The latest Putin-Modi Summit was a global geostrategic game-changer unlocking the potential for the two great powers to jointly assemble a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”). Their meeting came against the backdrop of both countries recalibrating their respective “balancing” acts. Russia has been engaged in high-level diplomacy with the U.S. while India defied America’s CAATSA sanctions threats by remaining loyal to its S-400 air defense deal with Moscow. These two countries are signaling to the world that they’re strategically autonomous in the U.S.–Chinese New Cold War. Furthermore, they have complementary grand strategies when it comes to maintaining the balance of interests in Eurasia.
Not only that, but clause 93 of the 99-point “Partnership for Peace, Progress, and Prosperity” that the leaders agreed on during their summit announced that “the sides agreed to explore mutually acceptable and beneficial areas of cooperation in third countries especially in the Central Asia, South East Asia and Africa.” This can be interpreted as their interest in jointly facilitating the balancing acts of third countries in those regions (including their local Eurasian and South Asian ones) that are struggling to remain neutral in the New Cold War. The paradigm through which they can advance this vision is the Neo-NAM, something that the author has elaborated on in detail earlier.
He co-authored an academic article for Vestnik, the official journal of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, run by the Russian Foreign Ministry), titled “The Prospects Of Russian And India Jointly Leading A New Non-Aligned Movement”, and released a follow-up for the Indian military magazine Force titled “Towards Bi-Multipolarity”. These pieces lay the basis upon which the present analysis will be built. To simplify the insight shared within them, the author argues that Russia and India are the only great powers capable of pragmatically balancing the two superpowers in the New Cold War and facilitating others’ respective balancing acts.
The game-changing Putin-Modi Summit and the complicated geostrategic context in which it took place confirms both countries’ intentions to do so, particularly when it comes to the earlier cited 93rd clause of their reaffirmed special and privileged strategic partnership. Therefore, their permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep states”) will likely prioritize the convergence of their shared grand strategy of balancing Afro-Eurasian affairs in the coming months. To assist with this, the author decided to expand upon his earlier blueprints for bringing this pragmatic vision about. The present analysis should serve as a starting point for initiating joint activity in this direction.
Ground Zero: The Russian Far East
The first order of business should be to agree on flagship projects in the Russian Far East where India unprecedentedly extended its strategic partner a $1 billion line of credit in September 2019 during Prime Minister Modi’s attendance at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) as President Putin’s guest of honor. The leaders also announced the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC), which is expected to serve as Russia’s connectivity concept across what India describes as the Indo-Pacific but which Moscow still officially regards as the Asia-Pacific. It is of the highest priority that the two make progress on this, since the VCMC won’t attract any third parties without proving its viability in the Russian Far East first.
India could be of special service to Russia if it succeeds in leveraging its strategic partnership with Japan for the purpose of convincing Tokyo to invest in this region irrespective of resolving what that East Asian nation considers to be the “Kuril Islands Dispute” but which, Moscow maintains, shouldn’t be an issue at all following that country’s defeat in World War II. India and Japan jointly unveiled the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) a few years ago—however, the project has yet to make any major investments anywhere. It would therefore be in all the three countries’ interests to focus on the Russian Far East since the host country needs the investment and those other two need to prove the viability of their concept.
The Mechanics of The Neo-NAM
No matter whether India proves successful in convincing Japan to invest in the Russian Far East, Moscow and New Delhi should establish a platform for coordinating their activity in third countries in order to maximally optimize the vision articulated in the 93rd clause of their latest partnership agreement. It would be advisable to make it as flexible as possible in the sense of proceeding along three tracks: the bilateral Russian-Indian one, a number of trilateral tracks for coordinating joint investments in third countries, and a multilateral one for managing all of the aforesaid. Upon reaching enough trilateral investment deals in third countries, the platform could then serve to coordinate all of their other activities.
To explain, economic engagement is the inroad through which the Neo-NAM can eventually become a political force through which Russia and India can facilitate its partners’ balancing acts between China and the US in the New Cold War. To be absolutely clear, this mustn’t ever be instrumentalized to influence the balance of interests between those two superpowers, but solely to ensure the greatest level of strategic autonomy for the countries caught in the middle of their global competition. Just like the NAM from the Old Cold War balanced its members’ relations between the American and Soviet superpowers, so too should the Neo-NAM in the New Cold War do the same with the US and China.
