India–Russia relations as a metaphor for changing geopolitical equations
12 Nov 2018|

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I. The century since has been dominated by four big geopolitical storylines.

First, the US displaced Great Britain as the global hegemon and underwrote world peace and prosperity, largely but not always as a benign hegemon. Second, the Soviet Union was established as the bastion of international communism, achieved superpower status and then imploded with accompanying geographic, demographic and economic shrinkage. Although Russia retains a massive nuclear arsenal that can destroy the world and has recovered some political and economic stability over the past decade, it is unlikely to emerge as a multidimensional major power anytime soon.

Third, the US’s relative decline from its dominant position at the end of the Cold War continues apace. It retains an unchallengeable capacity to wreak military destruction, yet has suffered serial reverses in several conflict theatres in the capacity to impose an American order after military victory. Similarly, while the US remains the biggest, best balanced and most productive and innovative economy, its global economic dominance has declined on most measures, including share of global output, automotive manufacturing and international trade.

Fourth, China has acquired impressive power in both relative and absolute terms. How China develops economically, evolves politically and behaves domestically, regionally and globally, are among the most pressing questions for the world. The answers will help to shape the destiny of nations and the fate of billions of people. Moreover, while the most critical global geopolitical relationship is the one between China and the US, the most critical Asian geopolitical relationship is the one between China and India.

These trends hold acute lessons for Australia. They also offer insights into one of the less noticed bilateral relationships in recent years: that between Moscow and New Delhi, which shaped the previous geopolitical order in Asia. The relationship peaked in 1971 with a bilateral treaty that came close to constituting a defence pact. In the context of the looming India–Pakistan war that was midwife to the birth of Bangladesh, it provided political cover for India at the United Nations while buying it military insurance against the Nixon–Kissinger move on the geopolitical chessboard to detach China from the Soviet embrace.

The end of the Cold War upended India’s world order completely. An acute balance of payments crisis in 1991, and the total discrediting of the command model of the Soviet economy that India had borrowed heavily from, added to the panic caused by the collapse of the Soviet superpower. India scrambled to readjust to the changed unipolar world and recalibrate relations with the US while still heavily dependent on Soviet military supplies. Since then, India has fared rather better than Russia in world affairs.

So where exactly do India–Russia relations stand now? The relationship is, in fact, quite a good metaphor for the polycentric world of offsetting ties of cooperation and competition as the sun sets in turn on US unipolar dominance. Russia has been engaged in its own Asian pivot, which it views as an attractive and feasible alternative to the current US-centric system of global financial, economic and political relations.

President Vladimir Putin paid a two-day visit to India on 5–6 October. Among the documents signed with India were agreements to develop six new nuclear power projects and a contract for Russia’s S-400 Triumf air-defence system worth US$5 billion. The latter deal was especially significant because India ignored repeated warnings (including ahead of PM Narendra Modi’s informal meeting with Putin in Sochi in May) about triggering the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA, 2017), which mandates US sanctions on entities engaged in ‘significant’ defence transactions with Russia.

Resource-rich Russia and resource-hungry India are well matched economically. But there’s even greater historical inertia to India’s defence procurement from Russia. India and the US have been trying to promote increased Indian purchases of US defence systems, both to reduce dependence on Moscow by diversifying and to deepen India–US ties.

Every year in the 2012 to 2017 period, with one exception in 2015, and cumulatively for this six-year period, India has been the world’s largest arms purchaser, buying 42% more than Saudi Arabia, the second-biggest arms purchaser. For the same period, the US has been the biggest arms seller; over the six years, it sold 48% more than Russia, the next big arms seller. The source of the bulk of India’s purchases over the six-year period was Russia (67%), followed by the US (12.4%), Israel (9.9%) and France (3.8%). But if we compare 2012 with 2017, Russia falls from 86.5% to 60.1%, while the US increases from 3.1% to 7.5% and Israel from 3.7% to 21.3%.

It’s hard to see how disrupting this trendline would be in the US’s economic or security interest. That’s especially so in light of America’s stated intention to court India ‘as a major defence partner’ that has ‘an indispensable role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region’. In July, US defence secretary James Mattis urged the Senate to empower the secretary of state to waive CAATSA sanctions: ‘Doing so allows nations to build a closer security relationship with the US as they continue to transition from reliance on Russian military equipment.’

Imposing sanctions on India as punishment for buying the S-400 missile system would damage bilateral relations and impede Indian purchases of US equipment, which would defeat a primary purpose of the CAATSA legislation. Much as India, in particular the Modi government, is invested in consolidating a strategic partnership with the US, it has little interest in an exclusive alliance-type relationship with Washington. Moreover, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has openly discussed ‘The new tyranny of the dollar’ under the Trump administration’s weaponisation of its dollar-denominated dominance of global finance. India was among eight countries issued with a temporary sanctions waiver by the US on 5 November for purchases of Iranian oil. Hopefully, similar good sense will prevail regarding India’s defence supplies from Russia.