The dispute over alleged Russian interference in the US-election is about more than whether Trump broke US law by accepting donations from foreign nationals during his election campaign. It is about whether you can be on two sides at once when the country you are president of keeps insisting this is impossible. Recent efforts by both Russia and the US to deepen relations with India, whilst seemingly unconnected, are part of the same attempt to square this circle. The US has made all kinds of noises about “resetting relations with Russia” for a number of years now. When Russia asks why it is surrounded by NATO bases whose weapons are pointed at it if the US wants co-operation, no credible answer is given. The real reason is that the US knows that you can’t be a superpower without an enemy. You can be the leader of your own side, but if there are no sides there is no one left to lead, and people start questioning your credentials.
This is why Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych was told point blank to choose between Russia and the EU, when both were offering him funds to help his country stay afloat. He refused to favour one over the other, quite sensibly given Ukraine’s geopolitical location. So the EU US connived and quality got rid of him as an example to others: you can have the West or Russia, but not both ways. So we might well wonder: why, in this age of rising BRICS influence, is India not being subjected to the same treatment? After all, it has always been a country trying to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, it has remained a Western-style parliamentary democracy with a largely free market system, even though often run by avowed socialists. On the other it has a long history of positive relations with the Soviet Union and now Russia, which have even extended to assistance with nuclear weapons development, that “no-no” for any aspiring nation
India is strategically significant. It borders other nuclear states and provided access to significant resources which the locals have trouble using for their own benefit. Its growing economy has also encouraged it to play a larger role in global affairs, and lay down terms for friendship rather than having them imposed upon them. So this is a country the West wants to keep onside, and out of the grip of “the enemy”, whether that is perceived as Russia or any other nation. Logically, any trade deal between India and Russia should therefore arouse Western suspicion. But these already strong relations are only improving, and there seems to be little comment about what Vladimir Putin might be trying to achieve through his involvement in India.
Defence cooperation should be even more concerning to the West, but apparently not. Russia has recently signed agreements to build even more planes and ships for the Indian armed forces, and again there have been no threats of sanctions against either side. According to the logic of Western geopolitics, accepting Russian assistance makes India part of the enemy camp. But the West is apparently happy to accept India’s position as the “strategic autonomy” it describes it as, rather than a hostile act. Why is India allowed to do what Ukraine, and many other countries on the periphery of Russia, are not? Smiling in your face The main reason India gets away with playing both sides is that it won its freedom after a long, hard but mostly non-violent struggle. As Ben Kingsley’s Matatma Gandhi said in the multi-Oscar winning film, the British came to “see the wisdom of leaving“.
The British had nothing to hold against India, unlike other colonies where violence and unacceptable politics went hand in hand with the independence struggle, and could thus be used to colour future relations. Thanks largely to Gandhi, the British had no choice but to leave India as a friend, and indulge its aspirations to maintain that friendship. India went running to the Soviet Union to prove its independence more than anything. But this also set its relations with the British on a better footing: if the British accepted the India-Soviet relationship, despite general Western hostility to such relations, it accepted India’s independence, which the British had granted voluntarily to retain friendship rather than alienate this vast subcontinent for ever. Sometimes this relationship took disturbing forms. Indians soon came to see their politicians as a corrupt and remote caste, and wondered where all this Soviet money was actually going. After Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 her son Rajiv took over, and was regarded as untainted by his mother’s record as he had avoided politics for a long time. However after the scandals of his prime ministership it came as little surprise to discover that he had accepted large sums of money from the KGB for many years, and that the Soviets had paid these purely to secure their ideological interests.
But the overall effect of the long Indian-Soviet and Indian-Russian friendships has been to make any country which deals with India accept that whatever it offers, India will get the same or better from Russia. Other countries trading with India see their deals used as a bargaining chip in the next round of India-Russia talks. Defence contractors have no choice but to make ever-increasing offers, regardless of what Russia does to match them, because withdrawing would simply make India more dependent on Russia, and India’s non-alignment is now more important to the West than it is for India itself, which has obtained the means to chart a genuinely independent geopolitical course unencumbered by labels. In this respect Mahatma Gandhi has created the India he aspired to: not only independent, but a place where everyone is obliged to be friendly with each other. If the West wants to start proxy wars with the declared enemy, as it did in Ukraine, Syria and former Yugoslavia, it won’t get away with it in India. India has gone one step further than the founders of the EU: not only has it integrated economies to make war impossible, it has integrated the interests of the powers it deals with to make war between them, using India as a pretext, equally impossible. If you deal with India, which all countries are increasingly doing, you cannot continue treating Russia as the enemy. You simply have to accept that your friend is their friend. Stopping that idea spreading, and ultimately removing the US’s global hegemony, is what the complaint about Russian interference in different countries is actually about.
