02/05/2022, 00.00
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India, Moscow's back-up friend

by Stefano Caprio

Despite the professions of eternal friendship between the Russians and the Chinese, which Putin renewed at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Moscow is looking to Asia to break away from Europe and America, and needs New Delhi to avoid being suffocated by China. And it is not such a new phenomenon either.


Rome (AsiaNews) - In this year's great game of confrontations and alliances, which in the end will redefine the roles and positions of planetary geopolitics, there is a "special friendship" that hardly ever makes headlines, but which could harbour some surprises: it is the alliance between Vladimir Putin's Russia and Narendra Modi's India, two great "sovereignist" leaders who are much more similar than they seem. The Russian sees in Christian Orthodoxy the true identity of his people, the Indian represents the restoration of an integralist and rather aggressive Hinduism.

Moreover this proximity between the two countries, is not based solely on the personalities of the two leaders, but on a rather simple calculation: Russia looks to Asia to free itself from Europe and America, and needs India to avoid being suffocated by China. This is not even a new phenomenon, it was already the case in the days of the Soviet Union. And those times are all but lost in oblivion, especially in Moscow, despite the professions of eternal friendship between Russians and Chinese, which Putin renewed on the occasion of the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, at whose ceremony he was the main guest of honour.

Perhaps not everyone remembers Jawaharlal Neru's visit to Moscow in 1955, reciprocated by Nikita Khruščev's trip to New Delhi a few months later to express the USSR's support for Indian territorial integrity at the time of the Kashmir conflict. Gandhi's heir also expressed the Mahatma's gratitude to the Russian inspiration, which went back to the writings on non-violence of the great writer Lev Tolstoy, whom the young Gandhi had looked up to as a teacher.

A few years later, during the Indo-Chinese border clashes of 1962, the Soviets declared their neutrality and avoided defending 'Comrade Mao'. It was the beginning of a great chill between Moscow and Beijing, and the Russians took India increasingly to heart.

This collaboration has never paled, not even after the collapse of the Soviet regime, partly because it was not based primarily on ideologies. Trade has never reached particularly high figures, except in one very decisive sector: armaments. India imports 70% of its war supplies from the Russians, making the fortune of the Russian industry in this sector. Already in 1992, immediately after the end of the USSR, an economic cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries to guarantee the continuity of trade, especially in the military field.

The agreements were renewed and expanded throughout the thirty-year post-Soviet period, until recently, following a visit to Delhi by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Šojgu at the end of December, which followed a meeting between Modi and Putin in the Indian capital on 6 December. The Indian media call it the "white book," although it was never officially sealed, serving more as a record of negotiations. The Indians received not only new supplies from the Russians, but also a more active role in cooperation, with permission to export to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia parts of those types of weapons that Russia and India produce together.

Putin and Modi have signed 28 documents, including one on cooperation in the technical-military field. The two countries intend to organise several joint exercises "for the fight against terrorism" and to pay special attention to the dangers coming from Afghanistan and the entire Central Asian area, which India is watching with particular caution.

Diplomatic relations between India and these countries date back to the end of the USSR, and in these months they are celebrating their 30th anniversary: Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar received his colleagues from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in December.

Russia has become part of the back-and-forth between the two Asian giants, which remain in a state of latent conflict. Discussions continue over the Himalayan frontiers, and the Indians complain of Chinese support for their eternal enemies in Pakistan, armed to the teeth by Beijing's supplies, preparing for a war on two fronts.

This renders Russia's position particularly delicate: under Western pressure it is forced to tighten its grip on China, both in international political relations and in the military field; on the other hand, it wants to maintain control over Central Asia, which is subject to various shocks, the latest being the clashes in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year.

For this reason, the Russians' ideal partner is still India, through which there are also greater guarantees for the protection of Moscow's interests in the South Asian and Far Eastern regions. Already in 2018, Modi had met with Putin in Vladivostok to agree on a privileged sea route with the Indian megacity of Chennai (Madras), making the natural wealth of the Russian region most coveted by the Chinese available to the Indian government and entrepreneurs. The following year, India opened a credit line of one billion dollars for this agreement, and two large Indian diamond processing companies were opened in Vladivostok.

