‘America First’ rhetoric brings India, Russia closer

Abhishek Mohanty

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been the dominant player in international politics. America claimed to be committed to a rules-based international order. But that time has passed.

From abandoning international treaties to belittling allies to initiating trade wars and unreasonable sanctions, the insensitive measures of US President Donald Trump are upsetting the international order as never before. All this is included in his “America First” strategy, a radically altered nationalist vision to manipulate global political affairs.

There is no doubt that Russia has been one of the major victims of this new approach by the US. Washington has used the fear of economic sanctions to intimidate close allies of Russia. One such ally that was about to fall prey to this strategy was India, the world’s sixth-largest economy and the most attractive economic partner in Asia after China.

Trump’s “America First” approach has left his country far more isolated, with India also becoming conscious of the whole concept and now looking for options to sustain the vision of a multipolar world.

Reports came out in 2016 that India was planning to purchase a new missile system from Russia, which immediately set off alarm bells at the Pentagon. Threats of sanctions and other consequences were issued, but the major threat came from Randall Schriver, the US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, who stated that his country would not hesitate to impose economic sanctions on countries intending to purchase Russia’s new S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system this year, including India and NATO ally Turkey.

It is a matter of serious concern for the US as the missile system is designed in such a way that it can track and knock down any kind of aircraft, even powerful stealth planes, at a range of up to 400 kilometers. As well, it has the capability to gather information about the proficiencies of any aircraft within its radar, including the US-built supersonic F-35 fighter jet. While there were a few reports that the US might not impose sanctions on India, the issue is still a matter of concern.

This issue was also raised behind closed doors during the inaugural 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi, where US Defense Secretary John Mattis and Secretary of the State Mike Pompeo tried to discuss the matter but failed to persuade their Indian counterparts. The US had suspected that India might sign the S-400 deal during the 19th annual India-Russia bilateral summit, and it did.

Defying the US, India signed the US$5.43 billion deal for five S-400 missile systems on the sidelines of the summit meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the Americans were shocked by this development, they tried to veil their sorrow with a diplomatic statement released just after the official announcement of the deal.

Despite the fact that India has a long tradition of signing huge defense contracts with Russia, this deal has much significance for bilateral cooperation as it has occurred at a time when there is much friction between the US and Russia, more than there has been seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is now seen as a replication of India’s tactic of asserting sovereignty in its foreign policy, which may have severe repercussions for India’s relations with the US.

India must now calibrate its relations in the context of the complex Russia-US matrix. India undoubtedly knows that it can’t take Russian support for granted as it did during the Soviet era.

Since the 1950s, defense has been a significant area of bilateral cooperation between India and Russia, and this partnership has steadily evolved from an importer-exporter relationship to the joint research and development of defense technologies and machinery. Both countries are trying to sustain cordiality while simultaneously steering through sensitive geopolitical challenges.

Regardless of Russia’s emerging partnership with India’s arch-rivals China and Pakistan, both New Delhi and Moscow still see each other as special and privileged strategic partners.

Russia has supported India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, a position the US has never agreed to support, and also considers Jammu and Kashmir an integral part of India, which has irked both China and Pakistan. India and Russia should develop a non-bloc security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region to bring the stability needed for a rules-based order in the region, as China recently threatened the Russian company Rosneft to get it to cease its operations in the South China Sea.

Russia obviously knows that relations with China and Pakistan are as secure as a Nigerian bank account.

Russia was also actively involved in securing India permanent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian political, economic and security bloc that is deemed to be an anti-Western organization by political analysts in the West. India’s plans to create a free-trade zone with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is still in the embryonic stage. Joining the union could help India avoid the consequences of future US trade wars.

India should also consider joining the special purpose vehicle (SPV) led by Russia and the European Union, a proposed measure designed to sideline US sanctions on Iran and facilitate payments related to oil imports.

Unlike the US, Russia has openly exhibited its willingness to hand over “crown jewel” defense technologies and expertise to India. Prime examples include the submarine INS Arihant and the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, BrahMos and Astra missiles, BMP armored personnel carriers and many more. While many Western-oriented Indian strategic thinkers argue that Russia is providing old technologies, they forgot to acknowledge that at least they are giving a helping hand, which no other developed country even thinks of doing.

The bigger picture is that in contrast to the US, Russia has never threatened to impose sanctions on India – neither in peacetime or during wars. With a few exceptions, relations between India and Russia have generally been positive.

India and Russia perceive each other as important and assertive countries with a significant role to play in the multipolar world. Both countries share a mutual vision for long-lasting bilateral cooperation and, bearing in mind the impulsiveness of US policy under the Trump administration, there is immense pressure on both New Delhi and Moscow to sustain stability in the increasingly unpredictable global order.

The future is challenging for both countries and it is the need of the hour to act as cohesive forces and let peace prevail in the world.


Abhishek Mohanty
Abhishek Mohanty is currently studying MA Politics: International and Area Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is associated with several reputed international relations think-tanks in the Eurasian and Asia-Pacific regions as a Trainee Researcher. His research interests include critical analysis of foreign policies of Eurasian and Asia-Pacific countries, religion and world politics, cultural diplomacy and international election observations. He can be contacted via e-mail on abhishek.mohanty1994@gmail.com.
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