Indo-Russian relations, described in happier times as “civilisational and time-tested,” transcending party lines and political vicissitudes, is long rumoured to be past its prime with India drifting towards the United States and Russia making overtures to Pakistan. At the BRICS summit in Goa in October, Russia steered clear of India’s effort to publicly name Pakistan-based terrorist outfits like Lashkar and Jaish in the official declaration in the face of Chinese resistance. If the USA replacing Russia as India's largest military partner and India’s signing of Logistics Exchange Agreement with USA are signposts of glacial shifts, Russia’s inevitable tilt towards China and Pakistan is more entrenched than is apparent.

Last year, the mention by Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan, of India's increasing cooperation with the US alongside his exhortation that the Heart of Asia should not be used as a platform by India and Pakistan for scoring brownie points came in the course of a joint drill, named ‘Friendship 2016, the first-ever joint military exercises between Russia and Pakistan. A three-nation meeting on Afghanistan is on the anvil in Moscow, to bring together Russia, China and Pakistan in order to confer on matters of regional peace and stability. In a recent seminar on ‘Russia’s position on Afghanistan and Syria’ at the Area Study Centre at Peshawar University, Russia’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Alexey Y Dedov, said the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was a “tragic mistake”. The icing on the cake was Dedov’s admission that Russia and Pakistan have held discussions to merge Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union project with the CPEC. Dedov said Russia “strongly” supported CPEC as it was important for Pakistan’s economy and also regional connectivity, totally unmindful of the Indian territorial claim that the corridor passes through the Pakistan-occupied region of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Some observers peg Pakistan’s decision to develop closer ties with Russia on the 2011 killing of the Al Qaida chief, Osama bin Laden, followed by the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers the same year in NATO airstrikes on a checkpost along the Durand Line, Pakistan’s disputed border with Afghanistan. It is beside the point that India was rankled by Russia's decision to hold its first-ever joint military exercise with Pakistan days after the Uri terror strike which left 19 Indian soldiers dead, however much the Russians tried to justify it by saying that the “exercise was meant to help  Pakistan deal with terrorism”.

Times do change. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was looked at askance by the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China alike. At that time the Soviets were Indian allies, and India was one of China’s major rivals, while the Chinese were allies of Pakistan, which, in turn, was an ally of America and Saudi Arabia. The Americans and Saudis were major rivals of the Soviet Union. The Chinese, together with the Pakistanis, Arabs, Iranians and Americans, were propping up the Islamist militants in Afghanistan, who were fighting the Afghan Communists and the Soviet soldiers. Today, a common concern to combat Islamic fundamentalism and to stabilise Afghanistan has brought Russia and the United States closer in decades.

India signed a “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” with the Soviet Union in August 1971 in the backdrop of a perceived fear of a triangular alliance among Pakistan, the US, and China. In 1956, during their visit to India, Russian leaders Bulganin and Alexei Kosygin referred to Kashmir as an “integral part” of India, if one leaves aside several Russian vetoes in favour of India’s position on Kashmir at the UNSC. Russia’s tacit support to India during the brief 1962 India-China conflict also breeds a strong sense of nostalgia, though today India fares poorly compared to the depth of Russia’s bilateral relationship with China, as much as India is veering away from Russia and getting supplanted by the US. The very cornerstone of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership cemented in 1971 had been questioned by the   Russians themselves as early as in 1992.

What explains Russian behaviour? To counter growing isolation from the West, the Kremlin has implemented an offensive policy of multilateralism with the great rising powers, in particular with China in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It has also become more assertive in new theatres, such as conservative countries of the Middle East (Saudi Arabia), and in the former bastions of Soviet foreign policy ~ counterbalancing India along the way, for instance, through a reinforcement of military and economic cooperation. Russia’s most important priority remained economic modernisation, with a determination to win markets in arms and energy. China and India remained Russia’s largest buyers, purchasing more than 90 per cent of Russia’s annual arms exports. The advantage Russia has over most countries in the modern world is its large reserves of every kind of strategic commodity from diamonds to natural gas, and from aluminium to uranium.

After the dissolution of the USSR, particularly in the mid-Nineties, both Russia and China struck a chord with one another, maintaining mutual support for core policy objectives respective to them. While Russia, wary of NATO expansion plans, was being pilloried by the West for the conduct of its war in Chechnya since 1994, it was defended by China, in return for which Moscow stopped criticising China’s human rights record and reiterated its support for China’s policies on Taiwan and Tibet. China took a fancy to Russia’s new foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, who symbolised a further departure from Russia’s alignment with the West in the early 1990s, with a new emphasis on a multipolar world order and opposition to what was perceived as US unilateralism, and thus an urge to restore its big-power image. They cosied up to one another through an upgrade of their relationship to “strategic partnership”, proclaimed during Yeltsin’s visit to Beijing in April 1996, as a follow-up to which the leaders of the PRC, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met in Shanghai to discuss border demarcation and military cooperation in the border regions, known as the “Shanghai Five“, later to evolve into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

They concurred on a range of international political issues, protesting, for instance, against the US and NATO action independent of the UN, in Iraq in 1998 and in Kosovo/Serbia in 1999 respectively, against the US’ national missile defence (NMD) system and the theatre missile defence (TMD) system planned in cooperation with Japan on the plea that they were not consulted, China particularly apprehensive that the “defence systems“ might be used to tinker with their interests ~ for instance, to shelter Taiwan in a putative confrontation with China. Elizabeth Wishnick likens this development to Sino-US rapprochement during the Cold War, when she writes that “much as China joined forces with the United States in the 1970s and 1980s against Soviet hegemony, today Russian and Chinese leaders are attempting to coordinate their responses to what they view as US unilateralism in world affairs”. Russia has rallied around China unreservedly on the prickly issue of South China Sea and even after the Hague judgment conducted naval drills with China.

If we are complaining too much about the “downtrend” of Indo-Russian relations it is not a new thing as it has been happening since the early 1990s. The premise of the Indo-Soviet relationship during the Cold War that rested on the twin pillars of mutual interest ~ containment of China and the reduction of Western influence in Asia ~ no longer exists. Russia’s fall from its pre-eminent position and the emergence of the United States as the world’s only superpower, combined with growing Sino-Russian military cooperation ~ reportedly more than 4,000 Russian scientists and technicians are currently working in Chinese defence production facilities ~ and China’s steadfast refusal either to treat India at par, or to abandon its primary strategic nexus with Pakistan, contingent upon its need to anchor plans to develop infrastructure in South Asia and Central Asia, makes a “strategic triangle” between Russia, India and China as a “viable opposition to American supremacy” wishful thinking. India cannot hope to counterbalance China with Russian help either. Therefore, should a durable Russo-Chinese-Pak entente become the present geopolitical reality, we have to learn to fend for ourselves.

The writer is a freelance contributor