India’s unofficial response to Russia might exacerbate growing distrust

Relations between decades-long strategic partners India and Russia, which up until the publication last month of influential Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ideologue Subramanian Swamy’s hateful anti-Russian article had been undergoing a renaissance, are at risk of worsening after India’s unofficial response to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s criticisms late last week of America’s pernicious influence over New Delhi. The top diplomat warned that,

“India is currently an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy as they are trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called ‘Quad’ while at the same time the West is attempting to undermine our close partnership and privileged relations with India. This is the goal of the US’ very tough pressure on New Delhi in the MTC area.”

Unlike his past comments in this respect, he notably didn’t end on an optimistic note hinting like he usually does that India will successfully resist the United Sates (US). Instead, he very flatly called out the US’ anti-Chinese and Russian intentions with India, which didn’t go unanswered by its Ministry of External Affairs. Spokesman Anurag Srivastava said in response to a journalist’s request for comment about the Russian Foreign Minister’s words that,

“India has always pursued an independent foreign policy based on its national interest. India’s relationship with each country is independent of its relations with third countries. We hope that this is well understood and appreciated by all our partners.”

This was a mature and measured reaction to what happened, but it’s the country’s unofficial response that came a few days later which raises worries about the future of their relations.

Harsh V. Pant, the Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation – one of India’s top think tanks that’s closely connected to the government – and one of the country’s foremost experts on the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership published an article at the Hindustan Times on Sunday about how “Moscow must come to terms with India’s security imperatives”. Although the views expressed are personal, an analyst of his statue with so many connections might very well be saying what the Indian state can’t officially express. His deep insight and the extremely high regard with which his work is held testifies to his accuracy in reflecting India’s true strategic sentiments on a wide array of issues, especially relations with Russia. For this reason, his work can be interpreted as India’s unofficial response to Russia.

The problem, however, is that Pant’s article might unwittingly exacerbate growing distrust between the two countries. He’s an analyst, after all, and not a diplomat even if he’s informally functioning as one to send a harsh message to Russia. For instance, he attempted to gaslight the public by wrongly making it seem like it’s Russia, not India, that’s practicing a hypocritical policy. He wrote,

“As long as India joins Russia and China in railing against the West, New Delhi can be hailed for its strategic autonomy but if India builds ties with the US and other Western nations, it is merely because there is a devious game at play to ensnare India into relationships that make it an object of other nations’ priorities.”

This is the inverse of reality as will now be explained.

Russia was remarkably silent about, and therefore even tacitly understanding of, India’s de-facto pro-American alliance up until the past year despite India never tiring of voicing its concern about Russia’s growing closeness with China and Pakistan. As proof of this, former Indian Ambassador to Russia Kanwal Sibal, writing in the foreword to the October 2017 report titled “70th Anniversary Of Russia-India Relations: New Horizons Of Privileged Partnership” which was jointly produced by the Russian International Affairs Council and Vivekananda International Foundation, said,

“Russia’s overtures to Pakistan, especially in the military field, are construed in India as linked to our growing connection with the US. The evolution of Russia’s approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan/Taliban’s role in the search for a solution, and, in particular, statements made by mandated Russian officials dealing with our region that make light of India’s concerns about Afghanistan-related issues have caused confusion. The fact that Pakistan has begun to tout a Pakistan–China–Russia axis against an India–US axis in the region speaks of the diplomatic impact of Russia’s revised perspectives.”

The diplomat also stated,

“The belief in some Russian quarters that Pakistan can be a participant in major SCO or BRICS infrastructure and other projects within the framework of the India–Russia strategic relationship is unlikely to find a positive echo in Indian thinking, given India’s seven decades of experience with Pakistan’s endemic hostility. Russia’s evolving optic on Pakistan is creating a gap in the hitherto strong geopolitical understandings between India and Russia in our region.”

Without a doubt, this is evidence of India first holding Russia to the same hypocritical standards that Pant wrongly claims that Moscow’s doing in his latest article. In fact, it’ll now be seen that he himself expressed very similar views a few years ago despite suddenly seeming to have forgotten all about that in his piece.

Writing almost half a year after his country’s former Ambassador to Russia set the tone by publicly criticising Moscow’s desire to pursue balanced relations in South Asia, Pant published a piece in March 2018 titled “Russia and India: Difficult times ahead” where he wrote,

“For India, what should be concerning is Russia’s increasing tilt towards Pakistan as it seeks to curry favour with China. Moscow had historically supported New Delhi at the United Nations Security Council by repeatedly vetoing resolutions on the Kashmir issue. Today, however, there is a change in how Moscow views its regional priorities in South Asia. In a significant development, the joint declaration issued at the end of the first-ever six-nation Speaker’s Conference in Islamabad held in December end supported Pakistani line on Kashmir. This declaration signed by Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia  and Turkey underscored that for ensuring global and regional peace and stability, the issue of Jammu and Kashmir needs peaceful resolution by Pakistan and India in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.”

He scandalously concluded by warning that,

“Russia’s growing collusion with China and Pakistan will continue to test the Indo-Russian partnership in the coming years.”

