Russian armtwisting

Time for India to take a real look at Russia

It is possible to see that Russia under President Vladimir Putin actually desires to acquire a reputation of playing hardball where its interests are concerned. If Yeltsin-era Russia was somewhere between being dismissed and taken for granted, Putin’s Russia has come to distinguish itself as a determined, even aggressive geopolitical player. Indeed, acquiring this reputation could well be an important goal of Russian foreign policy. For that reputation helps in many situations. Like, for example, it helps make the threat to evict India from its first foreign military base at Ayni, near Dushanbe in Tajikistan, more credible.

That Russia should take such a position with its longstanding ‘ally’ and an important defence equipment customer should not come as a surprise. Russia has used the levers at its disposal to coerce a number of countries—ranging from its former Soviet-era vassals to the European Union. It’s India’s turn now. But why is Russia playing hardball?

The immediate answer is that Russia is compelling India to award the US$10 billion tender for the purchase of multi-role fighter aircraft to Russian manufacturers. India’s overall defence technology relationship with Russia is worth a lot more, but this angle cannot be ruled out. But it is unlikely that Russia would have considered issuing such a threat in isolation to the emerging geopolitics in Central Asia. For it would be reckless, even for a hardball player, to issue a threat without insuring against the consequences of it failing to have the desired effect. So what is Russia counting on? Well, China.

While they have their differences, the Russia-China relationship has strengthened over the last few years. China’s military modernisation project makes it an attractive market for Russian defence exporters, regardless of India’s opposition and even if such exports risk damaging Russia’s technological advantage in the medium-term. Further, the two countries anchor the Shanghai Co-operaton Organisation (SCO), which aims to impose its hegemony over the entire Central Asian region, and more importantly, keep the United States out. The situation is not unlike two bank robbers who know that not only do they need to co-operate to get the loot out, but also compete over how it is subsequently shared. The heist, as far as SCO is concerned, is not yet complete.

What does this indicate for Indian foreign policy? First, that the system of negotiating with Russia in the context of ‘traditionally close ties’ is approaching its end. Realpolitik, often in its offensive variant, guides Russian foreign policy, and India would do well to engage Russia accordingly. Second, that India must develop its own reputation for being able to stand up to such threats. ‘Independence of foreign policy’ has become political code for resisting American pressure. India has a much poorer record of resisting Russian and Chinese pressure—and this reputation must be set right. Defusing the Russian threat over Ayni offers an opportunity. And lastly, while it is desirable that the multi-role aircraft tender is evaluated on the merits of the proposals received, India would do well to consider the strategic costs of over-dependence on Russian military hardware.

Update: This post has been published on The National Interest online, a watering hole for America’s realists.

3 thoughts on “Russian armtwisting”

  1. More than resisting pressure I dont even see India applying pressure to get what it wants. Often makes me wonder if India even knows what it wants most of the time, goes back to the what is the “Indian National Interest” debate ?

  2. Nitin,
    This news, if true, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Russians appear to be arm-twisting us big time. The Gorshkov has been delayed by three years, and may become more expensive. They want to renegotiate all current contracts (purportedly because of the collapse of the US dollar), including the Su-30MKI one. The were also pissed when BrahMos Corp. marketed the PJ-10 to Vietnam (I think) in direct competition of a Russian missile. All this puts India in a big spot. And I find it strange. On one hand, the Russkies are giving India a nuclear sub and the related technology required to indigenously develop one – the strategic implications of this one deal are staggering. They haven’t yet allowed China to re-export a single RD-93 engine to Pakistan (The fighters we saw in all their red-green glory on March 23 are back in Chengdu, maybe for good). On the other hand, they appear to be pulling India down. What gives? 😮

    BTW, this article is a rip-off from here:
    Rahul Bedi isn’t the most reliable of sources around. It would be good to wait for conformation from other quarters before we start drawing conclusions.

    The French withdrew the Mirage-2000 from the competition long back. They are pitching the Rafale now.

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