Thinking of Messing with Russia? Think again

August 2007: Putin is pictured carrying a hunting rifle in the Republic of Tuva
[Putin in Aug 2007 — hunting]

The most absolute ruler in the world today, other than Kim Jong-un of North Korea, is Vladimir Putin of Russia — not Xi Jinping in China, who has to play and balance a number of powerful entities and vested interests, especially the pampered People’s Liberation Army which, no surprise, has the run of the Treasury. It is the reason why the Communist party continues to be in the wheelhouse and Xi at the wheel. Putin has no such oppostion and rules virtually by decree. He also has the Stalinist State apparatus that never really disappeared, with KGB at its core, as his handmaiden.

Vladimir Putin spent long years in the State Committee for Security — KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti). Posted to the Second Chief Directorate (counterintelligence) in Dresden in East Germany during the Cold War, he was shifted to the First Chief Directorate (Foreign Operations) and finally to the Fifth Chief Directorate (Internal Security). He thereby pulled time in the three most powerful arms of the KGB. In analyzing ‘alpha male’ leaders — Modi, Trump, Putin, Xi, and Erdogan in the first chapter of my 2018 book ‘Staggering Forward’, I emphasized how during his time in the 5th Directorate Putin cannily linked up with the Russian Orthodox Church and. after becoming President, returned to it all the properties and lands expropriated by the State in the 1917 October Revolution, and won its loyalty. The reason why the Church supports him fully and gets him votes during elections.

Putin is a martial arts expert, hunts with a Baikal Rifle, sea dives for fun, rides around in a Harley Davidson Lehman Trike hog, has authored a regime of physical exercises to keep fit, and inaugurated the new HQ in Moscow of the Russian military intelligence (GRU) by loosing off a few rounds at a moving target in its underground firing range. When this man — the Russian President, says “We know how to defend our interests”, Delhi better believe he will not take anything lying down.

The Biden Administration signalled the end of the 4-year Trump-honeymoon with Russia by announcing a slew of economic sanctions against Russian entities and notables. Moscow retaliated and then upped the game just to see what Washington would do. So, on the southern NATO tier, Putin massed over 40,000 Russian troops, including as BBC reported, “16 tactical groups”, on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea that he had annexed in February 2014. Ukraine Defence Minister Andrii Taran informed the European Parliament’s Security and Defense Subcommittee that Russian military strength on Ukraine’s borders may soon “reach 56 battalion tactical groups with 110,000 troops”.

Russia’s objective to eventually re-absorb all of Ukraine is based on Russia-leaning separatists already controlling much of the Donbas country in eastern Ukraine roughly upto the line Mariupol-Petrivsk-Donetsk-Horlivka-Debaltseve-Luhansk. Speaking April 13 at the NATO HQ in Brussels, a shaken Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that Russia was “openly threatening Ukraine with war and destruction of our statehood”. But unlike in 2014, he added, “Russia won’t be able to catch anyone by surprise anymore”. Kuleba got it wrong.

Putin has been beefing up Russian forces on the Ukrainian front for a while now not so much to catch Ukraine, NATO or the US by surprise but to see if the American President, Joe Biden, is risk-acceptant enough to chance a military confrontation. Indeed, Moscow is going the extra mile to needle Washington by choking off Ukranian naval access to its Black Sea ports. The Ukrainian defence minister Taran fears this Russian blockade in the Black and Azov Seas is designed to severely hinder his nation’s “important trade routes in international waters” accounting for $103 billion in foreign trade. This action suggests Putin is intent on economically strangling Ukraine and daring Biden to do something. That he can throttle the confrontation up or down at will is indicated by his latest move to de-concentrate his forces on the Ukraine border.

So far the US, other than venting hot air, has not reacted. Sustained Allied military action may, in any case, be difficult considering the NATO main air base in Incirlik in Turkey for a southern approach may be unavailable to US forces because America is in the same jam with Ankara as it is with Delhi — the S-400! President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey has made clear — almost in so many words — that he will have the S-400 and, should Washington threaten CAATSA sanctions, NATO can go find another Incirlik for itself! By getting close to Turkey in the last several years, Putin may, in fact, have planned and prepared for a contingency as is developing. With so many chess-like moves (like cultivating Germany and other West European states with piped oil and gas), Putin has shored up his country’s security perimeter before going on the offensive. The point to make is this: Putin is a careful but ruthless player willing to push the envelope. For Modi to rub him the wrong way by sidling up to America may be to goad Moscow into unsheathing its numerous options which will only worsen the regional balance of advantage against India.

