The Room with a View

Food and some thoughts on the future of India-Russia relations

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Kubinka/ Moscow: Overlooking the old building of the Russian ministry of defence, off the bank of river Moskva, Aoduvan is a quaint little restaurant inside an equally small, boutique hotel, which sprung from the farm the owners of the property run a few kilometres outside Moscow. In addition to growing herbs and vegetables, the farm also breeds poultry and game for food. On the menu then is food straight from the farm. Off the menu is conversation about Russia’s present position in the world and its future.

At the ARMY 2018 International Military and Technical Forum in Moscow

Cutting into the breast of goose jerky liberally garnished with cranberry sauce, FORCE host for the afternoon, an independent Russian analyst, says, “Russia does not want to make hard choices. Actually, it cannot afford to make any harder choices. For some time now, we will continue to pay the price for the choices we made in the last few years.”

The new choices that he was talking about pertained to Russia balancing its relations with India and Pakistan; the old choices that he referred to were Russian actions, first in Ukraine and then in Syria. “Given that Russia does not have too many friends in the world right now, it would want to hold on to those it has,” he says. According to him, while neither Pakistan nor China ask Russia to make a choice, India tends to do that as its current foreign policy hinges on ‘who all doesn’t like Pakistan.’

Once upon a time, this could have been an easy call to take. Not anymore. Despite fervent assurances by the bosses of the Russian defence industry that India would always take precedence over Pakistan as far as defence sales are concerned, the truth is that today Russia’s relations with Pakistan are tied up with its relations with China and its growing outreach in the Middle East. Syria is just one part of it, in which Iran is its closest ally. The other, and the more important part is the regional alignment that Russia is assiduously building with China, in which it has allowed the latter to take the lead through Belt and Road Initiative. Of course, the Chinese yuan matters too.

Hence, Russia’s insistence on India participating in the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) military exercise called Peace Mission 2018, focussed on counter-terrorism in August this year. India was reluctant to participate in the multilateral exercise. According to a senior Indian military officer who was privy to these discussions, India’s hesitation was only on account of Pakistan. But in face of Russia’s persuasion, Indians rationalised that since they do operate alongside Pakistan under the United Nations flag, they could do the same in Russia under SCO. “Besides, it is only a tactical counter-terrorism exercise,” the officer told FORCE with a touch of nonchalance.

Not everyone had this nonchalant attitude towards the exercise that attracted a lot of interest, primarily because all participating nations, total eight, were conscious of the strained India-Pakistan ties. Welcoming the fact that two estranged neighbours decided to exercise together, even if in a multilateral construct, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the media that “These two countries are important ones in South Asia… We sincerely hope that they could enhance their dialogue and cooperation both bilaterally and through multilateral mechanisms like the SCO, work together to improve their ties and jointly maintain regional peace and stability.”

Nearly 3,000 troops participated in the exercise that was held at the Chebarkul training grounds in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region near the Ural mountain range, well southeast of Moscow. The largest contingent was Russian, about 1,700 soldiers from the Central Military District. This was followed by China, which sent 700 soldiers. What’s more, chief of the Joint Staff Department, Central Military Commission (CMC) of China, General Li Zuocheng went to Russia towards the culmination of the exercise to participate in the chiefs of general staff meeting.

India sent a joint army and air force contingent of 200 soldiers, which was represented by chief of integrated staff to chairman (CISC) Lt Gen. Satish Dua at the chiefs of general staff meeting. The week-long exercise included non-military activities like games, in which, interestingly while Russia cheered India against Pakistan, India cheered Russia against China. So much for taking sides!

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