In practice, this could most immediately take the form of joint Russian-Indian investment projects serving as a pragmatic “third way” for such states who feel compelled to choose between American (“Build Back Better World”, B3W) and Chinese (Belt & Road Initiative, BRI) connectivity initiatives. Some might already have ties with one, the other, or perhaps eventually soon both, but they’d have a natural interest in diversifying through the Neo-NAM’s potentially proposed projects as well in order to balance between those superpowers and maintain as much strategic autonomy. This would help them preemptively avert any future disproportionate dependence on either superpower.
Since the New Cold War has many political dimensions, the third countries caught in the middle of this competition might feel compelled to side with one of them at the UN or in other multilateral fora. In that context, the Neo-NAM could serve as a voting bloc of truly neutral states that collectively refuse to get involved in those superpowers’ rivalry. They would eventually realize that they can effect more meaningful change if they stick together and vote (or not vote) as one instead of scattering to side with the U.S. or China. This could, in turn, prompt those two superpowers to appreciate the Neo-NAM’s countries even more, which might reduce the pressure they feel to side with either of them.
Militarily, the Neo-NAM might eventually seek to circulate more jointly produced Russian-Indian weapons among its many members in order to relieve the pressure that they’d feel to purchase American or Chinese ones. After all, whether or not either of those superpowers politicizes their arms exports, the other will certainly take notice if any given country purchases their rival’s. This is especially true for Chinese exports to West Asia and American ones to the ASEAN states. In order to avoid inadvertently offending either of those two, the Neo-NAM’s countries might opt to purchase jointly produced Russian-Indian arms instead in order to signal that they’re truly militarily neutral states.
Having explained the mechanics of the Neo-NAM, the rest of the analysis will discuss the means through which Russia and India can engage over half a dozen countries that might be most interested in joining their informal network across Afro-Eurasia. The informal aspect is emphasized because there might be certain political sensitivities with openly declaring their Neo-NAM intent even if their expert and media communities end up using this term for simplicity’s sake. That’s because China would almost certainly object to any such formal announcement, and neither Russia nor India wants to inadvertently risk having that country view their truly neutral grand strategic intentions with suspicion.
To begin, it deserves mentioning that Russia and India each have strategic partnerships with the centrally positioned ASEAN state of Vietnam. It would therefore be best if they incorporated that country into the VCMC and began trilaterally coordinating with it. The Vietnamese President was just in Moscow where he and his host agreed to renew their strategic partnership. Of particular interest was their joint declaration’s mentioning of UNCLOS, which speaks to Russia’s regional neutrality and unwillingness to take sides in the South China Sea issue despite its strategic partnership with China. This makes Moscow a trustworthy partner for all ASEAN states.
Vietnam was the first country to reach a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAU) with which India plans to launch free trade talks sometime next year according to their recently renewed strategic partnership. The BrahMos supersonic missiles that Russia and India jointly produced as their flagship military-industrial project will be exported to the Philippines according to Deputy Chief of the Russian Mission in India Roman Babushkin in November 2020 in spite of that country being America’s mutual defense ally. If those two will sell such arms to that country, then it follows that there shouldn’t be a problem exporting them to their shared Vietnamese partner too.
Maintaining the Vietnamese-Chinese balance of power in the South China Sea could encourage both claimants to continue pursuing a political solution to their dispute. It would also counteract the US’ divide-and-rule strategy of trying to pit ASEAN states against the People’s Republic. Since Vietnam already has official trade ties with the EAU and India will soon work on reaching its own, it shouldn’t be that difficult to coordinate trilateral projects in that regional state through the VCMC. Doing so would serve as a proof of the economic viability of that concept as well as the larger Neo-NAM within which that corridor would serve as a key connectivity project between many of its proposed members.
Moving westward into the Indian Ocean, Russia and India are already jointly building a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, which testifies to how close those two are with Dhaka. That country became independent half a century ago shortly after the Indo-Soviet “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” in 1971. All three therefore have time-tested relations that stretch back to Bangladesh’s inception. This could transform that country into the Neo-NAM’s top South Asian partner and make it a major node along the VCMC that this concept’s joint leaders plan to advance. Bangladesh is also balancing between China and the US so it would clearly be attracted to the Neo-NAM’s neutral “third way”.