Consider how Erdogan in contrast is playing it. His stance, unlike Modi’s, is stern. Ankara is very sure what it brings to the table is something the US and NATO cannot do without. Modi, on the other hand, advised by the likes of Jaishankar, acts unsure, as if Delhi has no leverage at all with Washington. Thus, India’s peninsular expanse sticking halfway into the Indian Ocean, which makes it pivotal to any Indo-Pacific security scheme, is a basic fact of geography that is evident to any school child looking at a map but apparently isn’t visible to the Indian government. Or, why else would the Indian government be content with the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s expressing satisfaction (in his January 30 telephonic talk with Jaishankar) with the state of bilateral relations which, other than the same old, same old — Malabar naval exercies, blah, blah, blah,… haven’t, in real terms, benefitted India much?

Trouble is the Modi government makes no demands on Washington, only concedes whatever the Americans want, as I have long been saying. Thus, Jaishankar did not challenge Blinken on the US not coming through on promises to transfer advanced military technology (made vide Defence Technology & Trade Intitiative 20 years ago!). Nor asked for a show of good faith by going beyond the transactional mindset and immediately reviving, say, the US participation in the Indian combat aircraft jet engine development programme which, Modi’s great and good friend, Donald Trump, abruptly terminated. Because Delhi makes few demands and doesn’t insist that these be met as condition for furthering cooperation, it has led Washington to assume it can rely on India to do whatever it bids it do without the US requiring to put out at all.

The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was recently in town to assess the extant state of affairs. He assured the Modi government that Moscow, while not an ally of China was only partnering it in the latter’s face-off with the US, and that it would do nothing to hurt India’s vital interests. In return, he was told that the boom of the CAATSA sanctions hanging over India’s head, notwithstanding, the $5 billion deal for the S-400 air defence system was on. Instead of picking up on the space Putin is deliberately leaving for Delhi to maneuver in by, for instance, carving out a loose security coalition with BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa) out of BRICS by cutting out China, which I have detailed in my ‘Staggering’ book, Indian officials have been heard muttering within Moscow’s earshot about Delhi, may be, doing a rethink specifically on the S-400 contract and, more generally, on the time-tested military supply links with Russia. Modi, aided by his sidekick Jaishankar, seems intent on losing India the leverge with Putin and Russia. Wrong move!

Just to make sure India doesn’t deviate from its traditional policy line, Lavrov hopped across the Radcliffe Line and, in his meeting with Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa, promised him whatever he wanted! By way of sprinkling gasolene on fire Moscow clarified that Russian arms supply to Pakistan would be limited to goods to fight terrorism with. One of the things in the pipeline, for instance, is the Kamov attack helicopter. May be these will be deployed by GHQ, Rawalpindi, in anti-terrorist ops!

The point to repeat and reiterate is this: Leaving aside for the nonce the matter of India’s faulty geostrategics, if the advanced quality of military technology is any of India’s concern — as it should be, then the record shows Russia has delivered, time and again — seminal assistance in the nuclear submarine project, Su-30MKI, etc. Waiting for the US to come through on anything remotely uptodate, technology-wise, is for the Indian armed services to wait “for Godot”. Not that this has deterred the present Indian government and the Indian military from yearning for America and the West to make good.

This lot needs to wise up fast though. Unrequited love is tolerable in adolescents. But not in alleged professionals (in PMO, MEA, MOD) tasked to safeguard India’s interests.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Africa, arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Brazil, China, China military, civil-military relations, Decision-making, Defence procurement, Europe, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Indo-Pacific, Islamic countries, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, North Korea, Northeast Asia, nuclear industry, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, russian military, SAARC, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, US., Weapons, West Asia, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Thinking of Messing with Russia? Think again

  1. Krishna Soni says:

    Respected Sir @Profesor Karnad was the the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was a good geopolitical step or strategic sellout?Please explain in detail.

    • Goodag for its time. For more look up literature.

    • Aur says:

      That 20 years freindship is what saved India from the wrath of pirate English ships and American 7th fleet in war of 1971.
      How can Indian be so ungrateful?
      Russia gave most advanced weaponary for rupees – worth less money internationally.

    • Aur says:

      During the 1971 War, China didn’t even move a truck despite US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s repeated requests to launch some kind of attack on India. The Chinese sat on the sidelines mutely watching India humiliate their client.Even during the Kargil war when India was hammering the pakistanis there was not a peep out of Biejing.

