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Russia’s Foreign Policy 2015 Unhitched from Traditional Moorings

Paper No. 6008                                 Dated 14-Sept-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Russia’s foreign policy in 2015 appears unhitched from its traditional moorings of President Putin aspiration to re-emerge as an independent global power centre and has lapsed into playing second-fiddle and ‘band-wagoning’ with China, hardly reflecting Great Power aspirations.

Heading Russia’s abandonment of major foreign policy earlier thrusts is the Russian re-casting of its South Asia foreign policy thrusts and strategic formulations followed  by Russia’s ‘Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific’ enunciated by President Putin in 2012. Abandonment of above-mentioned Russian priorities somehow betrays Russia conceding to or subsuming Russian priorities to China’s major strategic aims.

In South Asia and Asia Pacific are located India and Japan, two major ‘emerged powers’ of Asia with sizeable strategic weight to affect the global balance of power in the 21st Century and therefore on whose goodwill will depend heavily the materialisation of Russian aspirations for re-emergence as an independent global power centre. The critical input that Russian foreign policy planners have missed in their formulations is that on both India and Japan, adversarial equations has been imposed on them by China. This limits any manoeuvring space for Russia in terms of political and strategic reach-out to India and Japan.

In South Asia after decades of an eventful strategic partnership with India and sizeable strategic convergences in tow, Russia has made a strategic reachout to India’s military adversary and China’s proxy state—Pakistan. This in Indian perceptions amounts to Russia aligning with India’s two known enemies, namely, Pakistan and China. Equivalence in India will certainly be drawn with the Chinese betrayal of India in the late 1950s.

While India has tolerated Russia’s strategic nexus with China arising from Russian compulsions of balancing United States policy of isolating Russia, but who is Russia balancing in South Asia when attempting a strategic partnership underway with Pakistan?

Similarly, Russia’s ‘Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific’ was widely welcomed as a step in the direction of Russia acting as a Great Power, independent of China’s sensitivities on the Russian move. It started well with Russia in a politico-strategic reach-out to Japan and the beginning of ‘2 plus2 Dialogues’. But it petered out seemingly as a Russian political trade-off for China’s grudging support on the Crimean issue in exchange for petering out of the Russian strategic pivot to Asia Pacific, the fulcrum of which is Japan,

Russia in the above process seems to have foreclosed all its Great Power policy options in the Asia Pacific and foreign policy manoeuvre space in deference to China.

In South Asia too, Russia will lose out similarly and at a greater cost when it has elected to enter into a strategic partnership with Pakistan, obviously under Chinese pressure. The Russian argument is weak that to bolster its faltering defence industry and increase earnings for a cash-strapped Russian economy, Russia is being forced to look to Pakistan as a good source for arms sales earnings. Would Russia like India to believe that Pakistan Army would ditch its over-sized Chinese origin military hardware inventories in favour of Russia?

Obviously both Russia and Pakistan are indulging jointly in political signalling against India for their respective reasons. India does not expect Pakistan and the Pakistan Army to do better. Russia however is expected to be more cognizant of India’s strategic sensitivities and should have desisted from this self-defeating political foreign policy manoeuvre. Indian perceptions of Russian intentions should matter to Russia as India is an ‘emerged power’ as against Pakistan still struggling to stabilise its nationhood. India is increasingly being counted in the global strategic calculus.

Concluding, all that needs to be said is that any nations’ foreign policy choices are its own and the decisions and consequences of decisions to are its own. However, perceptions do count heavily. In 2015, Russia has generated perceptions that Russian foreign policy stands unhitched from its traditional moorings of Great Power aspirations to emerge as an independent global power centre. Russia appears to have band-waggoned with China and playing second-fiddle to it.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at drsubhashkapila.007@gmail.com)

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