Russia and India made a huge joint announcement on the sidelines of the recent BRICS Summit in Goa, declaring that Moscow will provide New Delhi with an unspecified number of S-400 missile platforms by 2020 at the earliest.
From the looks of it, one could easily rush to the conclusion that Russia has abandoned its rapprochement with Pakistan and is now actively working to undermine both Islamabad and Beijing, but the reality is a lot more nuanced and contradicts this sensationalist assumption.
Russia has been practising a delicate balancing act between several pairs of rival states over the past two decades since the end of the Old Cold War, selling arms to each of them in order to maintain the strategic balance between them and prevent one side or the other from aggressively tipping the odds in its favour.
Moscow practices this high-level form of military diplomacy with Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and China, and China and Vietnam, so there’s nothing new or groundbreaking in what it agreed to do with India. Russia’s motivation behind this latest move is to maintain the decades-long complex military-technical interdependency that has taken shape with India. The strengthening of this relationship is especially important in the present day as the only realistic means of stemming the speed of India’s pro-American pivot and optimistically even helping to mildly reverse it in some regards if Russia is lucky.
It will take at least three years to fulfil the S-400 order, which is a very long time during periods of pronounced worldwide geostrategic reorientation such as the present one. To put things into perspective, EuroMaidan hadn’t even begun three years ago, so one should consider just how radically different the world might be three years into the future by the earliest point in time by which Russia could conceivably deliver on its end of the deal.
Sometimes arrangements like this one are delayed for a bit due to unforeseen factors, which might be why Russia made it clear that 2020 is the earliest time by which the shipment could be ready, not that it will definitively be sent to India by that time. It’s crucial to keep this small but important detail in mind because Russia’s public deal with India for S-400 missiles opens the gate for the sale of other state-of-the-art technology to China in the near future, which could be timed for delivery to the People’s Republic at the same time as the anti-air units are to India and thus offset whatever perceived competitive advantage that New Delhi expected to attain from its original purchase.
This is the very essence of Russia’s military diplomacy and balancing strategy, but unlike in the past two decades, Russia is uniquely poised to expand this policy from China and India to India and Pakistan, though in a qualitatively different – but structurally similar – way which would still, in any case, make Moscow an even more influential actor in South Asian geopolitics.
Pakistan is already a huge importer of Chinese weaponry and Russia doesn’t want to interfere with its main international partner’s business dealings, but certain Russian counter-terrorism exports such as small arms, helicopters, and potentially even strike aircraft would actually complement the weaponry that China provides to Pakistan’s conventional forces. Just as Chinese armaments help Pakistan confront conventional Indian aggression, so too could Russian provisions assist it in dealing with the unconventional aspects of this such as RAW-backed Taliban and Baloch terrorism.
Had it not been for the S-400 export deal that Russia agreed to in order to “reassure” India and keep it tethered to the multipolar world order that it’s been drifting away from, Russia wouldn’t be in as comfortable of a balancing position to seriously consider the possible sale of diverse counter-terrorist equipment to Pakistan.
Even though India will be upset and publicly complain either way, all of its theatrics are just Bollywood bluster because billions of dollars of military, technical, energy, and investment deals have already been signed between Moscow and New Delhi and there’s really nothing that India can do now to upset Russia’s South Asian balancing act with Pakistan. The only action that India could realistically take would be to sacrifice its own international reputation by backing out of these already-inked deals, which in that case would destroy the “Make In India” brand and completely undermine the “business-friendly” atmosphere that Modi has been so desperately trying to cultivate.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.