Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to India was special for several reasons. Firstly, the visit laid down a new foundation for future interactions between the two countries. It is expected that in 2020 there will be two visits by Prime-Minister Narendra Modi to Russia – for the 75th
anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War and for the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Saint Petersburg – and President Vladimir Putin will come to India for the annual bilateral summit. Meetings between the leaders, as always, serves as an impulse for the Russia-India relationship. Secondly, earlier it was rare for a Russian Foreign Minister to visit India separately from the occasion of multilateral forums. Over the last decade, Sergey Lavrov came to India mainly for the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral. Finally, apart from his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Lavrov became the highest-ranking Russian official to address the prestigious Raisina Dialogue
It should not come as a big surprise that in his remarks at the conference, Sergey Lavrov criticized
the concept of the Indo-Pacific. Earlier as well, he has expressed similar sentiments, at equivalent gatherings, with a surprisingly consistent stance against the U.S. as the major architect of the Indo-Pacific narrative. This position seems to be ignoring the evolution of the initial idea, which is well known in Russia, and the fact that the Indo-Pacific concept is already acknowledged, albeit with some caveats, by majority of regional players, including ASEAN
countries. Pointing solely at the Americans who attempt to redefine the rules of the game or divide the region means being detached from the reality. Furthermore, seeing the region through the binary of a contest with the U.S. prevents Moscow from being objective towards other regional powers, specifically India.
After the latest bilateral summits between Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin where the Indo - Pacific, though referred differently, figured as a potential area of Russia-India cooperation, it seemed that Moscow and New Delhi might be able to find common ground in the maritime space. The Chennai-Vladivostok sea route seemingly acts as a bedrock
of the two sides' efforts to align their visions for the 'regions of Indian and Pacific Oceans'. When (or if) this maritime corridor is operated, it could allow shorter connectivity between the two countries. Lavrov tactfully highlighted India's smart policy in the region of not acceding to the U.S. policy of China's containment
. This leaves some space for Russia-India regional collaboration, at least on diplomatic and economic tracks. Is it sufficient for the two states given the vast history of their relationship? Surprisingly enough, both New Delhi and Moscow have been slow in increasing their interoperability, having failed to sign
the Reciprocal Logistics Support Agreement.
While criticizing the basics of the Indo-Pacific concept, Russia decisively started to act in the region with port calls by Russian warships in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and two new naval drills with China taking place off the Cape of Good Hope with South Africa and in the northern Indian Ocean with Iran. The latter undoubtedly is a case of all the three sending a signal to Washington. Apparently, Russia's increasing interest in the Indian Ocean region is driven by the two new frontiers of its foreign policy – Middle East and Africa. The U.S. pressure on Iran opened a window of opportunity for Moscow to step up its partnership with Tehran. In order to embolden its idea of collective security mechanism for the Persian Gulf, Moscow requires a more robust naval presence in the IOR.
A worrying question for New Delhi is whether Russia's presence in the Indian Ocean is going to tag along with the Chinese interests there. Despite some steps to increase its engagement with the region, Russia has been suffering from insufficient naval capabilities, with its naval forces urgently needing modernization. Notably, the same three Baltic Fleet ships – the guard ship Yaroslav Mudriy, the tanker Yelnya and the sea tug Viktor Konetsky, which embarked on deployment to Indian Ocean back in October 2019 were part of both sea phase of 'Indra-2019' with India and 'Marine Security Belt' exercise
with China and Iran and most lately – the anti-piracy drills with Japan in the Gulf of Aden. To be more active regionally, even for simple naval demonstration operations, Russia requires regional partnerships. The interoperability with the Chinese Navy reflects the level of political trust that has been established between Beijing and Moscow. Apart from being merely the case of military interaction, there is always an underlying geopolitical context in the military drills between the two countries. Unlike India, China is less ambivalent when it comes to matching U.S. regional interests. Besides, often labelled by the U.S. administration as the biggest threat in the Indo-Pacific, Beijing is interested in Russia's support as well.
Moscow, albeit rather late, has realized the significance of the new regional dynamics and is trying to promote its own vision, a kind of a counter-narrative to the existing conceptual framework. While straightforwardly slamming the Indo-Pacific, Russia highlights the benefits of its 'Greater Eurasia vision'. It looks as if Moscow views India as an integral part of this construct, however, three and half years on from its announcement by Vladimir Putin, there is still no clear white paper on the 'Greater Eurasia' concept. It is evident that Moscow seeks to be a leading geopolitical player in a landmass from Lisbon to Shanghai, but the means of achieving it remain vague. The concept also appears as an attempt to infuse energy in some integrational mechanisms in the post-Soviet space. One of them is the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which has been actively seeking partnerships and free trade agreements with countries in Europe and Asia. India and EAEU are already involved in negotiations on signing the FTA. The equivalent deal with Vietnam paved the way for boosting trade with organization's member states, and potentially the same may be achieved in India's case. Interestingly, Sergey Lavrov mentioned in his speech
in New Delhi that the Eurasian economic project may be promising in "harmonising various integrational groups, including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation."
Is it an indication that, apart from India, EAEU may envisage FTA negotiations with other countries in South Asia? Since SAARC remains in a freeze due to India-Pakistan differences, does this outlook of "harmonization" may imply Russia's intention to mediate between the two? Could Pakistan become another partner of the EAEU, after Moscow and Islamabad had settled the Soviet-era trade dispute
There is also another SAARC member, Sri Lanka, which appears to be gaining weight in Moscow's geopolitical calculations. On January 14, Russian Foreign Minister visited Colombo where he met with Sri Lankan President, Prime Minister and his counterpart from Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Beyond traditional bilateral issues that boil down to Russia's support in defense and security, the potential elevation of Sri Lankan role at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was also discussed during the visit. Taking into account earlier statements
of Sri Lankan officials, Colombo expects to get a status of SCO member state rather than being just a dialogue partner of the organization.
Undoubtedly, as S. Jaishankar noted at Raisina Dialogue
, the India-Russia relationship is "extraordinarily steady" and fundamentally rooted in similar geopolitical understanding." In most cases, like in the Middle East, for example – on Syria, Libya, and lately Iran, the two sides have been able to construct common approaches. The catchwords – 'sovereignty' and 'non-interference in internal affairs' – remain vital for both governments scripting their internal narratives irrespective of views from abroad. The interdependence between the two is going to rise, though may not necessarily imply similarity of views when it comes to regional affairs. It is evident that Moscow regards South Asia and the IOR as part of global standoff with Washington. This vision makes Russia search for 'like-minded' states across the region, bringing it closer to China, Iran and Pakistan. As a side effect, such strategic thinking has an unfortunate impact on the relationship with India.
For the moment, it is clear that Moscow will not embed itself in the Indo-Pacific framework, though the era of Asia-Pacific is gone. There is no doubt that Russia, with its growing appetite for distant geographies, will be looking for options to bolster its influence in that region as well. Its idea of 'Greater Eurasia' supercontinent is not complete without the maritime domain. Finding itself on the periphery of the Indo-Pacific dynamics, Moscow is leaning on China for the same along with few other regional players. Such ad-hoc coalitions may be seen as a way to turn the game in Russia's favor. Unfortunately, even though being a key regional partner, India does not serve as a primary window for Russia's involvement in the Indo-Pacific.