  2. Muhammad Aryan [Across the Radcliffe Line] says:

    Greetings Mr. Karnad,

    As far as Xi is concerned, I think he now portrays himself as a hardcore nationalist leader of the Han people, the largest ethnic group in the world. The ‘Communist Party’ has been transformed into a Han racialist vanguard. The label ‘communist’ is a nice cover.

    Now, this sense of racial solidarity is extremely useful beyond Chinese borders. Approximately 40 million people of Han descent are spread across South East Asia which gives significant leverage to Beijing in its dealings with these regional capitals; the latter have always remained nervous by the presence of Han Chinese in strategic sectors of their economies. Perhaps, there is an apprehension in Manila, Kuala Lampur, Jakarta, Bangkok, etc. that if pushed too far, these influential Han elites may send a distress signal to their co-ethnics in China to come to their aid.

    Unfortunately for Putin, pan-Slavism received a severe battering under the diabolical Yeltsin administration when the West bombed the likes of Serbia and made aggressive encroachments into other Orthodox Slav territories. By the time Putin consolidated his position and crushed oligarchic mafia bosses, irreparable damage had already been done on the pan-Slavic front.

    Just look at the shameful treatment Aleksandar Vucic received in Trump White House.

    Given the fire power, commercial and military, at Han disposal at the moment, can one imagine Philippine, Malaysia, or Thailand openly humiliating or threatening influential figures of Han descent? They know any such occurrence will not go unanswered. They would accept native wrath than risk a diplomatic earthquake.

    A mentally disintegrating Biden called Vladimir Putin a ‘killer’. Would his handlers allow his tongue to also slip when it comes to Xi Xinping? Never. His handlers are aware of the repercussions.

    There is a reason why even a macho figure like Trump didn’t take casual personal liberties with the Chinese leader.


    • Muhammad Aryan@ — True, there’s unlikely to be the kind of anti-Chinese progroms as were fairly routine in Southeast Asia in times past. Such as in Indonesia during Suharto’s presidency in the mid-’70s.

  3. Amit says:

    Professor, interesting insights into Putin and Russian politico-military games.

    Regarding the CAATSA sanctions on the S-400, what do you think about an Indian response with Iran? That has several benefits for India and actually prevents China from gaining more control in Central Asia, besides providing Russia with potentially more trade with India. Also, could improve economic situation in Afghanistan.

    It’s very interesting that you say there are murmurs about India doing a rethink on the S-400. All the articles I read indicate otherwise. Do you think this could happen? It would be a major loss of face for India.

    Also, regarding Indian culture on communicating red lines. I’ve never seen India do that. Putin just did that in his state of the union speech and America does it regularly. China is very clear on its red lines. With India one never knows which way it will go till the last minute. Even Pakistan has leveraged this effectively against India. Even I can see a couple of approaches India can use to threaten back the US if it follows through on CAATSA. I wonder why the our security experts in power allow this unnecessary psychological pressure to persist when clearly India has many options to retaliate. Actually, it’s no wonder. We all know why! No culture of accountability in India.

  4. Ranjeet Kumar Singh says:

    “advised by the likes of Jaishankar,” & “aided by his sidekick Jaishankar”. It seems that he is not doing things right. Would you mind telling us a bit more about Henry Kissinger (as one JNU eminence called him once. I wonder why he stopped at comparing him to Kissinger, but not to Kissinger’s ideal Metternich, if currying favour was the only thing on his mind)? And the less we speak of the mainstream English media when it comes to covering him, the better. So it would be nice if you could tell us about him and his hits and misses. Thanks and regards.🙏

  5. Amit says:

    Professor, you’ve made many interesting points in this article, and I wanted to highlight some characteristics of US investments and technology transfer. As you know, US defence technology is very private enterprise driven with the added layer of export controls. Having done M&A here, I know for sure that no company will part with IP protected technology unless it gets something substantial in return. To get IP rights, normally it will have to be joint development. And to do this the advantages have to be significant, in terms of growing revenue or lowering cost for the company. India on the other hand, is a very challenging place to grow revenue for high value products (personal experience here too). So unless India is used as an export base to make cutting edge technology at low cost, this won’t happen.

    Also, in terms of tech transfer by private companies in China – this was done mostly by non defence private companies early in the China growth phase. Those days are long gone. The Chinese have excelled at developing their own tech by stealing it or developing it themselves. In fact, US companies are very careful not to even involve Chinese expatriates in the US on tech critical projects (for example in the auto industry). Yet, China has become a leader in lithium battery technology for instance. This is mostly because of their hard work and focus.

