Indian Premier Narendra Modi is currently in Sochi for what is being described as “informal talks” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But while the takes are being called informal, in reality the talks are intended from the Indian side to be a catch-all attempt to “reset” relations which have been disturbed by India’s increasingly intense relationship with the United States. Specifically, US threats to sanction India for purchasing Russian weapons and military hardware has become a sticking point which neither side can any longer deny.
India’s CAATSA conundrum
According to Washington’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Washington reserves the right to sanction not only the direct targets of the legislation (Russia, Iran, the DPRK) but also third parties who continue to do commerce with the sanctioned nation. For example, the reason that many in the EU fear they will not be able to prop-up the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) after Donald Trump’s withdrawal is because of the threat of US sanctions against European industries.
Thus far, the only country to adamantly defy third nation CAATSA sanctions and win is Turkey. Ankara responded with fury when Washington threatened to sanction Turkey over its soon to be finalised purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence systems. The US also threatened to withhold deliver of the F-35 fighter jets that Ankara had ordered over the matter, but here too the US recently backed down. India by contrast has already moved to freeze purchases of Russian weapons under the threat of CAATSA, even though US Defense Secretary Mattis argued for a CAATSA exemption for both India and Vietnam, two traditional allies of Moscow who in recent years have developed strong links with Washington.
Against the backdrop of India’s self-imposed powerlessness in the fact of CAATSA, Modi seems keen on trying to find solutions from Russia. Russia’s policy is already clear on this matter and apart from offering Modi diplomatic assurances that it will not change, the reality is that there is little more Russia can do for India than that which it is already doing.
Russia’s unwavering win-win position of balance
Russia’s position is as follows: Moscow will continue to sell India anything it seeks to purchase and will do so at prices which objectively guarantee better value for money than anything the US could offer. If India wants to take these open offers in spite of CAATSA, Russia could and perhaps would sweeten any deal during the course of negotiations as is normal in any major transaction whether at a private sector or sovereign level.
As for India’s concerns regarding Russia’s rapidly growing security and geopolitical partnership with Pakistan, Russia will simply tell India the truth that Russia can and does have a wide variety of partnerships, including those with erstwhile opponents. There is nothing Modi could say or do to make Russia pivot away from Pakistan any more than Syria has been able to convince Russia to pivot away from “Israel” or for that matter that Iran has been able to say in order to convince Russia to pivot away from Saudi Arabia.
Russia’s win-win balance versus Nixon’s playing one side against the other
Russia’s modern politics are all about balance in the name of win-win situations for all involved. While Russia’s modern partnerships with Pakistan and its historically good ties with India could if anything help to mediate in the tense situation between the two south Asian neighbours, Modi’s infamous zero-sum mentality does not tend to allow for such things. Therefore, Russia will continue to pursue a south Asian strategy where ties with Pakistan increase and ties with India will remain positive but only insofar as India allows them not to be ruined by CAATSA and other forms of geopolitical blackmail form the US.
In terms of the narrative that India is trying to convince Russia to take its side vis-a-vis China, this is simply not going to happen. Russia’s long term economic and strategic goals with China will remain strong and to this end, China has absolutely no problem with Russia preserving what remains of its Cold War partnership with India. If anything, China would like India to choose to re-build its Russian partnership as the pragmatic leadership in Beijing realises that while the US encourages, inspires and helps to author Modi’s Sinophobic stance, Russia if anything could help bring India a small step closer to a position of tolerance if not reconciliation with China, even it a rudimentary level.
Of course, Russia is able to use its good relationship with both China and India to communicate a goal of reconciliation in discussions with both Beijing and New Delhi, but far from this being some sort of “devious” attempt to “Nixonise” the Sino-Indian disputes of the 21st century, it is in reality a much more mundane concept involving making the best of any given situation. In a perfect world, Russia would help China and India to reach some sort of accord, but in the real world, Russia will simply make the most of what any given partner is willing to give and receive.
Pakistan has nothing to fear
While China clearly has nothing to fear even if Modi and Putin agree on a formula to help New Delhi avoid punitive CAATSA sanctions, nor does Pakistan have anything to fear. Russia’s clear strategic interests in South Asia will not be changed even if Modi promises Russia the world and frankly he is not going to promise Russia a great deal in any case.
Russia requires a stable Afghanistan-Pakistan border so that its own ‘near-abroad’ in Tajikistan does not face blow-back from the Afghan conflict. Furthermore, Russia can begin working on regional energy projects which require good ties with Islamabad. Such projects will be made easier when Afghanistan does not represent a firewall dividing Pakistan and Iran and in this sense, Russia’s 21st century south Asian policy involves supporting Pakistan’s position on an Afghan settlement. To this end, Russia has already proved its diplomatic valour in supporting Pakistan against vicious black propaganda from the Trump White House which implies that Pakistan has been a less than stalwart fighter against terrorism. While Modi and Trump read from the same script when it comes to slandering Pakistan’s valiant and often self-sacrificial anti-terror efforts, Russia has been along with China, a vocal defender of Pakistan’s record in this area.
Furthermore, because of Pakistan’s geographically strategic position, Russia’s own interests in the horn of Africa, Sudan and the wider India Ocean region require healthy relations with Islamabad. The possibility for Russia to develop its own shipping lanes in cooperation with China using the Port of Gwadar as a central terminus is a further source of attraction for Russia. Finally, because for all intents and purposes the US partnership with India has reached a clear point of no return, it is only natural for Russia to choose Pakistan as a valued south Asian partner for peace and prosperity in the win-win format.
On the surface there is no doubt that Modi’s visit to Russia will be cast as a success by both sides. In the sense that an absence of failure can be called a success, this label will indeed be true. But in terms of changing Russia’s geopolitical trajectory in Asia, the meeting was a failure before it begun because India simply has nothing to offer the Russian superpower that would convince it to abandon its win-win format in terms of both its incredibly strong relationship with China and its healthy, growing and potentially game changing relationship with Pakistan.
If India realises this and takes concrete steps to develop a format where New Delhi is able to balance relations with the US and Russia in the way that Turkey has mastered, there might be some near-term successes stemming from the meeting from the Indian perspective. In either case though, when it comes to the future of Russo-Indian relations, the matter is now largely in New Delhi’s hands and these hands are increasingly tied.