Russian Lessons on Neighbourhood First by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)


The confrontation between Russia and NATO over Ukraine is being analysed for many reasons. To me the most striking issue is the way Russia is managing its neighbourhood. While the fine print of the Russian environment and ours is different, the larger takeaway  is important to grasp. There are many important lessons for us to adopt in implementing our ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. A ‘ Rising India’ cannot exist in a ‘Failing or an alienated Neighbourhood’.  Both India or its neighbour(s) will not prosper in the long run. So what do we do? I thought it over, took some ideas from Russia, consolidated all the feedback I received  and put together a few points for consideration. There could be more points, I have only highlighted the important ones. 


The GDPs of Russia, Brazil and Australia are almost at par. However, Russia is a major global power whereas the others are  second rung powers. India’s GDP is nearly 1.75 times that of Russia. However Russia punches far above its weight in international affairs. This is directly attributable to its strategic culture, international outlook and military strength. When USSR and the Warsaw Pact broke in the 90s,  Russia formed the Commonwealth of Independent States with the post-soviet nations. A weak Russia could not hold them together. Over a period of time many (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia,  Albania, Croatia and the Czech Republic) joined the NATO despite Russian opposition. The Commonwealth of Independent States, morphed into the Collective Security Treaty Organisation in 1994 with Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as initial members. Azerbaijan , Georgia and Belarus joined in later. However  Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan quit the organisation after some time. All this while Ukraine kept its distance from Russia. Lately Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine have been eyeing NATO membership. As Russia recovered politically and economically, it started to re-exert its influence in its neighbourhood. It was alarmed as NATO kept pushing East. To stem the tide it invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed Crimea in 2014. Today Russia is going all out to keep its regional influence intact and protect its interests. Countries in its strategic neighbourhood are being forced to look towards Russia for their security whether they like it or not.   


Kazakhstan developed deep economic and commercial relations with China. Around 2009,  the distinct impression was that it was fully in the Chinese fold.  Yet when riots and trouble erupted in the country recently, it was Russian troops which stabilised the situation. China was politely but firmly conveyed to remain on the side-lines.  The current situation in Ukraine has been created by Russia to ensure that it remains under Russian  influence. Russia is using military force unhesitatingly, to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO. It has also created an awkward situation for NATO and has triggered divisions within. Earlier when it was weak , many countries left its fold to join NATO. A resurgent Russia , has now drawn a line in the sand. There are lessons to be learnt from Russia to make our well-publicised ‘Neighbourhood  First’ policy a success. 


A rising India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has been floundering. India’s size and central location in the subcontinent should have ensured that its neighbours (less Pakistan) are beholden to it. However China has made inroads into most of our neighbours. All we have done is cry hoarse on the ‘String of Pearls’. Look at our neighbourhood. Myanmar is in chaos – military rule, civil war situation, massacres, ethnic strife, refugees, drug and arms smuggling.  Nepal and India share deep cultural roots  but are involved in a boundary dispute instigated by the usual suspect – China. Bhutan is constantly under pressure from China. Bangladesh is stable but is fully part of the BRI and imports most of its military equipment from China. Sri Lanka swings from being antagonistic to neutral and is beholden to China despite its best interests being with India. Maldives is constantly under pressure to get deeper into China’s debt trap. While India might have a ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, it is for us to reflect that if our neighbours even think of a ‘India First’ reciprocal thought. Our relationship with each of our neighbours is case sensitive.


An honest feedback from our neighbours will tell us that India intimidates its neighbours. India promises more, delivers less and is unreliable. Some even call India a NATO country – No Action Talk Only. They hear the External Affairs, Home and Defence ministries talk in different wavelengths. The Centre and States speak  in different languages. Mark Tully, the veteran BBC commentator once mentioned that India being the biggest country in the region needs to have a large heart and take everyone along. It needed to be more generous than being called a bully. India needs to be more involved in these nations without interfering in their internal affairs..   


India must have a long term comprehensive neighbourhood policy with country specific mandates. It  must be binding on the States and Centre. All the Ministries must also adhere to it. India has already paid a heavy price in Sri Lanka for not following an uniform and joint approach. The then politics and government in Tamil Nadu sided with the Tamils. The Centre,  which initially sent troops to restore the rights of Tamils,  switched to the Sinhalese side. Finally  India ended up being disliked even by the Sinhalese and in no man’s land to be defeated. From then to now, India has been unable to re-stabilise its relations with Sri Lanka. It led to Sri Lanka opening its doors to China. There are lot of lessons in this sorry episode. Have we learnt  from them?  Obviously not. Mizoram allows refugees from Myanmar and is busy setting up camps for them when the central policy is not to allow them. India vs India will always be a losing proposition. 


Cross border ethnicity, religion, culture, language , family relationships,  environment, local economies and many more bonds are strong between India and its neighbours. People to people contact is high. These huge positives have to be built upon. Our neighbours have to be dealt at two levels. At one level, the relationship between India and any neighbour has to be on international norms. At another level, the relationship with them has to be at local level through adjoining/ contiguous  states. Hence there has to be a joint policy and platform through which India and its states need to interact with neighbours. Local linkages and relationships need to be built upon. 


