Home / Opinion / Views /  What India signals by joining military exercises in Russia

Russia will be conducting its first major military exercises since the launch of its invasion of Ukraine from the end of August. India’s participation in these multinational exercises raises several questions about its rationale, its objectives and the sides it takes on the dominant geopolitical issues of the day.

First, India’s participation in the Vostok-2022 exercises should be no more or no less surprising than the fact that India engaged with China in the Hand-in-Hand military exercises for as long as it did. The exercises—the last of which took place as late as December 2019—were ostensibly designed as a confidence-building measure between the two armies and focused on anti-terrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. India persisted with these exercises despite regular Chinese transgressions into Indian territory and Beijing regularly blocking India’s attempts to sanction Pakistan-based terrorists at the UN Security Council.

In fact, despite Chinese troops presently occupying territory on the Indian side of the LAC in eastern Ladakh since 2020, Indian and Chinese troops were also part of another Russian multinational military exercise, Zapad-2021, that also included Pakistani troops. Meanwhile, come October and it will be India’s turn to host Pakistani troops as part of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation anti-terror drill. With respect to Vostok-2022 itself, India’s participation creates another complication given that one of the training areas is in the Southern Kuril Islands, which is territory claimed by Japan, a partner of India in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, QUAD.

What then is the Indian government signalling internationally if it can exercise with troops of its adversaries and be willing to risk offending declared partners?

Leaving aside the military value of such exercises or what other countries might actually think, New Delhi’s intentions and rationale should be obvious.

One, India is attempting to signal to the US-led West that even though India and China are at loggerheads or that Russia is criticized and under economic sanctions due to its invasion of Ukraine, these should not be taken to mean that India’s space for maneuver can be constrained. The US and others cannot automatically assume that India will now pin its flag to the mast of the West. This is part of a long-standing post-Cold War Indian strategy in which, as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted in his 2019 Ramanath Goenka Lecture, “India reached out to engage the US more intensively, yet did so while protecting its equities in critical areas".

Two, even from the narrower perspective of its ties with the West or the liberal democratic global order that India is a natural part of, Russia remains a valued partner for New Delhi for sound political reasons. This is so, even if like India has with the US, Moscow too, has begun to cast its eyes further afield—consider, for example, occasional talk of improving Russia-Pakistan ties.

India’s civilian and military establishments remember, no doubt, the harsh American and Chinese criticism of India’s 1998 nuclear tests while the Russians rebuked gently and opposed the imposition of economic sanctions. Another sore memory is the traction the idea of a G-2 framework of Washington and Beijing managing the world got during the Barack Obama presidency. For New Delhi, these are not minor aberrations of American policy—rather, they suggest that despite their common democratic identities, the US continues to view India from the cold hard prism of its own interests. Even now, despite the characterisation of China as a ‘strategic adversary’ in American national security documents and continuing Chinese provocations, there remain influential voices in Washington advocating engagement with Beijing on grounds of avoiding military conflict and/or for economic profit.

Three, India continues to engage Moscow because it currently also makes economic sense. The Russian decision to offer crude at a discounted rate is smart international politics, a way to undermine Western sanctions imposed following the invasion of Ukraine. And it is a decision that works well for India as the world’s third-largest consumer of crude oil as it does for China, the world’s second-largest consumer—Indians deserve a regular supply of energy at low prices every bit as much as Europeans do.

If the price of keeping the discount available requires New Delhi to show greater solidarity with Russia by sending a few troops to a multinational military exercise, then that is not a case simply of India defying the West or even acting like a confident power but a common sense imperative to protect its best interests.

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