The next point of convergence between Russia and India is Afghanistan, and it’s here where Moscow could repay New Delhi’s favor for possibly getting Tokyo to invest in the Russian Far East irrespective of resolving the so-called “Kuril Islands Dispute”. India evacuated that country in August following the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover after investing $3 billion in over 400 socio-economic development projects in every one of Afghanistan’s provinces. The Taliban, which is still officially designated as a terrorist group by Moscow despite the Eurasian Great Power pragmatically engaging with it in the interests of peace and security, hopes that India can return to help it balance China and Pakistan.
Although that country’s de facto leaders have excellent ties with those two countries, it’s concerned about becoming disproportionately dependent on them in the future. Average Afghans also generally have very positive views of India, advanced to a large extent by its hundreds of socio-economic development projects that directly improved their lives. The Moscow peace process that resulted in the Extended Troika between that host country, China, Pakistan, and the US could prospectively be expanded to include India, which is what Foreign Minister Lavrov once again proposed following the game-changing Putin-Modi Summit.
Russia envisions relying on India and their shared Iranian partner to pragmatically counterbalance China and Pakistan in Afghanistan, which fully aligns with the Taliban’s undeclared policy as well. Considering this, de facto Taliban-led Afghanistan would therefore be a perfect partner for the Neo-NAM balancing network that Russia and India are jointly assembling. It doesn’t want to take sides between anyone nor become too dependent on any of the many stakeholders in its success. This explains why the group will likely be attracted to the neutral “third way” that Russia and India could soon propose for it in order to make Afghanistan their network’s most important Central Asian partner.
At this point, it’s worthwhile talking about Iran, which was mentioned earlier with respect to Russia’s repeated proposal to have it join the Extended Troika on Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic enjoys equally excellent relations with Russia and India but also clinched a 25-year strategic partnership with China last spring. It was also announced several months ago that Iran will join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in which those three Great Powers also participate. Even though Tehran is presently renegotiating the nuclear deal with Washington, it practices a fiercely independent foreign policy and plays a crucial role in geographically bridging the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership.
It does this through the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) alongside neighboring transit state Azerbaijan. Although Baku and New Delhi have recently experienced some turbulence in their relations after Azerbaijan publicly supported Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and India began expanding its relations with that country’s Armenian rival, the NSTC still remains geographically viable since Russian-Indian trade could traverse the Caspian Sea. In addition, since Iran sits in the center of this connectivity corridor, it could also host trilateral investment projects, especially upon a successfully renegotiated nuclear deal that removes the US’ secondary sanctions threats that have thus far impeded this.
Across the Gulf lies the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which should also be approached by Russia and India to gauge its interest in joining their Neo-NAM. That country has recently expanded relations with both of them as part of its rapid rise to regional power status that’s the result of its visionary leadership’s geopolitical ambitions. It’s also extremely wealthy and has a lot of influence in the Horn of Africa, a region that will soon be discussed when talking about the Neo-NAM’s African dimension. The UAE is improving relations with Iran, managing increasingly difficult ties with the US, exploring a rapprochement with Turkey, and recently recognized Israel so it should be interested in the Neo-NAM.
Israel was just talked about and it’s also a perfect candidate for the Neo-NAM. Even though it’s regarded as among America’s top allies anywhere in the world, it bravely defied Washington’s pressure to sanction Moscow in solidarity with the West. In addition, Tel Aviv and the Eurasian Great Power have quietly become de facto allies after the Kremlin agreed to a so-called “deconfliction mechanism” with it in September 2015 immediately prior to its anti-terrorist intervention in neighboring Syria in order to coordinate actions above that third country’s airspace. This led to Israel carrying out literally hundreds of strikes against Iran and its allies since then who it claims are stockpiling weapons there to attack it.
This fact means that Russia has indirectly done more to ensure Israel’s most pressing national security interests than even America has in recent years. From there, trust between these former Old Cold War rivals reached unprecedented heights, with President Putin personally managing his country’s de facto allied relations with Israel. He’s on record proudly speaking about the crucial role that the Russian diaspora there played in building the people-to-people ties upon which their relations are expanding. President Putin is also extremely passionate about fighting anti-Semitism and World War II revisionism all across the world, which are two of the most sensitive subjects for Israel.
