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Mainstream, VOL XLVIII, No 50, December 4, 2010

Regional Implications of Russian President’s Forthcoming Visit

Sunday 12 December 2010, by Mansoor Ali

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is visiting India in the second half of this month following French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s trip to New Delhi. The visit assume significance not only as yet another milestone in further enhancing the time-tested Indo-Russian cooperation, but in the context of the worsening situation in Afghanistan in particular; the threat of a Taliban takeover of Kabul is quite potent at this juncture and, according to keen observers and experts of the South West Asian scene, could become a reality in case the US and its allies’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is executed in the near future.

As erstwhile Foreign Secretary and former Indian ambassador to Russia Kanwal Sibal has recently written,

The security situation in Afghanistan and ways of coordinating strategy in the matter are among the issues on the table for discussion between the two countries.
India’s strategic partner Russia and Shia-dominated Iran were the principal backers of the Northern Alliance, or the resistance against the mainly Sunni-Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan, before the US-led invasion in 2001 toppled the hardline regime.
Russia, which allowed the US to help weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, has been wary of the Taliban insurgency destablising the Central Asian republics and spilling over into its Caucasus region.

All these show that there is a broad conformity of Indian and Russian approaches to the evolving Afghan problem. The concern behind New Delhi’s exhortation to the US-led alliance to stay on in that country till the complete liquidation of the Taliban finds a positive resonance in Moscow which fully appreciates the logic advanced by India against the backdrop of the danger of Islamic fundamentalist upsurge in the region.

On all political issues India and the erstwhile Soviet Union had a unique identity of views. This is contining till date as Indo-Russian relations scale new heights in the present complex geo-political scenario in the region and beyond. The dislocation in bilateral ties during the Yeltsin era soon after the collapse of the USSR at the fag end of 1991 is now in the realm of the past with the two countries having unfolded new horizons of cooperation since former PM P.V. Narasimha Rao’s momentous visit to Russia in 1994 when the summit level talks concluded with the Moscow Declaration on the “Protection of Interests of Pluralist States” with the two sides reaffirming their support to each other’s territorial integrity and reiterating their common struggle against international terrorism. That visit indeed marked the beginning of a new strategic partnership between the two states highlighting the “mutually shared interest in the Central Asian region”, as Ambassador Sibal underscored.

IT is true, as the former head of the Indian mission in Moscow argues, “the presence of the US and coalition forces in the Central Asian region changed the dynamics of the region completely” and that is why “there is a need for India and Russia to work in concert to come to a better understanding with the US” in this area as also on other issues. Yet it is also essential to understand that Washington has still not completely given up its hegemonic designs especially in such regions and regards Moscow as a serious competitor because it is Russia alone, despite its vastly depleted strength today, which can in the foreseeable future emerge as the only countervailing force in the international arena capable of thwarting US mechanisations albeit in cooperation with others (including China and India). At the same time, unlike during the Cold War, Russia is no longer playing the role of a confrontationist state to the US on ideological grounds; but Moscow will not countenance any interference in its internal affairs from the side of Washington, as Russian PM Vladimir Putin stated in sharp retaliation to the US criticism of Russian democracy revealed in the US diplomatic cables published by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Putin also reasserted what Medvedev had announced: Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and “strike forces” in case it were shut out of a Western missile shield.

This assertion does not in any way herald a return to Russian-American conflict as in the days of the Cold War. Rather, it is intended to revive the balance in international relations that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union thereby giving rise to false delusions in Washington about the US strength and power beyond its actual capability.

This assertive and vigorous Russia would be a strong ally of India in the current context, and such a Russia would remain an effective political friend of this country. This is of crucial importance in the present complex global and regional scenario. As in the past, India can bank on Russia as a reliable bulwark of support on vital issues as Kashmir, defence and nuclear collaboration—but a resurgent Russia, as Moscow has increasingly demonstrated of late, will be more dependable for India than in the recent past.

The WikiLeaks disclosures have exposed major fault-lines in US-Pak relations (with the US ambassador to Pakistan informing that no amount of aid would help wean Pakistan away from using terrorism as state policy and backing entities like Lashkar-e-Taiba) and there are apprehensions of similar fault-lines appearing in Indo-US relations as well when other WikiLeaks disclosures come out. However, such fault-lines are completely absent in Indo-Russian relationship. The basic point to note is the element of trust that characterises Indo-Russian ties—this is something unparalleled in the contemporary world scene.

It must also be borne in mind that even if Russia does not want to go public, there is in reality no love lost between Russia and China. Moscow wants New Delhi to reinforce Indo-Russian interaction and cooperation to deter the Chinese policy in the East Asian region and forge productive cooperative relations with ASEAN states in economic and defence areas. In this exercise the two states are bound to enjoy the wholehearted support of such a vital country as Vietnam.

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