Each of our neighbours needs a different approach. It cannot be a one size fits all policy. Relationships with each nation have to be calibrated based on  historical experience and  past linkages with India. We  cannot judge our neighbours by our yard sticks.  We have to judge them through a balanced prism which will be based on shared interests. We also have to deal with them based on their geostrategic relevance in relation to India. It has to be a give and take affair. India needs to assist its neighbours in their internal problems to give them solutions without stepping on their toes. They need to develop in the same pace as India. India must aim to have a relationship wherein its neighbours look to India for most of their emergent or critical requirements. 


There is an international  view that India needs to stop being stingy. India must share progress with its neighbours. For example, at the current moment when the pandemic is still raging, India has a lot to share. Vaccination is the obvious tool to develop better equations. More than that,  India can share the expertise it has gained in handling the pandemic at large scale. It can offer the Co-Win platform to its neighbours. It can also assist in other health schemes. The question is not whether we are doing all or some of this. The question is are we doing enough to ensure that our neighbours feel that they do not have to look beyond India? Are we doing enough to wean them away from outside influences like China and Pakistan? The answer is – No!


India needs to build greater interdependencies with neighbours. These interdependencies could be of manifold nature – trade and commerce, industry, energy, health, financial and currency linkages communication, common markets, transportation and travel and more. A very important factor will be security inter-dependency. India should anchor joint plans for various contingencies like disaster management and emergencies. For all our neighbours the first responder should be India. Common protocols, action plans need to be based on mutual understanding and benefit.  We cannot have a situation like it happened in Nepal where we were the first and main lifeline during the 2015 earthquake but were asked to withdraw at the earliest due to political differences. The need to infuse confidence in our neighbours is paramount. A great deal of understanding and interdependency is built through education, capacity and skill development assistance. In this regard our academia has a huge role to play. For instance , how many of us know that Indo-Vietnamese good relations are anchored in Sri Venkateshwara  University in Tirupati?  We need many more such anchoring centres and initiatives for each of our neighbours. 


To a large extent we need to revamp our diplomacy if we are to succeed in our ‘Neighbourhood First’  policy. Presently, the MEA and its cadre is too small and narrow for a rising power like India. India’s diplomatic capability has to be expanded to include professionals, technocrats and even prominent businessmen so that the approach is multi-dimensional. There is also a necessity to establish  project based or country based platforms for free interaction with our neighbours. SAARC was visualised to be such a platform. It failed due to the negative presence of Pakistan. Hence there is a need to create smaller thematic platforms targeting a smaller group of neighbours based on common interests Like the BIMSTEC and make them succeed. We also need to have stronger one to one architectures with each neighbour so that relations grow in a positive frame. 


A very effective method of developing and maintaining good relationship with our neighbours is through strong military ties. Military diplomacy achieves wonders in modern International Relations. The Ukraine situation tells us so. However as per many of our diplomatic thinkers, military diplomacy is an oxymoron. India grossly underutilises its military. Military training at all levels, equipping armed forces, carrying out joint exercises, regular reciprocal visits and conferences are some powerful tools of military diplomacy. If one analyses issues, one sees that in many of our neighbouring countries,  the military is an important player in that set up. Hence military to military ties will go a long way in improving relationships. India has been too conservative in using either the softer power of its military or its hard edge ,  to align our neighbours with us. If our neighbours are not militarily dependent on us, we will have the  Chinese military occupying more  space as days go by. As simple as that. 


India can rise to its potential only if its neighbourhood is firmly with it. It is very evident that India is not doing enough to make its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy a success. Some of the measures outlined above are based on feedback, interactions and historical incidents. There is no doubt that we are doing some of these things already. However if we were doing enough and paying due attention to our neighbours,  the Chinaman would not have been carrying out cheque book diplomacy with his bagful of debt traps. Even if he did that, we should have ensured that he can carry out his trade without accumulating political and diplomatic capital in our backyard. The Russian model and attitude in Kazakhstan and Ukraine is s good one to emulate. Russia is going to all lengths to ensure its neighbourhood and its regional influence is intact. The day we can be a little bolder and purposeful like Russia, to seek specific outcomes in our neighbourhood , will be the day when India’s rise would have truly started. We have miles to go…if the events in our neighbourhood are any indication.             



3 responses to “Russian Lessons on Neighbourhood First by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. We have been shouting about the importance of identifying the children of people in power or the rising stars in politics of our neighbours and giving them full scholarship for studying in our best institutions without tests. Unfortunately our MEA seems to have its ears full of oil

  2. Shankar, you have analysed the requirement of a stable and practical foreign policy extremely well. But the problem in our Country is that everything including foreign policy is personality oriented and never policy oriented. When Rajeev Gandhi was PM and Benazir was PM of Pakistan, our media and socalled intelligentsia shouted from rooftop that since both are young leaders, all problems between the two countries could be solved!! Countries do not change their basic policies with the change of govts. Hope you remember how the major routes to Nepal were closed just because Nepalese refused to allow Sonia Gandhi to enter Pashupathinath temple. Our foreign policy is so fragile!! How do you expect our neighbourto trust us? The case of GMR fiasco in Maldives is also well known. We could have prevented Sri Lanka from falling into Chinese trap.Now Chinese will be there for 99 years! Russian policy is stable and focused. Regards.

  3. You have rightlty pointed out the need for a comprehensive policy .We seem to be unable to take advantage of opportunities.We could have stepped in during the financial crisis in Sri Lanka.I am not sure if we did enough

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