    I don’t see any such focus in India – I know because I was involved in the electric vehicle policy development for India a decade back, and we continue to lumber from one stupid announcement to another, without making any progress on the ground. So in summary, it would be very hard for India to convince any US company of tech transfer.

    But there is talk of tech transfer with Safran and Rolls Royce on jet engine development – so let’s see what happens there (it is a joint development initiative apparently). Russia has been great to India on tech transfers (at least for aircraft assembly, and from what I have gathered on submarine tech), but they have been pretty expensive too. Also, they have geopolitics on their agenda and they also probably need the money. No other western country will be like that.

    I guess the point I am trying to make is that for the latest defence technology, India will have to hunker down and make it themselves. And leverage partnerships with western firms where they can to accelerate tech development. And buy it at the best rates where they can’t partner. China somehow managed tech transfer in its early days, but that model will likely not work anymore.

  6. Sankar says:

    “Russia’s objective… re-absorb all of Ukraine…” –

    Wasn’t Ukraine part of the past Soviet Union (CCCP)? Is there a similar case here for the present Indian Union to “re-absorb” Gilgit-Baltistan since it belonged to the Maharajah’s J&K?

    Also, there was a recent news item that Russia has flagged a plan to establish factories for military items in India for manufacturing. Russia had a string of their military hardware production base in Ukraine during the Soviet era, is then the Russian interest is to revive that manufacturing base in India? How does Modi’s ‘Make in India’ plan dovetails with that – India should have no inhibition in that direction to go forward. What is the response from Modi& Co at the moment in that regard?

    Modi is no Indira Gandhi, it is futile to expect him to uphold Indian independent Strategic Sovereignty.

    • GHB were very much part of Hari Singh’s realm and, if there’s no ag to freeze the LOC into formal boundary, India is within its right to try and absorb these areas as also PoK. Yes, a plant to produce Kalashnikovs is on the anvil, etc., but no massive comprehensive programme to shift manufacturing base (from Ukraine) as such — at least not that I know of.

  7. anon says:

    Now US is saying that american citizens are first priority when it comes to vaccines and Indian govt is out of words.The result of sucking up to US.


    Greetings Dr karnad. I hope and pray you are doing well even during these calamitous COVID times.

    It is amazing that in these troubled times, nations we consider as our enemies China and Pakistan has both offered us to help whether the countries whom we consider as our friends and strategic partners like US, Japan, UK, EU and Australia have shut their doors on our face.

    We have been the number one country in the World for close to a decade now for importing costly weapons systems for chasing our dreams of being a “super power”. I wonder what will we do now with those weapons when we cannot save ourselves from this COVID.

    Well you have been suggesting to throw China out of BRICS , I wonder whether other BRICS members may decide to become BRCS by throwing out India looking at our current situation.

    Do you believe that we need to re-prioritize our national priorities by drastically cutting down our defense industry and rebuilding our health industry instead ? Should we also end our never ending enmities against China and Pakistan ? Where this enmity towards China and Pakistan is taking us is not a good place I am afraid.

    Thanks and regards with best wishes

    • Should end our idiotic tussle with Pakistan. But China is a rival, threat, competitor and we can’t get away from that geostrategic fact of life.


        Thank you for your quick reply Mr Karnad. How can we end the ideological tussle with Pakistan when almost all of our strategic commentators have been celebrating the recent bomb blast at Pakistan targetting the Chinese ambassador ? You yourself have encouraged war against Pakistan to occupy Gillgit-Baltistan. If our strategic commentators continue to encourage strategic violence against Pakistan like this I believe we can forget about ending any tussle.

        I would love your views on why we cannot some big heartedness towards Pakistan and may be gift some territory in Kashmir to them in order to buy permanent peace.

      • No gifting, etc of territory needed. The 2007 draft-ag between Musharraf and Manmohan Singh is the template for a mutually acceptable solution.

  9. Sankar says:

    “Big caveats to US exit from Afghanistan”

    “Perhaps India is the only friend Washington genuinely has in the region to lean on. Blinken telephoned External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Monday “to reaffirm the importance of the US-India relationship and cooperation on regional security issues.”-

    Professor Karnad, what is your take in here? Is MKB’s vision blinkered?

    • Agree about the only friend-bit but if Delhi does not use it to leverage what we want, not fall in with everything Washington desires, then Indo-US ties are of no great value.

