Thursday, March 25, 2010


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

The Russia-India Strategic Partnership has been brought into sharper focus this week for two significant reasons. The first significant reason was the recent visit of Russian Prime Minister Putin to New Delhi in mid-March 2010. The second significant reason is the changed South Asia geo-political context generated by the United States abject appeasement of Pakistan Army Chief’s demands on the United States to craft Pakistan’s strategic parity with India and pressurize India to yield on Kashmir issue and the water-disputes as a new contentious issue raised by Pakistan.

In the rapidly changing South Asia geopolitical environment, Prime Minister Putin’s visit in rich in symbolism both in its timing and content. Putin as Russia’s President in the period 2000-2008 has been the architect and prime mover in resurrecting the Russia-India Strategic Partnership from virtual redundancy it was consigned to in the Yeltsin era. In his earlier four Presidential visits to India and now again as Prime Minister, lies the Russian reiteration of the continuing value it places on the Russia-India Strategic Partnership.

In marked contrast to the above, the yet to mature US-India Strategic Partnership of recent vintage stands endangered in Indian public perceptions by US Obama Administration’s propensity to cut an opportunistic deal with the Pakistan Army Chief to facilitate a speedy United States exit from Afghanistan.

The primacy, being accorded by the US Obama Administrations apex level officials to Pakistan Army Chief, General Kayani in determining the course and content of the ongoing unprecedented Ministerial-level US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue is worrisome both for the Pakistani public and India’s policy establishment.

Pertinently, eminent Pakistani TV commentator and media personality Hameed Mir reiterated on Indian TV news channel, TIMES-NOW that the Pakistan Army Chief’s parleys in Washington aided by Pakistan Foreign Minister did not carry the mandate of the Pakistan Parliament, implicitly highlighting the uncertain implications of the new US initiative.

The Pakistani public opinion should be left in no doubt that once again the United States is obstructively standing in between Pakistani’s aspirations for genuine democracy and the Pakistan Army intent on retaining its primacy in Pakistan's governance and control of Pakistan’s foreign policies especially towards India.

The Indian policy establishment should be a worrisome lot that the United States has not left them even a fig-leaf to cover the utter failure of India’s policies on Pakistan, determined and evolved by the Indian Prime Minister under strong pressures from the United States. The distinguishing feature of Indian Prime Minister’s Pakistan policy was an object appeasement of Pakistan for peace at all costs.

Such has been the servile attitudinal reflexes of those US apologists close to the Indian policy establishment that they are now preaching that India like the United States, should invite Pakistan Army Chief, General Kayani to India for talks to enable move forward of the peace dialogue.

In such a political environment that dominates the thinking of the Indian policy establishment, the strategic gaze of objective analysts necessarily veers towards making comparisons between India’s strategic partnerships with Russia and the United States.

In this context, this Paper would like to focus on examination of the following related issues.

  • India’s Contextual Geopolitical Environment

  • Russia-India Strategic Partnership and US-India Strategic Partnership: Brief Comparative Analysis

  • United States Renewed Strategic Tilt Towards Pakistan: Strategic Change of Course or Tactical Expediency

India’s Contextual Geopolitical Environment

“India’s Foreign Policy 2004-2009: The Wasted Years” was the title of an earlier paper of this author. India’s contextual geopolitical environment in which India now finds itself severely strategically disadvantaged arises directly from these wasted years.

India’s contextual geopolitical environment is dismal in which India stands checkmated on virtually all strategic fronts, namely:

  • United States has effectively sidelined India from Afghanistan in favour of Pakistan.

  • United States has resorted to balance-of-power strategies against India by continued supply of advanced military hardware to Pakistan, unrelated to counter-terrorism operations.

  • At Pakistan’s insistence, the United States has subjected India to persistent pressures to engage Pakistan in dialogue oblivious to Pakistan’s continued terror attacks against India.

  • Notably and significantly, China’s renewed intransigence and territorial violations on the Sino-Indian border have coincidentally sprung back to life in tandem with what China perceives as the devaluation of the US-India Strategic Partnership by the US Obama Administration.

Ironically, from a position of strategic predominance in South Asia of earlier years, India today stands being reduced to one of military equivalence with Pakistan as a result of United States recent South Asia policies with a Pak-centric focus. Additionally, India stands so reduced as a result of the Indian policy establishment allowing itself to be pressurized to toe US strategic priorities in the region, namely US proclivities to submit to Pakistan Army demands.

