Neel Murlidhar's Blog

Russia in a Eurasian Triple Entente, with excerpts from Vadim Tsymbursky and Halford Mackinder

October 2, 2019

The last time Russia was in a Triple Entente did not end well.

Britain and France – ostensibly Russia’s Triple Entente partners – were more than willing to fight the First World War to the last drop of Russian blood.

Russian sacrifices and privations were so severe they pushed a tottering Tsarist Russia over the brink of revolution.

Later, against Nazi Germany, the partners were shuffled around in this game of geopolitical musical chairs, but the song remained the same – let the USSR bleed for Britain and the US, who were waiting in the wings to claim victory and pick up the spoils.

America emerged as the principal beneficiary of that war, while things did not go according to plan for the British, who ever since have been relegated to an irrelevant role as vassals of the US.

The USSR won the European war, while the US won the peace that followed in Western Europe.

America decisively defeated Japan in the Pacific, while the USSR won back valuable oil rich Eastern lands, previously lost to Japan by a Tsarist Russia weakened by internal stresses and the beginnings of revolution.

But at the end of the Great Patriotic War, an inept President Truman, with no knowledge of foreign affairs, conceded all foreign policy to his political mentor James Byrnes – who promptly set in motion his own agenda and steered the US into an anti-communist crusade against the USSR – laying the basis for a protracted, expensive and miserable cold war, all within the short two years while Byrnes was in charge, before he and Truman had a falling apart.

While needing to tread very carefully because of this sad history with strategic partnerships, there may be possibilities for Russia in a new Triple Entente for the next century, this time with partners holding long-term world views – a Eurasian Triple Entente.

This is the final part of a three-part series on possible future re-industrialization of Russia, developing hi-tech and oil & gas business with India as a Eurasian balance, and bringing together Russia, China and India.

The series begins with ‘Russian re-industrialization dangers’, a cautionary overview of Japanese re-industrialization and the problems that Japan underwent – from its meteoric rise to the top, to its equally precipitous fall since the 1990s.

Next, ‘Bridges to India’ is about hi-tech possibilities for Russia and India, and the urgency of creating access to the Indian oil and gas market for Russian products.

Finally, ‘Eurasian Triple-Entente’ is about a possible Russia-India-China collaboration.

Ancient cultures

Humankind’s Iron Age began in India around four thousand years ago. For the next two to three thousand years, the South Indian region around modern day Chennai was the world center for high tech metallurgy, just as high tech today is centered in California’s Silicon Valley.

Large quantities of metals, spices, fabrics and other products were routinely shipped from India to Europe.

Long before the much-ballyhooed Silk Road began to thrive, there was an even more important and vibrant trade way – the Red Sea Route – between India and Rome.

Cargo ships would sail from the Indian West Coast to a Northern Red Sea port, shipments were then transferred to a Caravan Sarai nearby, to go overland to the Mediterranean and thence by sea to Rome.

As many as two cargo ships sailed every week carrying goods from South India all the way to Rome. Trade volumes were so high that Senate records exist of Roman Senators from ancient times berating the citizens of Rome, about crippling trade deficits and monetary imbalances caused by their love of Indian goods.

By the reign of Yaroslav Mudryy, Indian empires had stretched beyond Afghanistan to the west, and included modern Myanmar, Indonesia, and parts of Thailand and Indo-China to the east.

Angus Maddison and other macro-economics historians have studied the economies of various regions throughout world history. While scholars can argue about the exact numbers, general trends were as follows:


A historical graph of the GDP (PPP) of a basket of seven countries shows the rise and fall of each nation’s GDP as a percentage of the basket. The Russian Federation does not show sufficient historical data. However, by 2020, the RF is expected to be in fourth place after China, the US and India.

From long before Christ till around the time of Aleksandr Nevsky, India had the highest GDP in the world – with China in second place.

And then the muslims came.