  10. SHANAL SHEKHAR says:

    If I am not overstepping, can u explain your falling out with K Subramanyam??? Reasons

    • KS and I had seminal differences when drafting the nuclear doctrine — he was for minimal, minimum, deterrence, and I was not. (My position explained in my 2002 book now in its 2nd edition — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security and why Subbu with his minimalist notions was wrong.) We also differed hugely on the merits of getting over-close to the US — he was for it, hoping India would benefit as China did starting in the late ’70s. I pointed out how by the 1990s the situation had changed, USSR had collapsed etc, and we couldn’t possibly expect Washington to roll out the concessionary economic schemes for India when there was no Cold War stake and therefore no reason to do so. In both cases, methinks, I was right.

      • Sunil Kumar says:

        Bharat, now that the US is locked in another Cold War with China, don’t you think we can extract concessionary economic relations from the US.

  11. whatsinitanyway says:

    I don’t think MEA would or could make any step to upset Russia Doc. We still buy tanks, plane, missiles from them and to top it all- the spares for military equipment(of which the biggest chunk is Russian)already in the inventory come from supply chains in Russia. it’s probabaly their business model .. sell the equipment cheap and make profit fom spares and services. Although I do agree that we let the yanks walk all over us with those agreements. Their recent actions however has once again sparked some suspicion and reservations. This seems propitious. To my mind this naive posture is India’s perennial problem… except for Chankya in ancient times, the Cholas in the medieval and Subash Ji in modern period all others have been either irrational or ignorant(in better words stupid and servile)with regards to external affairs. What say you?

  12. Aur says:

    On December 10, 1971 at the peak of the India-Pakistan war, Russian intelligence tracked several British warships, led by the aircraft carrier Eagle, moving towards India’s west coast. The advance of the British fleet was aimed at applying pressure on India and lifting Pakistani morale.

    In response, Moscow despatched the 10th Operative Battle Group of its Pacific Fleet under the command of Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov. Seeing the Russian ships the coward British retreated but the threat to India did not go away as the United States sent its mighty Seventh Fleet to show its support to Pakistan.

    To bolster its flotilla in the Bay of Bengal, the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok sent cruisers, destroyers and nuclear submarines, which encircled the US Seventh Fleet. The Americans backed off and India was able to finish the job of liberating Bangladesh and end the genocide of Bengalis by the Pakistan Army. The US Carrier, ENTERPRISE, and ALL its escort boats with Marines fled and ‘disappeared’ when Soviet submarines surfaced, pointing their missiles at it. Check ‘1971 war: How Russia sank Nixon’s gunboat diplomacy’ on Google. Even the usually coward British carrier off Karachi in the Arabian sea fled to Madagascar.

    So quickly we forget, US pressured Russia not to sell cryogenic engines to India and scuttled the space progress by a decade. Now they are turning back and pressuring India not to deal with Russia. and we hopelessly still listen to US !
    When it’s comes to 5th columns and comprador elites, India is an American vassal through and through.

    To bolster its flotilla in the Bay of Bengal, the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok sent cruisers, destroyers and nuclear submarines, which encircled the US Seventh Fleet. The Americans backed off and India was able to finish the job of liberating Bangladesh and end the genocide of Bengalis by the Pakistan Army.  The US Carrier, ENTERPRISE, and ALL its escort boats with Marines fled and ‘disappeared’ when Soviet submarines surfaced, pointing their missiles at it. Check ‘1971 war: How Russia sank Nixon’s gunboat diplomacy’ on Google. Even the usually coward British carrier off Karachi in the Arabian sea fled to Madagascar.

  13. Arindam Bora says:

    “Thus, Jaishankar did not challenge Blinken on the US not coming through on promises to transfer advanced military technology (made vide Defence Technology & Trade Intitiative 20 years ago!). Nor asked for a show of good faith by going beyond the transactional mindset and immediately reviving, say, the US participation in the Indian combat aircraft jet engine development programme which, Modi’s great and good friend, Donald Trump, abruptly terminated.”
    There were reports of possible collaboration between General Electric and DRDO to develop gas turbine aero engines but I did not know there was active US involvement in the programme.

    Also sir in one of the comment while talking about your differences with your friend “Subbu” you say that he was a strong advocate for a pro-US tilt in India’s foreign policy. Here is a 1981 written by K Subrahmanyam himself
    You can see that he was very pro-USSR and even critical of Uncle Sam. I wonder if it was the disintegration of the former that made him change his mind and convinced him that a pro-US policy is the way forward. But you say your view was that the event actually diminished the utility of India for the US. I wonder why there was such a gulf between the views of two of India’s three foremost strategic affairs expert.

    • Subbu tilted towards the US starting in the 1990s, and certainly by the time we were together in the first NSAB announced in 1998 with the advent ofthe Vajpayee govt.

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