Russia-India Strategic Partnership and US-India Strategic Partnership: Brief Comparative Analysis

A comparative analysis of India’s strategic partnerships with Russia and the United States can be briefly done by highlighting the following characteristics/connotations of the two:

  • The Russia India Strategic Partnership has been a time-tested and enduring one for more than a quarter of a century. Geo-strategically and geopolitically Russia has stood by India under trying circumstances and contributed to India’s national security interests.

  • The US-India Strategic Partnership is still an evolving one. With just one change of US Administration, the US-India Strategic Partnership stands strategically and politically endangered.

  • Russia, creditably, has never indulged in balance-of-power strategies in South Asia and provided strategic ballast to India’s South Asian predominance.

  • United States strategic tilts in the past and now underway have been in favour of Pakistan and at India’s strategic expense. The United States has never effectively restrained Pakistan in its anti-India political and military adventurism, despite US tremendous leverages over Pakistan.

  • India can still count on Russia to act as “the sheet anchor of its foreign policies”. The United States has yet to provide that assurance and confidence to India.

On balance, therefore, the Russia-India Strategic Partnership serves India’s national security interests more effectively than the US-India Strategic Partnership.

As on date the Russia-India Strategic Partnership encompasses a wide spectrum of providing muscle to the Indian Armed Forces by supply of advanced military hardware, predominantly underwriting India’s economic growth with the large number of civil nuclear reactors contracted for and provision of other high technologies including joint R & D and production of futuristic weapon systems.

United States Renewed Strategic Tilt Towards Pakistan: Strategic Change of Course or Tactical Expediency

United States renewed strategic tilt towards Pakistan, on the face of it, seems to be determined by the Afghanistan problem and the US predicaments there.

The question that begs an answer then is whether this American shift in South Asia policies is one of tactical expediency to make use of the Pakistan Army in the short-term future or is it a really a well-thought out long term strategic change of course in US policies.

If it is a strategy of tactical expedience then the manifestations would be apparent in the next two to three years or even earlier. So far the record of the United States towards Pakistan has been one of spasmodic tactical expediency.

However, this time, at the highest levels, the United States has declared and emphasized that it is looking forward to establish a long term strategic relationship with Pakistan, transcending the traditional military dimensions.

One would therefore prefer to reserve one’s comments on the tactical or strategic perspectives. However, a few observations are in order to get the perspectives right.

Firstly, the euphoria that has overtaken the Pakistani military establishment in the wake of President Obama’s recent utterances and the outcome of the London Conference is not matched by the US side. In the United States, the optimism is more deliberate and calibrated.

Secondly, the connotations being given by Pakistan and the United States differ. The Pakistan military establishment, prefers to term the Strategic Dialogue of March 24, 2010 as one of being the first steps to establish a long term “US-Pak Strategic Partnership”. The United States on the other hand prefers to term it as a “strategic relationship”.

On balance, whether the US renewed tilt towards Pakistan is tactical or strategic, both carry serious security implications for India. India's policy establishment therefore urgently needs to weigh US-India Strategic Partnership on more realistic scales of how effectively it is contributing to India's national security interests.

Concluding Observations

The Russia-India Strategic Partnership is a time-tested strategic partnership. It was the sheet anchor of India’s foreign policies during the Cold War when India was being buffeted around strategically. It continues as the sheet-anchor of India’s foreign policy even contemporarily when the contextual geopolitical situation portends that India would once again be likely to be buffeted around on Kashmir and other contentious issues with which Pakistan Army is at odds with India and asking USA to pressurize India.

While an equally vibrant US-India Strategic Partnership is also desirable for India, but regrettably that vibrancy is unlikely to emerge till such time the United States gives up its propensity for periodic strategic tilts towards Pakistan.

With Russia not carrying any “Pakistan baggage” in its policy approaches to South Asia and towards India, the Russia-India Strategic Partnership is better placed to serve India’s national security interests. To some Indians it may be devoid of glamorous embellishments but then in the end-game in strategically and politically in turbulent times for India, a strategic partnership requires the assured stability of a strongly and deeply embedded sheet-anchor. The Russia-India Strategic Partnership carries that distinction which stands validated historically.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.