Between Sankt Aleksandr and Ivan Veliky, many waves of muslim invaders from Tashkent, Persia and Afghanistan repeatedly attacked the North and North-West of India. Following this series of debilitating wars, the GDP of India fell to second in the world, below that of China.

Then muslim Mongols, who had been evicted from the Fergana Valley by more powerful tribes from Mongolistan, invaded North India. The Mongols created the Mughal empire in India, which reached its geographic peak during the reign of Pyotr Veliky, before being finally defeated by Indian kings during Yekaterina Velikaya’s time.

But much, much worse was to come for India.

The British had been granted a trade presence in India at a few outposts. Weakened by centuries of conflict with various muslim invaders, India had split into numerous smaller, vulnerable kingdoms. The British seized this opportunity in the early 19th century and – largely by bribery, betrayal, deceit and intrigue – took over parts of India for the next hundred and twenty-five years, plundering the fabled riches of the Indian ‘Jewel’ in the British Crown.

India was never a colony of Britain as settlements in Canada, Australia and New Zealand were. It was a region for British pillaging and exploitation.


Britain’s ‘civilization, culture and liberalism’ in action in India: Indian elders being blown apart by British cannon. Painting by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin

Thanks to this merciless exploitation by Britain, India’s GDP plummeted to the bottom, and poverty ran rampant. It is only now, some seventy years after Britain’s collapse, that India has begun to recover from the barbaric British yoke – to reach for its rightful place in the world.

China has had an equally difficult past few hundred years – in its case mostly from internal stresses, which killed tens of millions.

China suffered through the Taiping, Nian, Du Wenxiu and Dungan rebellions, followed by lawlessness and fragmentation under small-time warlords, and then the Japanese invasion. This series of disasters reduced China’s GDP from the very top to a rock-bottom basket case, even as the British had done to India’s GDP.

The Soviet Union had a big hand in helping Chairman Mao’s communists win the civil war, and in rejuvenating China’s military, and its civilian economy. Later, rather fortuitously for the Chinese, came Henry Kissinger’s short-sighted and ill-advised outreach to China as a foil to the USSR.

Kissinger’s folly played a large part in the process that has led to China overtaking the US in GDP(PPP), and challenging America geopolitically and militarily.

And so, on to geography and geopolitics. Several Russian thinkers, including the late Vadim Tsymbursky, have disagreed with Western-European ideas on the geopolitics of Euro-Asia. In his 2004 paper titled Хэлфорд Макиндер: трилогия хартленда и призвание геополитика, Tsymbursky rejected many of these ideas and pointed out that very few of them were valid, even just a few years after they were postulated.

In his dismissal of Mackinder, Tsymbursky also unilaterally enlisted Nicholas Spykman of Rimland Theory, author of the 1944 classic ‘The geography of the peace’.

For example, on Mackinder, Tsymbursky wrote “N. Spykman will laugh at Mackinder’s lamentations about the superiority of the “axial power” (i.e. The Russian Empire), which freely transfers troops from end to end of the mainland along internal lines, before the doomed defenders of Primorye rush along the outer perimeter of Euro-Asia. Spykman will note that all this simulated panic comes from the supposed duty of the British to defend backward China and India … from the Russians” (emphasis added).

On the other hand, many respected specialists have a different interpretation and view of Mackinder. In this context, it may be appropriate to remind ourselves of the oft-repeated dictum from Mackinder’s ‘Democratic ideals and reality’ of 1942: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world."

Of course, Mackinder intended this to be a constant cautionary admonishment to Western leaders wallowing in the hubris of triumphalism, even as a Roman slave would supposedly whisper over and over again the admonishment “remember thou art mortal” in the ear of every Roman general returning to Rome in pomp and procession after some great victory over its enemies – lest he succumb to self-importance and ego.

But taken literally, without regard to this deterrent purpose, Mackinder’s dictum can mean something else altogether.

