Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in New Delhi for a two-day visit to discuss bilateral ties and to review preparations for the upcoming bilateral summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, Lavrov threw in a visit to Pakistan as well, along with his India visit. He will go to Pakistan from India on 6-7 April. This is a clear message to India, knowing how sensitive India can be on the matter. India has always been clear that a visit to this country has to be standalone, and cannot be clubbed with a visit to Pakistan. The United States has started respecting India’s sensitivity and has been following this “norm” for a long time now. Other countries too are doing the same. In 2019, the Saudi royal, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman went back home from a visit to Pakistan, and then came to India straight from Riyadh, instead of hopping across the border. Seen in this context, Lavrov’s Pakistan visit is a message to India that the foreign policy direction New Delhi is taking, regarding Quad, is not appreciated by Russia and that in spite of all the talk about the importance of the India-Russia strategic partnership, Russia has firmly hyphenated India with Pakistan. As recently as December 2020, Lavrov, who has been vocalising Russia’s opposition to Quad for some time now, said that the Western powers were engaging in an “aggressive and devious” policy to make India a part of their “anti-China games” and thus were undermining India-Russia bilateral relations. This has been Russia’s consistent stand for the last few years—China is important to Russia and it should be a key partner to India as well, apparently, for the sake of regional stability. It’s a different matter though that Russia has been ignoring the fact that the sole reason behind “regional instability” is China, which has been using every means possible, including military aggression, to destabilise India. Russia also ignores the fact that to counter the Chinese threat it’s imperative for India to play a major role in the Quadrilateral security dialogue. Perhaps even Russia realises that the Quad is not an anti Russian bloc. But then the dragon in the room is China and it is more than apparent that China is using its leverage on Russia to try and throw a spanner in the works for India and the Quad.
In fact India should not be surprised if Lavrov’s visit to Pakistan has resulted from a nudge from China. After all, in China’s scheme of things, Pakistan matters, even though it is an economic basket case. Russia has had a difficult relationship with Pakistan in the past, especially since Pakistan, as a western satellite, played a part in the mighty Soviets biting the dust in the arid desert of Afghanistan. There is no reason to believe that Moscow has forgotten that humiliation. But from there to a situation where Russia hosts an Afghanistan summit, where all the “stakeholders” are invited, including Pakistan, but India is neatly elbowed out—there is no doubt that Moscow has come a long way. But the Russia of the 21st century does what China wants it to do. Faced with debilitating sanctions from the West, resulting in a crumbling economy, Russia does not have a choice but to let China occupy its economic landscape. From manufacturing to telecom, the Chinese are all over Russia. And then there is close defence cooperation, even though Russian scientists have been accusing the Chinese of reverse engineering their military technology. The two are also aligned in their ambition to carve out an anti-West geopolitical order, with Vladimir Putin being categorical that a military alliance with China is always a possibility. India cannot afford to be part of a geopolitical alliance which is anti West. In fact, time has come for India to review its participation in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, given the push coming India’s way from SCO to participate in anti terror exercises on Pakistani soil, etc. Russia-India-China (RIC) too is a non starter because India cannot become China’s vassal state the way Russia is becoming, in spite of its great power pretensions.
It is quite certain that Quad will come up for discussion during the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit, as well as defence ties. India has legacy issues when it comes to supply and maintenance of defence equipment by the Russians, so it will take time to cut that umbilical cord. But the umbilical cord will have to be cut by diversifying the sourcing of equipment and by manufacturing at home. India cannot take it upon itself to prop up Russia’s defence industry, when the rest of the world is racing ahead in defence R&D. Amid this, by trying to hyphenate India with Pakistan if Russia is trying to send New Delhi a message, it is hoped that such a message will not have any impact here. Russia is looking after its own interest by trying to keep its “Chinese brother” happy. India too needs to look after its own interest.