MAKING FRIENDS IN ASIA

Thanks to its waning relationships in the West,Russia is developing ever closer ties with key Asian allies, most notably India. Bob Savic reports

Russia wants friends but is prepared to be regarded as an enemy. The country’s sinister image was reinforced last year when its military undertook simulated attacks across northern Europe, prompting the head of the British Army to warn of a threat to the West from an ‘increasingly aggressive’ Russia.

The once warm relationship between Russia and the United States has cooled since President Trump’s election. Initially, Moscow was delighted to have a cooperative leader in the White House; but Trump has proved to be an unpredictable and inconsistent ally, and President Putin has blamed the problems with the US on ‘the growth of anti-Russian hysteria’.

Russia has also lost many other allies and has been subject to financial and economic sanctions by the West since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing conflict in southeast Ukraine. As a result, it suffered a prolonged recession, from which it has now emerged. The IMF predicts Russian economic growth of around two percent this year.

Perhaps due to suchfraught relations with Europe and the US, Russia is seeking to build alliances in Asia, with India near the top of its list of Asian friends. Russia’s Ambassador to India, Nikolai Kudashev, said last month: ‘Russia is the only country building nuclear power plants in India. We have made a significant contribution to the development of India’s space programmes. We are the leading supplier of weapons and military technologies to India and its biggest partner in the oil and gas industry. In our view,’ he added,‘India should play a greater role in regional affairs.’

This builds upon the concept of ‘a special and privileged strategic partnership’ which the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed with Russia’s President Putin at the start of this year.

India is near the top of Russia’s list of Asian friends

Prime Minister Modi has described Russia as a ‘time-tested and reliable friend’, and relations between India and Russia have been cordial since India’s independence. The two countries first established a relationship in 1971 and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they signed their Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. In Putin’s time as Russia’s leader, firstly alongside Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then under Modi, there has been top-level cooperation on security, economics, cultural and societal development. The IMF predicts that India’s economy will be the fastest growing in the world in 2018 and Russia sees this as an opportunity to expand the market for its businesses there.

Yet it was mainly from China that Russia’s first wave of Asian support came when sanctions were imposed by the West. In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, Moscow and Beijing stunned the international community with the announcement of a $400 billion deal to supply Russian gas to China for 30 years.

The strength of the friendship between Russia and China is symbolised by the frequency of their leaders’ discussions. In the past four years, President Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping have met or talked directly to one another on 24 occasions.

By contrast, Putin andModi have directly communicated only half as many times, despite their genuinely warm personal connection.Admirers see them as two self-made political strongmen, challenging the dominance of the West. Putin’s supporters in India like the way he has reinvigorated and emboldened Russia as a geopolitical player on the world scene. According to Ashok Sajjanhar, India’s former Ambassador to Kazakhstan and several European nations, ‘Russia is in the process of overcoming its previous challenges and emerging as a confident and resurgent power.’

Russia’s foreign policy towards Syria has run contrary to that of most Western nations but its controversial approach has been supported by India. Russia is the first non-Western country since the end of the Cold War to stage a complex and high-risk military campaign far from its borders. Its primary goal was to oust ISIS from Syria, andlast year the Russian Defence Minister declared that the country had been ‘completely liberated from the fighters of this terrorist organisation’. Before Russia began its aerial bombardment of ISIS targets, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had lost control over vast swathes of the country’s territory and were on the brink of defeat.

MAIN AIM: Russia staged a complex military campaign in Syria, with the primary goal of ousting ISIS
MAIN AIM: Russia staged a complex military campaign in Syria, with the primary goal of ousting ISIS

India also regards ISIS as a serious threat and the Indian Foreign Ministry has signalled its support for Russia’s objectives. Perhaps as a result of this support, Russia would like to see a shake-up of the United Nations and for India to be offered a permanent place on the UN Security Council. At the moment, Russia’s most consistent ally on the council is China. Together, they have vetoed a number of resolutions on Syria which condemn President Assad. If any one of the five permanent members of the council vetoes a draft resolution, it automatically fails.

America, Europe and most Middle Eastern states are backing the forces opposed to President Assad and are unwilling to include him in any peace talks or to recognise the legitimacy of his government. However, Anil Wadhwa, Secretary (East) at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, told the Hindu newspaper that ‘there must be talks by all sides, including the government of President Bashir al-Assad and its opponents’.

Russia would like to see a shake-up of the UN and for India to be offered a permanent place on the Security Council

In the wake of its Syrian intervention, Russia is forming better relations with once-staunch American allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This has led to a plethora of groundbreaking energy deals which have helped push up the price of oil and gas. Prices have almost doubled since the lows of 2015. Russia’s main source of overseas income is energy and the price resurgence largely accounts for its improved economic prospects.

President Putin will press Prime Minister Modi to oppose any further sanctions on his country by the West. According to Vijay Gokhale, Secretary at India’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, ‘the challenge now is how to nurture and foster our Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership amidst fast unfolding global changes’.

Both India and Russia are keen to secure their positions in a changing global order. Ever since India first took up its role as an independent country,that order has been dominated by America and the West. But now US dominance is being challenged as Asia and Eastern Europe rise up the ranks. ‘The time is propitious,’ says Ashok Sajjanhar of India’s Observer Research Foundation, ‘for the two countries to take their relationship to a new level.’


Bob Savic is a senior research fellow at the Global Policy Institute and an advisory partner with Petersburg Capital LLP, in London. For over 20 years he has advised on tax, legal, economic and political risk with global professional service firms covering India and Southeast Asia, Russia and Central Asia, China, the EU and Eastern Europe

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