The US’ interest in renegotiating the nuclear deal with Iran made Israel suspicious of its traditional ally’s grand strategic interests. After appreciating how Russia ensured its most pressing national security interests in Syria and thus rewarding it by refusing to comply with America’s demands to sanction Moscow in solidarity with the West, the opportunity has certainly arisen for seriously considering Israel’s inclusion in the Neo-NAM. Iran’s possible participation shouldn’t be any obstacle since both it and Israel are also actively exploring free trade deals with the EAU and each have excellent relations with India as well. If Israel joins the Neo-NAM, then it would truly make this network a force to be reckoned with.
Ethiopia & South Africa
The last part of the world where the Neo-NAM can truly make a geostrategic difference is Africa, and it’s here where Ethiopia and South Africa can serve as its most important members. Both have excellent relations with China but are eager to diversify their ties as much as possible. Ethiopia has recently experienced unprecedented pressure from its nominal American ally to politically compromise with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that Addis Ababa officially considers to be terrorists. This upset the balancing act that that country was practicing up until the start of last year’s conflict and thus necessitates an urgent recalibration, which is where Russia and India can quickly step in.
Both of them defended Ethiopia at the UN, which were gracious political acts that Addis Ababa truly appreciated. India also already has some investments in Ethiopia while Russia is exploring such. Moscow and Addis Ababa used to be allies during the second half of the Old Cold War and even enjoyed special relations back during their imperial eras. All of these can be the bases upon which Russia and India can engage Ethiopia to gauge its interest in trilateral investment projects, after which that country could seriously consider joining their Neo-NAM network across Afro-Eurasia. Ethiopia has historically supported anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism so its membership would be especially symbolic.
As for South Africa, it participates in BRICS alongside Russia and India. As an Indian Ocean state, that country is also within the region that India considers to be its “sphere of influence”. Russia has historically close relations with it too stretching back to the former Soviet Union’s support for the anti-apartheid freedom movement. As one of the continent’s largest economies, it’s a natural point of convergence between Russia’s and India’s economic interests and would add hefty weight to the African component of their Neo-NAM. Just like Russia, India, and China coordinate through RICs, so too could Russia, India, and South Africa coordinate through a special format in the proposed Neo-NAM.
The New Cold War is intensifying across all dimensions, especially across the economic domain after the U.S. unveiled its B3W and the EU just announced its complementary “Global Gateway” (GG). Those two will likely coordinate to compete with BRI all across Afro-Eurasia, with a particular emphasis on the first-mentioned continent due to its much more urgent developmental needs. Russia and India are late to the infrastructure game and will have to do a lot to catch up with their great power peers, but it is never too late to start. Should they succeed in proving the viability of joint projects in the Neo-NAM’s Russian Far Eastern core and expand the VCMC to Vietnam and Bangladesh, African countries will pay attention.
The VCMC could then become the centerpiece of Russia’s Indo-Pacific policy and the vehicle through which it and India jointly approach African countries, after which they’d likely rebrand that project or at least the African dimension. They also both have very close ties with the UAE and Israel, which have immense influence in the Indian Ocean half of the continent, so the possibility emerges to explore the chance for quadrilateral or even five-party projects in some capacity. If that’s not feasible given how ambitious such a proposal is and the difficulty in coordinating so many stakeholders’ interests, then Russia and India might individually advance trilateral projects with one or the other in African states.
The VCMC or whatever its proposed African expansion might be called will therefore serve as the connectivity vehicle for economically attracting countries to the Neo-NAM. The Afghan and Iranian dimensions can be advanced through the NSTC, while the Emirati and Israeli ones could see new concepts being created, perhaps even through Russian investment in facilitating the proposed “Arab-Mediterranean Corridor” between the EU and India via those West Asian countries. Upon establishing joint projects in third countries, the host states can the be encouraged to participate in the Neo-NAM’s diplomatic and military initiatives that were earlier explained in the mechanics section of this analysis.
Altogether, the Putin-Modi Summit was truly a global geostrategic game-changer because it extended enormous credence to the author’s earlier proposal for them to jointly lead an informal network of neutral states across Afro-Eurasia for the purpose of collectively facilitating their respective balancing acts. This Neo-NAM could eventually become a third pole of influence in the emerging bi-multipolar world and serve the irreplaceable function of relieving pressure upon the countless countries caught in the middle of the two superpowers’ global competition by presenting a pragmatic “third way” between them. Hopefully, Russian and Indian experts will prioritize research into the author’s ambitious proposal.
From our partner RIAC