Sit down and shut up
The West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia. These are not only having an effect on Russians but the wide variety of people from former Soviet states who live and work there to support families back home. Maybe the idea is that these people will rise up against Russia and overthrow it. That didn’t work in Russia itself during Cold War times, and there is little sign that the modern Russian leadership is going to implode ideologically like the Soviet Communist Party did. Russia is looking to India to resolve some of the problems sanctions have brought. To lessen reliance on energy prices, Russia is exporting both arms and nuclear power facilities. Western countries are still officially trying their hardest to stop the spread of nuclear power and decommission existing plants, but have scuppered these plans by imposing carbon emission targets on client nations, whilst often ignoring them themselves .
Developing countries thus have no choice but to return to nuclear power to supply their own populations, and both Russia and India are exploiting this weakness. If the West insists on creating enemies to maintain its own position, seeing this as a better way for the world to be, it will eventually have to confront India. But with what? Is the West prepared to offer more than Russia can, or take direct action which would force India to rely ever more on Russia? The West can’t answer these questions, but won’t have to as long as it continues treating India as a special case, allowing it to be all things to all sides. But this raises the further question: would it really harm the West so much to apply the same principle across the board, and stop identifying enemies everywhere?
The West’s declared enemies, whether Russians or Muslim terrorists, are given an enormous amount of credit. Apparently people who claim to be under constant threat themselves are able to do anything they like to harm Western interests. As with any strategic calculation, pursuing your identified interests carries risk: the benefit you gain from your actions has to be greater than the negative consequences of taking them. But it is the West itself which is saying that the people it calls enemies are doing so much harm that the interests the West is pursuing may no longer be worth the risk of doing so. The consequence of not declaring these people to be enemies is that you have to work with them and listen to them, and thus accept they might have more to offer than you yourself have. Other countries will then make that same judgment, and the US will no longer be the friend they keep running to to lead them, in defiance of what the US has done to its friends again and again.
This is the underlying objection to Trump dealing with the Russians. The laws about foreign interference in US elections are merely an excuse: the point is to keep India as the only example of its kind, before the benefits of being that exception become ever clearer to those currently envying its success.
Our gaffe, our rules
If you don’t want Russia interfering in your country, you can’t deal with India. If you buy its goods, the Russians have been part of making them, and your trade deal will lead to more Russian influence in creating more goods for your market. If you have diplomatic relations with India, you have to embrace its friendship with Russia to gain anything from those relations. If you get involved in its defence or energy sectors, you have to work with Russian hardware to serve purposes which do not contradict Russia’s.
This is not to say that India is a hostage of Russia. This situation has developed precisely because it isn’t. India pursued an independent foreign policy to show it was part of the West, an independent nation deserving a place at the top tables, and the West encouraged this to prevent India becoming more allied with Russia than it was seeking to be. What countries like Poland and Bulgaria sought to achieve by joining the EU, India achieved by doing what the West didn’t want, to keep it able to do things the West would want later on. This relationship has worked for all concerned. The West has got enough out of it to maintain positive relations with India and keep its regional opponents in check. Russia has a longstanding ally and a continuing footprint in the region despite its removal from Afghanistan.
India has grown so much that it is now exporting its expertise in areas such as software development to the Western countries which expected it to be a dependent former colony for a lot longer. But India can’t be seen to be getting away with bucking the geopolitical rules. The West can’t confront it directly, but it can confront its own politicians who try and counter the argument that the world leader must have perpetual enemies, and every country must be forced to be either with it or against it.
Trump is making enemies wherever he goes, and has taken his country’s geopolitical posturing to extremes with his travel ban on people fleeing Muslim countries. But he is also prepared to stop treating Russia as the enemy, and that won’t do for the Deep State which has seen what India has achieved through being treated as Trump is attempting to treat Russia. If the West meant what it said about its “enemies” it would not allow India to consort with them. In reality, it is happy to be forced to treat Russia as a friend through developing relations with India. If you want to see the hypocrisy of Western rhetoric against any nation which is no threat to anyone, see how much it has allowed Russia to help India, whilst being determined to keep it a special case.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.