Almost exactly a year after Sibal’s scathing comments, Pant published another article titled “Russia and India have to ride out some choppy waters”, in which he repeated his earlier concerns stemming from the six-nation Speaker’s Conference almost word-for-word and then also shared his view that,

“New Delhi has long maintained that it needs a close relationship with Moscow so that the Beijing-Moscow relationship could be dented. But India’s Russia outreach seems to have had a rather insignificant impact so far on the Russia-China dynamic. Russia is also reaching out to Pakistan despite Indian reservations and is changing its tune on the Afghanistan issue. It is now a strong votary of negotiating with the Taliban and has given short shrift to Indian reservations in this regard.”

This makes it incredibly ironic that he’s now changing his tune by making a false comparison between Russia’s cordial relations with China and Pakistan and India’s much more consequential de-facto alliance with America and then daring to imply that Russia’s the one that’s behaving hypocritically after all he wrote.

Having exposed the hypocrisy behind one of Pant’s main points in his latest article, attention should also be drawn to the fact that he unquestionably parrots Western information warfare narratives against Russia. The expert wrote,

“Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is critical to give Russia a sense of being some kind of a global power even as it is finding that it can’t even manage its own backyard. The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh saw Turkey gaining a foothold in South Caucasus when an Armenian army, trained and armed by Russia, faced defeat by an Azerbaijani army, trained and armed by the Turks. China is gaining a profile in areas such as Central Asia where Russian dominance is eroding. But such is the need for Chinese support that Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that a military alliance between Moscow and Beijing cannot be ruled out. And what better way to show Russian commitment than to challenge the idea of the Indo-Pacific even more loudly than the Chinese themselves.”

Over the summer I published a piece about “Constructive Criticisms Of Russian Grand Strategy, And In Particular Towards Belarus” which highlighted some of Russia’s struggles in its “Near Abroad”. They veritably exist, but it’s a gross exaggeration to say that Russia “can’t even manage its own backyard”. What’s more, I enumerated the 36 articles that I published during the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh War by name and date in my review of that conflict titled “The End Of The Nagorno-Karabakh War: Retrospection, Clarification, And Forecast”, which includes my prescient piece predicting Russia’s ultimate support for Azerbaijan titled “Five Ways That An Azerbaijani Military Victory Over Armenia Would Advance Russian Interests”. My much more accurate observations debunk Pant’s provocative innuendo of that conflict being a Russian-Turkish proxy war.

On the topic of Russian-Chinese relations, he’s jumping on the Western Mainstream Media bandwagon by fantasising about an intense rivalry between them in Central Asia. If anything, I argued at length in my September analysis asking “Is Russia ‘Abandoning’ Or ‘Recalibrating’ Its ‘Balancing’ Act Between China & India?” that Moscow was moving much closer to New Delhi at Beijing’s perceived strategic expense up until Swamy’s hateful anti-Russian article last month ended up being a game-changer in their relations by serving as a rude but nevertheless long-overdue wake-up call about the devious game that India’s playing to divide the two. A declassified 1963 Chinese Foreign Ministry report published by the Wilson Centre’s Digital Archives about “The Soviet Union’s Stance on the Sino-Indian Boundary Question and Soviet-Indian Relations” compellingly proves in hindsight that Moscow’s support of New Delhi against Beijing was a key reason behind the infamous Sino-Soviet split. Keenly cognisant of this fact, Russia and China want to avoid a similar split over India in the New Cold War, hence Moscow’s sensitive “balancing” act between Beijing/Islamabad and New Delhi.

This unfortunately isn’t appreciated by India, however, which seems to aspire to turn Russia into its “junior partner” by trading its fearmongered dependence on Beijing with actual strategic dependence on New Delhi, one which dangerously risks provoking another Russian-Chinese split like was just explained if Moscow continues to side too closely with New Delhi in ways that are perceived by Beijing as being against its core interests. Nothing that Russia does with China and Pakistan has the same consequence for India as that country’s de-facto alliance with America does for its two neighbours and Russia’s broader interests in Eurasian stability. The false equivalence that Pant has consistently presented, likely taking cues from Sibal, is intended to mislead everyone by wrongly making it seem like Russia is responsible for provoking growing distrust with India when it’s really the latter that’s been entirely to blame this whole time as was explained. By falsely claiming that Russia is “challenging the idea of the Indo-Pacific even more loudly than the Chinese themselves”, Pant disrespectfully implied that President Putin is sacrificing Russia’s interests to become a Chinese puppet.

It must have already been extremely unpleasant for Russian strategists to read Swamy’s hateful anti-Russian article last month, yet now they see that the essence of his arguments are shared by none other than one of the leading Indian experts on their country, Harsh V. Pant. Not only that, but Pant attempts to gaslight everyone by making it seem like Russia’s to blame for the recent crisis of trust between these two decades-long strategic partners even though he himself actively participated in India’s efforts to pressure Russia into making a false zero-sum choice between New Delhi on one hand and Beijing and Islamabad on the other. This hypocritical stance is bad enough, but he added insult to injury by ridiculously claiming that Russia “can’t even manage its own backyard”, yet is supposedly so desperate for Chinese support that it’s “challenging the idea of the Indo-Pacific even more loudly than the Chinese themselves.” India’s unofficial response to Russia through Pant might therefore exacerbate growing distrust, though Moscow will likely do all it can to mitigate the consequences.