According to Tsymbursky, Mackinder had presented what became heartfelt dogma to colonialist, imperialist, and Euro-centric Western Europeans.

In Mackinder’s time, Eastern Europe may for a while have been the decisive region which determined who prevailed in the heartland – the West or the East – and ultimately, who ruled the World Island.

But just five years after that was written in 1942, the center of gravity of world affairs had begun an inexorable, initially imperceptible and increasingly accelerated return eastward – by 1947 India had gained freedom from exploitation and by 1949, China had turned communist (and ultimately became enormously stronger than in its pre-war warlord days).

As for the present, big changes are afoot. After years of concocting problems with a post-Soviet Russia, the US has finally turned towards its real adversary – China. The money thrown around and the lobbying by pro-Chinese outfits in Washington, which had given China a free pass so far, seem to have finally lost steam. Unless there is a change of government in the US and a return to the old ways, this overt confrontation between the US and China is likely to grow.

In such a world, perhaps Mackinder’s dictum can be modified by staying away from any Atlanticism and from his ideas on Eastern Europe being a Russian vulnerability and access zone for Western penetration into Russia, when Western Europe itself has become far less consequential with the shift towards the East and to Asia.

Given the fluidity in current affairs, and purely on an ad hoc basis, what if we restrict Mackinder to just the second part of his dictum – to ‘one who rules the heartland rules the World Island’ – and in light of current world power realities, define ‘heartland’ as the region extending from Russia’s western marches to the Pacific – including lands to the East of the Lena, which Mackinder had separated from the adjoining ‘pivot’?

Would that have satisfied the Russian Islander?

In Остров Россия, Tsymbursky wrote “the political establishment of the West very early realized the connection of our (post-Petrovian) European mania with the threat posed by us to this subcontinent … which attributed to Moscow’s Europeanizer Pyotr I the hidden dream of conquering Europe by his descendants”, and “it was precisely as a European nation that Russia, by its vastness, even regardless of the intentions of its leaders, was incompatible with the European balance”.

This may be developed to: Russia does not have aspirations to Great Empire, nor world domination, nor conquest of Western Europe, but is only interested in consolidating its domains between Russia’s western periphery and the Pacific. Or, Russian interests mainly center on stabilizing and securing the Russian Island.

It would follow that current Western fears of any Russian ambitions of ‘return to a Soviet empire and its vassals’ are either feigned for some insidious Western purpose, such as propaganda or fanning the flames to further some hidden agenda, or merely misguided.

Tsymbursky further wrote “the geopolitical algorithm is clear: Russia … is inclined to undertake broad actions in the east, when it is blocked from entering Europe or in the area directly connected with Europe”.

Thus, the current shift towards the East, and close partnership with China and India, would appear to be one more Russian geopolitical cycle, in a pattern of looking sometimes to the West and at other times to the East – a pattern established following the Europeanism of Pyotr Veliky.

But all this is from a 19th century perspective, back when Europe mattered. Now that China and India have shaken off their calamitous collapses of that same period, and are reasserting themselves, the center of gravity of the world has shifted back to the East (where it belongs) and will most probably remain there for the foreseeable future.

What was seen as cyclical vacillation by Russia in the past – looking to Europe whenever possible, only to turn Eastward when rejected by the West – now enters an entirely new paradigm, where Russia’s relations with China and India supersede interests in Europe.

In such circumstances, with the swing back of world power to the East, there arise interesting areas for co-operation in a triple entente between Russia, China and India.

In general, with history and geography on their side, co-operation between these three great nations is obvious and logical. In the short-term, however, certain issues have to be resolved by the Asian powers.

China needs to solve its border issues with India, and secure its sea lanes to the Red Sea and to the Persian Gulf, while clarifying its intent in the China Sea littoral.

India needs to solve its border issues with China, end Chinese sponsorship of Pakistan, and most importantly, recover its rightful place as an equal to China, which was lost in 1962 when then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru engaged in a quixotic attempt to impose India’s will on China in border disputes.

