The foreign and military establishments in major countries are vast bureaucracies where policies get made by the outcome of clashing interpretations of the national interest, of course, but also by the influentials with access to the powers that be who shape and tilt policies one way or the other. Until some time back India had a very strong lobby in Moscow. As a small number of the well informed in New Delhi who are Russian-speaking and try to keep up with developments in Moscow attest, the one time large crew of well-placed officials — old India hands — who understood and empathized with India, and backed its initiatives, is fast disappearing as much because of natural attrition as the Indian government’s approach that is increasingly tilting US-wards and alienating well-wishers in the Kremlin. Soon New Delhi will find there is no one to pitch India’s case there.
Perhaps, this doesn’t matter much to the bulk of the MEA and GOI establishment who feel little need to have a close relationship with Russia to counterbalance the United States and cultivate leverage in both Washington and Moscow as a means of enlarging India’s policy choices and options, and the freedom to maneuver for best results. This was, until not too long ago, one of the drivers of Indian foreign and defence policies, and made for certain stability and equipoise.
With the death of the Hindustani-speaking Russian Ambassador Alexander Kadakin, ironically, on 26th January, India has lost the most powerful voice on its behalf, a man who was carefully listened to in Moscow and who, for years, sculpted the Russian government’s attitude toward this country. This is a big void that will be hard to fill.
As important, two other influentials who pleaded India’s case are turning away. Consider the other regional specialist Zumair Kabulov, an Uzbek, who until 2009 was the Russian Ambassador in Afghanistan and since has been President Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan. While earlier he was understood to have wanted an Indian role in that country, now doesn’t even mention India when Afghanistan comes up. (Refer his December 2016 interview at http://aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/exclusive-interview-with-russian-diplomat-zamir-kabulov/717573) Why is this important? Because this means Moscow has written off India as an independent actor even within the region with the standing and ability to play a larger role in Asia, seeing it, rather, as essentially an American hanger-on. This was reflected in the original Russia-China-Pakistan conclave called to discuss Afghanistan that did not envisage Indian participation. New Delhi was finally accommodated but found itself isolated on this forum.
But when troubles come, as Shakespeare ventured, they come in battalions, another high Russian official, retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, possibly the most experienced of the strategic forces adviser to Putin, too has become less sympathetic to India’s fairly precarious position where its nuclear forces are concerned. Dvorkin, who in times past, argued for Russian support for a credible Indian thermonuclear arsenal and, by inference, for resumed testing if an Indian government got up the guts to initiate this time open-ended series of underground fusion weapons test explosions, too has cooled. With Kadakin gone, Kabulov and Dvorkin caring less, Kremlin will be left to make its decisions without the benefit of advice from the once India-friendlies. This will mean that that little bit of extra consideration and warmth Moscow traditionally showed New Delhi will be missing.
In fact, there is evidence already of the hardening of the Russian position. The Indian government, one is given to understand, has already been told that Moscow will feel free to craft its Pakistan policy as it sees fit, including the sale to Pakistan Air Force of the MiG-35. The transfer of a few Mi-35 attack helicopters was to only whet the appetite. Russia’s pulling away will begin affecting strategically sensitive programs as well, starting with the Aridhaman — the second Arihant-class SSBN in the final stages of production in Vizag. Especially because Russia’s technologically far-reaching offers in the military technology sphere have met with tepid response. (More on this in a future post.)
Given the Indian government’s fairly pronounced West-ward slant, Russia has few takers in New Delhi, even fewer in the MEA which, top to bottom, functions like all but an arm of the US government. Indeed, President Donald Trump and America will lose nothing from closing down the US Embassy in New Delhi, and saving lots of money. Between Carnegie’s and Brookings’ active presence in Delhi, their ranks filled with former NSA and the like, and pliant media, commentariat, and MEA-MOD officialdom, it is virtually Washington on the Jamuna anyway.
What this means for India’s prospects is becoming clearer. With Delhi formally sliding over to America’s side in global power politics, it was only a matter of time before the effects became evident. One of Washington’s India policy weather vanes, Ashley Tellis, of Carnegie Washington, for example, has downgraded India from an “indispensable” power to the US in Asia, to now, a merely “leading power” in the region. India will soon become, and be treated as, a client state — a lowly and contemptible status, sourcing for the US an endless stream of low-cost IT and other tech coolies. A client state is what Pakistan was. Except with some characteristically deft diplomacy, Islamabad has become fairly central to Chinese and Russian calculations in extended Central and southern Asia, even as it has held on to its prime slot as a”front line” state in US’s reckoning. Meanwhile, Indian emissaries, beginning with Foreign Secretary K Jaishankar in the next week, followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his Washington visit scheduled for May, will beg for more H1B visas to “drain” India’s “brain” bank. Great going.