Why are former Indian diplomats really unhappy with Russia?

The unprecedented surprise postponement of the annual Russia-India Summit for the first time since this yearly tradition began two decades ago has elicited very strong reactions from current and former Indian diplomats that threaten to worsen relations between these two strategic partners. Popular Indian media outlet ThePrint published an article about this on Wednesday titled “India-Russia annual summit postponed for 1st time in two decades amid Moscow’s unease with Quad” which quotes some unnamed sources, former diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar who was posted in Russia in the early 2000s, and former Indian Ambassador to Russia Kanwal Sibal.

The first of those three stated that “There is indeed some discontent over Russia’s repeated comments on India and casting aspersions over New Delhi’s decision to join the Quad”, while other unnamed sources are reported to have said that “while a virtual summit was planned around September-October this year, the plans did not fructify even as Russia tried to play the role of a mediator, mediating peace between India and China over the border standoff.” As for Mr. Sajjanhar, he said that “This is indeed a matter of concern that the two countries who share a deep relationship could not even hold the summit virtually.”

In addition, that diplomat remarked that “Russia’s attempt at mediation between India and China may have created some degree of discontent in South Block and the fact that their Foreign Minister is repeatedly slamming Indo-Pacific and Quad shows that it is saying this only to appease the audiences in China and Pakistan.” This correlates with the false information warfare narrative that I debunked last week in an earlier piece for The Express Tribune about how “India’s unofficial response to Russia might exacerbate growing distrust” regarding Observer Research Foundation expert Harsh V. Pant’s innuendo that Russia has submitted to China.

I also cited former Ambassador Sibal’s prior criticisms of Russia’s growing relations with China and Pakistan from a joint research paper that he published in 2017 with the prestigious Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) think tank to prove that India has always tried to force Russia into making a false either-or zero-sum choice between Moscow’s relations with New Delhi on one side and Beijing and Islamabad on the other. Coincidentally or not, Ambassador Sibal also chimed in to share his thoughts about this topic with ThePrint, and what he said confirmed exactly what I wrote just a week ago about India’s true stance towards Russia.

According to him, “At a time when the Chinese are threatening us and are sitting at the border, Lavrov should have not made such comments. This is not the opportune time for him to keep stating the same thing again and again knowing all too well that the China threat is staring at us. But wittingly or unwittingly, the Russians are overlooking the threat.” Just like Mr. Sajjanhar before him, Ambassador Sibal reiterated the false information warfare narrative that Russia has submitted to China at the expense of its strategic partnership with India even though my earlier cited analysis conclusively debunks that warped interpretation of reality.

The timing of these two diplomats’ very harsh anti-Russian statements comes just two weeks after Russia agreed to join Pakistan’s AMAN-2021 multilateral naval exercises next February and a week after Bloomberg reported that Russia will start construction of the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline – its flagship megaproject in South Asia – a few months later in July. I analysed both of these developments for The Express Tribune earlier this month in my analysis titled “Why is Russia participating in the AMAN-2021 naval drills?” and “The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline raises Russia’s stakes in South Asia”, respectively.

More significantly, however, is the fact that those former officials publicly cast aspersions on Russia’s regional balancing strategy just two days after the Russian Ambassador to India and his deputy envoy tried to reassure India that Moscow’s rapidly expanding ties with Islamabad aren’t aimed against its interests. ThePrint reported on their remarks in their article titled “Moscow’s relationship with China, Pakistan independent of its ties with India – Russian envoy”, in which those Russian diplomats are quoted as reaffirming their nation’s right to practice an independent regional policy.

Considering the causticity of Mr. Sajjanhar and Ambassador Sibal’s remarks, however, it’s clear that Indian officials didn’t appreciate this gesture and appear to be mistaking Russia’s kindness for weakness or worse. That’s why the former so strongly implied that Russia has submitted to both China and Pakistan while the latter hinted that Moscow might be “wittingly overlooking the threat” that New Delhi regards Beijing as posing, thus implying some degree of tacit coordination with China to subvert Indian interests. This echoes the false claims made by influential BJP ideologue Subramanian Swamy in his hateful anti-Russian article last month.

Sensing the immense damage that his piece could inflict on the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership, I immediately responded to him in an analysis about how “Extreme Pro-US BJP Ideologues Mustn’t Be Allowed To Sabotage Russian-Indian Relations”. I observed that this was a rude awakening for Russia about the extent of American influence over India and ominously warned that “Eurasia is on the brink of a major divide-and-rule destabilisation if either Great Power, let alone both of them at the same time, makes the wrong move”. Regrettably, India has already made two wrong moves in a row with its unofficial responses to Russia.

Russia, for its part, has done all that it can to convince India of its benign strategic intentions vis-a-vis China and Pakistan but to no avail. American influence is so powerful over India nowadays that its diplomats won’t want to listen to Moscow’s words. They’re fiercely against its regional balancing strategy despite wanting Russia to endorse India’s own policy of so-called “multi-alignment” despite it always having been nothing more than an unconvincing cover for its pro-American pivot. What India wants from Russia is total strategic submission of the same sort that it demands from the South Asian states that it aspires to exercise hegemony over.

India is losing patience with Russia’s increasingly independent reassertion of its regional interests, especially vis-a-vis its newfound military and economic relations with Pakistan (to say nothing of its existing strategic partnership with China), and it can no longer hide its frustration. India’s undiplomatic series of informal responses to Russia over the past week were intended to publicly pressure it into reversing its rapid rapprochement with Pakistan and following in New Delhi’s footsteps by “decoupling” itself from China. These unfriendly signals exposed India’s ulterior motives of exploiting its partnership with Russia against those two.

Russia, however, will not be pressured by anyone – let alone surprisingly enough one of its chief strategic partners anywhere in the world in its millennium-long history – into doing anything, especially not if it concerns an implied zero-sum ultimatum forcing it to take one side at the other’s expense. Still, Moscow will do its utmost to ensure that this unprecedentedly difficult period in bilateral relations with New Delhi doesn’t lead to a diplomatic crisis and will hopefully be overcome soon, but it can only do so much since the ultimate outcome depends on India’s receptiveness to Russia’s repeated reassurances about its peaceful regional intentions.

In order to improve bilateral relations and rescue them from the sudden nadir that they’ve found themselves in as a result of India’s arrogant attitude in trying to treat Russia as its “junior partner”, New Delhi must stop indirectly sending unfriendly messages to Moscow through its former diplomats’ hostile statements to the press. Russia hasn’t submitted to China like those Indian figures are dishonestly implying, nor is it stabbing India in the back in secret partnership with China like Ambassador Sibal suspects. Unless India stops its latest information warfare campaign, Russia will likely distrust it more with each passing provocation.