Russia and India- Strategic Allies?

Although booted out of office, Tony Blair remains an astute observer of international affairs. In a recent statement, Blair argued that the 21st century will be governed by three giants: China, thanks to its military and financial power, and the US thanks to its financial prowess and mass investments in defense. The third giant has yet to be identified. Some contend it will be Russia thanks to its new base of operations in the Middle East (Syria) and its close relationships with ‘rogue nations’ such as Iran and North Korea. Guy Golan and I recently argued that the third giant will be India thanks to its population size, young demographics and status as the world’s telecommunications hub. The 21st century will create a world in which nations must form strategic alliances to successfully negotiate opposite a giant. The UK on its own will be relatively powerless opposite China, the US and India. Yet the EU will be in a better position given its collective financial strength and population size.   

Regardless of the identity of the third giant, India and Russia may become ‘strategic competitors’, each vying over local, regional and global hegemony. The bi-lateral relationship between India and Russia is thus of great interest especially at the moment as Russia is promoting its new Covid vaccine, and attempting to regain some of its lost credibility, while India is in the grips of a devastating Covid outbreak.

To assess the bi-lateral ties between Russia and India, I decided to analyze Covid-related images shared on Instagram by the Russia Embassy to New Delhi. My analysis found that the Russian Embassy posts three types of images. The first, focus on the efficacy of the Sputnik V vaccine. One image seemed to resonate with adverts of pharmaceutical companies. A sterile image, it presented the Sputnik V vaccine as a scientifically valid antidote to the Coronavirus.

The second type of images emphasized Russia’s ability to mass produce the Sputnik vaccine and Russia’s desire to disseminate and produce the vaccine in India. Unlike the syringe example, these images are anything but sterile. The outfits worn by Russian scientists evoke images of nuclear power plants and thus attest to the high level of scientific sophistication necessary to develop an effective Covid vaccine.

A third type of images documented Russia’s foreign aid to India in the wake of the pandemic. As has been the case with other MFAs and Embassies, these images tended to include large airplanes arriving at India filled with oxygen, ventilators and Covid vaccines. It is important to note the language used by Russian diplomats who insisted that these planes were a form of ‘humanitarian aid’ and not mere foreign aid. This term is important as it echoes messages on other Russian digital channels which portray the Sputnik V vaccine as Russia’s gift to humanity.

One video posted on Instagram depicted a Russian plane landing in India and then took audiences into the belly of the plane showcasing the vast amount of vaccines sent by Russia. Here again the language is important as Russia called for shared or collective action to meet a shared challenge- the Covid outbreak.

A second video argued that Russia’s medical equipment ‘proved effective and useful’ in combating Covid in India. This video played an evidentiary purpose documenting the medical equipment provided by Russia. To this end, the video included an interview with an Indian doctor who specified how the Russian equipment helped save lives in India.

A final image of a cargo plane included the statement “The efficacy of the Sputnik V is among the highest in the world, and this vaccine will also be effective against new strains of COVID-19”. This image was thus used to ensure other nations that the Sputnik vaccine was also effective against the Indian strand of Covid as made evident in India’s acceptance and local production of the vaccine.

The images and videos evaluated in this post demonstrate that for Russia, the Sputnik vaccine is more than a foreign aid component. It is a means of repositioning Russia as a technological world leader, a scientific powerhouse and a great humanitarian. The more nations adopt Russia’s vaccine, the greater the vaccine’s impact on Russia’s image. Indeed, this is not the same Russia that annexed Crimea, intervened digitally in the Brexit referendum and tried to sway the 2016 US elections. This is a Russia that is committed to aiding nations and a country seeking shared action in response to shared challenges. Thus, Russia does not simply provide India with a Covid vaccine, but it helps India produce the vaccine locally. This is a far greater gesture than that offered by Western countries who refuse to share their vaccine patents.

As for Russian-Indian relations, these Instagram images try to frame both countries as ‘strategic allies’ rather than ‘strategic competitors’. The shared production of Sputnik could suggest that rather than compete over being the third giant in world affairs, India and Russia are collectively trying to stem the growth of China and counter the power of the US. Such an alliance may also be a shared reaction to the recent Strategic Agreement signed by China and Iran, two strategic allies who are looking to assert their dominance in the Middle East, opposite Russia and the US. Even if the shared production of Sputnik is not a strategic move, it may serve a bridge between both countries each looking to shape the 21st century.

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