternative global infrastructure i.e. ‘Build Back Better for the World’ is undeniably to counter the Chinese juggernaut via ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ which too barely masks its dual-utility of commercial and military, in geostrategic manoeuvrings of one-upmanship between US-led ‘blocs’ and China-led ‘blocs’.
In this slugfest, Russia will pursue its own tactical and limited agenda even if that means overlooking its own differences with the Chinese or in having to step on the toes of traditional allies like India, as a consequence of the ‘larger stakes’ – though there wouldn’t be enough headwinds to threaten the bilateral equation, the odd railing statement notwithstanding.
Delhi will have to continuously nurture its Russian relationship and agree to disagree on some initiatives, knowing fully well that often the thundering statements to the counter are borne of situational or contextual necessity, and not of fundamental dissonances. QUAD ought to fit that framework of ‘acceptable differences’, even as both Russia and India, will occasionally assert their individualities and specificities, to the discomfiture of each other.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. 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.)
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