The less wealthy Asian countries are always forced to seek credit from Beijing, which in this way is increasingly expanding its empire, and the Moscow-Delhi axis risks becoming a dangerous competitor, at least in some sectors. The ambitions of these two, however, complement each other: Russia wants to represent the "third pole" between East and West, also proposing a model of "unitary society" that rejects the excesses of liberalism and totalitarianism, India boasts of being the largest democracy in the world, without diminishing the Russian model, indeed partly absorbing some of its characteristics.

The countries of Central Asia welcome this diversification of reference points, making freedom of manoeuvre the region's only real asset. In Tajikistan, for example, the Russians have a large military base with an adjoining airfield, where many Moscow aircraft are stationed. The airfield is built and maintained by the Indians, who also provide the technical personnel, and the Tajiks take advantage of this by agreeing with both partners depending on the circumstances, also winking at the Chinese and the Americans.

The field of military supplies, after all, is increasingly decisive in these times of incipient wars across latitudes. With the help of the Russians, the Indians are supplying Myanmar, Bangladesh and now also Central Asia, which until now had always received the necessary supplies from Moscow without any particular burdens, while now the games are becoming more complex.

The Indians are producing ever more sophisticated armaments with the Russians, from submarines to frigates and cruisers, T-90 destroyers and tanks, Ka-226 aircraft and missiles of various sizes. The December agreement involves a content of almost billion, which has alarmed the Americans about the circumvention of various sanctions.

The relationship between Russia and India, apart from more or less recent strategies and conveniences, enjoys a particular historical and cultural favour. Russia is not entirely Asia, nor entirely Europe, but in both continents it has two special friends: Italy to the west, and India to the east. A very obvious reason for this is that the Russians have never had to fight directly against these two countries. Italians took part in the Nazi campaigns against the Soviets, but more Italian soldiers found a new life and a new family in Russia than those who did real damage in the battle of Stalingrad. Indians too, in the days of the British Empire, had to take part in various Asian confrontations against the Russians, but without distinguishing themselves by anti-Slavic animosity.

Italy is a 'natural homeland' for the Russians who seek the roots of their own Christianity, and instead of the despotic Byzantium they look to the mythical imperial Rome as a model for universal Russia. On the Asian front, India holds a fascination for the Russians that is difficult to circumscribe. The Russians have always been forced to compromise with the Mongols (Chinese), Turks and other peoples of Tatar descent, but they have never suffered humiliation from the fascinating India, seen as a mystical land of spiritual consonance. Malankar Christianity, of Syrian tradition, is seen by the Russian Orthodox in a spirit of fraternity, for independence from the presumptuous ancient patriarchates, and the Hindu religion itself re-proposes the semi-pagan festivity of the Russian variant of Orthodoxy.

The Russian poet and philosopher Vjačeslav Ivanov, an Orthodox who converted to Catholicism in Rome between the wars, wrote a poem of "archaic-fantastic" inspiration on ancient Russia for Pope Pius XI, titled the Legend of Zarevich Svetomir. In it, the mythological figures of the Russian princes merge into the 'Message of Presbyter John', who blesses the heir to the throne of the Russians in the name of a universality 'of all Christian seats' and resides 'in our common land, called White India', a meeting place between pagans and Christians, East and West.

Even in Soviet times, the poet and songwriter Vladimir Vysotskij was very popular with a fairy-tale song called "The White Elephant", a symbol in some ways of dissent and freedom of expression, which the party hierarchs did not know how to censor. It tells the story of a Russian traveller, "in the days of old", who goes to the East where the king of India, as a token of his welcome, gives him an extraordinary specimen of a white elephant, with which he can cross all unknown lands. To the pilgrim's question, "why give this great gift to me, I who am of a different faith?", the sovereign replies: "because this elephant has a great heart".

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