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Opinion | A Russian tango

Russia is wary of India’s growing proximity to the US, which it believes is trying to pressure India into substituting Russian defence imports with American purchases

Just before heading for the Zvezda ship-building complex in Vladivostok in Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin hugged and shook hands. This was no surprise. Yet, the tight embrace and warmth on display did reflect an unmistakable friendship that has stayed strong despite growing divergences between the two countries. Russia is wary of India’s growing proximity to the US, which it believes is trying to pressure India into substituting Russian defence imports with American purchases. This friction has been on display in India’s S-400 missile defence system purchase deal with Russia that the US has been trying to block by threatening sanctions on India under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. India, on the other hand, has reason to worry about Russia’s growing trade with China and Pakistan; also its stance on involving the Taliban in restoring peace in Afghanistan has not gone down well with it.

Still, there is a lot of common ground. Russia has abundant natural resources and India’s hunger for them is only growing. This could be an area of mutual cooperation. In addition, India can counterbalance China, whose growing influence in East Europe and Central Asia—areas Russia considers its littoral—is a matter of concern for Moscow. Besides, Russia remains a reliable defence partner of India. In this light, both India and Russia have done well to maintain their ties despite drifting apart on some areas of past cooperation. India has not buckled to US pressure on the S-400 deal, while Moscow has

continued to support New Delhi on the Kashmir issue. The trouble for New Delhi is that it can’t simply brush away America’s displeasure over our Russian ties. The US is not just a key economic partner, its support is vital to India on various crucial matters, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan.

All this means India has a fine balancing act to perform in keeping both allies on its side. The best course would be for New Delhi to maintain independent relationships with both. So far, it has been pursuing this goal successfully. While Russia has not complained, the US often expresses displeasure. New Delhi would do well to impress upon Washington that our ties with Russia are not only in our best interest, but also in America’s. After all, India needs all the backing it can get if China’s rising influence is to be moderated by another large Asian country. Also, in principle, India does not believe in mutually exclusive relationships. That is what sovereignty is.

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