The Bear, the Dragon and the Elephant: Putin’s Vision for Eurasia

Political experts are worried about the increasingly close partnership between Russia and China, which is resisting international pressures and internal issues beyond any forecast. The West could have tried to exploit the existing frictions between the two giants, from Siberia to other geopolitical battlefields, to undermine the efforts made by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to give rise to a world order alternative and an antagonist to the Western-led one, but it did not.

Russia’s vulnerability and weakness concerning China may have been widely overestimated, since it seems that Putin knows very well what he does. After having opened the Arctic, Siberia and the Far East to Chinese investments and workers, now India’s moment has come.

Russian president is offering New Delhi the same opportunities which were made available to Beijing, that is to have access to Siberia’s natural resources, to acquire thousands of square kilometres of uncultivated lands in Eastern Russia, to have the chance of an Arctic’s slice, and more cooperation on trade, energy, security, technology.

The Latest Announcements

New Delhi’s prime minister Narendra Modi was undoubtedly the main protagonist of the latest Eastern Economic Forum, which takes place annually in Vladivostok. The EEF is a government-sponsored initiative which started in 2015 to attract international business in the investment-hungry Russian Far East.

This year the forum was monopolized by India’s outstanding promises and declarations: the opening of a $1 billion line credit for the development of the Far East, the building of the long-discussed Vladivostok-Chennai sea route to halve the time it takes for goods to be shipped from the current period of 40 days to 24 days, the possible introduction of payments in national currencies to boost bilateral trade and de-dollarize the respective economies, and the signing of 15 agreements worth $5 billion to enhance cooperation on energy, mining, wood industry, healthcare, education, and many other sectors with the medium-term goal of tripling bilateral trade by 2025.

The building of Vladivostok-Chennai maritime route must be read in a context much wider than the mere bilateral trade because it intersects the Belt and Road Initiative, New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific project, Japan’s national interests, and is going to go through the disputed South China Sea. By developing this channel, the two countries are sending a clear message to China and they are also offering Japan to play a part in the coming Euriasan order.

It is no coincidence that the Indo-Russian approachment is taking place in the background of Moscow-Tokyo talks to solve the Kuril islands issue. The three countries are led by different views on several international dossiers, but they all agree on one issue: China must not be allowed to rule over Eurasia, which must be multipolar.

India’s Arctic Dreams

In the same week of the EEF, Vladivostok hosted the Russia-India summit. Modi and Putin had the chance to talk about more issues and the Arctic was one of them. Indeed, with the announcement of the likely-coming opening of Vladivostok-Chennai sea route, India was implicitly welcomed in Russian-ruled Northern Asia and have the chance to leave a footprint in the Arctic.

India entered the Arctic Council as an observer member in 2013 and is showing growing willingness to play a more significant role in the polar region utilizing investments in Russian energy-related projects. During the bilateral summit, Indian firms H-Energy and Petronet signed some memorandums of understanding with Russian-owned Novatek, which is actively involved in the exploitation of Arctic’s natural gas and recently built the Yamal LNG plant.

According to the MoUs, Indian firms are expected to invest in Novatek’s future LNG projects and to establish joint ventures. But H-Energy and Petronet are not alone, because another Indian energy firm is looking at the Arctic: the gas company Gail. The entity recently started talks with Novatek to acquire a minority stake in the Arctic LNG-2 plant.

The Potential Outcomes

To date, Russia and India were mostly tied by agreements on security issues and military cooperation, but what was decided at the EEF is ground-breaking since it may open new potentially-revolutionary developments in Eurasia. India is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies and is currently basing its economic growth on the import of foreign-originated energy, such as oil and gas, mainly from Middle Eastern countries.

But the recent Iranian crisis has made India much more aware about the need of diversifying the suppliers to not experience energy-related issues which may harm both the economic growth and the energy security; Russia was seen as the answer to India’s problem.

Furthermore, this may be the right occasion for India to counter-balance China’s growing influence over the continent employing strategically-thought investments in regions and fields in which Beijing is already present and is expected to be more aggressive in the next future; and Russia is one of these regions.

By opening the Far East and the Arctic to India, Putin is playing the same game. Chinese investments within the sanctioned and money-lacking country were useful and helpful, but allowing them to grow further may be dangerous for national security and the Kremlin’s China-watchers are aware of this.

And yet, there is one important element: India and Russia share a long history of high-quality relations and common visions on many international dossiers, contrarily to China with which the cooperation was started only recently and because of world-level events that made it mandatory to establish a survival-oriented partnership.

This is Russia’s chance to deepen the already-good relations with India to improve the country’s position in the continent and make Putin’s Eurasian dream closer than ever, to counter-balance China’s influence in Eastern Asia and within Russia itself, and to weaken the power of American lobby within India in favour of the Russian one. The latest is as important as the China game, because an India that is more Russian-friendly would be a great hit against Eurasia’s American grand strategy.