How would such a Triple Entente begin to form?

Russia has prime position as a major source of energy and military systems. It would also secure the Northern and Eastern land-limits of such a Triple Entente.

As for the other two partners, for example, India would enter into the triple entente guaranteeing the security of Chinese shipping to the Suez and the Persian Gulf. It would offer easier and more secure access to the Arabian Sea and onward for Chinese trade with Europe. It would settle its border disputes with China. It would stay away from military initiatives in the China Sea littoral, and possibly agree to a joint posture and non-compete agreement with China on commercial initiatives in Africa and the Arctic.

China would guarantee the security of Indian shipping in the China Sea littoral, such as trade routes to the rest of Asia and energy routes to Sevmorput. It would stop sponsoring Pakistan and settle its border disputes with India. It would recognize India as a fellow world power – and as a goodwill gesture, sponsor India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and other bodies where China has hitherto been blocking India. It could agree to a joint posture and non-compete agreement with India on commercial initiatives in Africa and the Arctic.

Once these accommodations are made, the path to a stable and secure Eurasian Triple Entente becomes clear.

Thus, the answer is simple – but whether or not it can become reality is an entirely different question.

The overwhelming military defeat of India by China in 1962, regardless of its obvious cause –Nehru’s arrogance, his mismanagement in this dramatic misadventure, and his penchant for promoting incompetent sycophants to key positions in military leadership, while ignoring Indian military unpreparedness – still rankles with Indians far, far more than, for example, the Vietnam War ever affected the American psyche.

Defeat in the 1962 war, instead of being assigned to Nehru’s mistakes, has been explained away as a ‘betrayal’ of India’s attempts at brotherly relations with China, and as a stab in the back by the Chinese. This is so firmly entrenched in Indians’ impressions of that war that a serious attempt will have to be made, by the Indian government, to educate its citizens.

For their part, the Chinese will have to do something dramatic to motivate the Indian government to do so.

Unlike in the long-ago past, Chinese communists have usually tried to treat India as a second-tier Asian power, trying to portray it merely as an equal to Pakistan at every opportunity. Belittling India is an important part of Chinese efforts to position China as the predominant Asian power, at least in the eyes of the world.

Chinese attitudes were unlikely to change as long as China was rising meteorically in the past two decades, at a much higher rate than India.

Now that China is suffering an inevitable slowdown, especially now that open trade-war between the US and China has finally begun, India can catch-up with China in the next decade or two. China will become more amenable to co-operation as an equal to India, which is of the greatest importance to the Indians.

Russia can play a very useful role in negotiations.

China and India are Asian countries, and ‘face’ is important to both of them. While they may not be able to compromise bilaterally, they may reach consensus with help from a third party. Again, as a ‘face’ issue, neither country will accept a third party as a binding ‘arbitrator’, but as a friend to both China and India, Russia may have a role to play in bringing the two Asian giants together.

The USSR was neutral ground for India and Pakistan at talks in Tashkent, at the end of their 1965 war, back when India was weak and still recovering from British occupation. Now, Russia can be neutral ground for Sino-Indian discussions. Neutral ground is very helpful, for the optics if nothing else, such as in negotiations between the US and USSR/RF, for example.

In any case, if such a triple entente were to form, it has to be with Russia, China and India as equal partners.

There are many military advantages to a Russia-China-India Triple Entente, starting with logistics – operations can become easier, based on compatibility and commonality, with all three militaries using predominantly Russian systems. And so on. But we will leave discussion of military aspects to a military specific forum.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, regarding the Europeans, a famous Russian philosopher wrote “They realized that we are many … that we know and understand all European ideas, and that they do not know our Russian ideas, and if they find out, they won’t understand ... The result was that they directly called us enemies and future crushers of European civilization. This is how they understood our passionate goal to become universal people".

Hopefully, Russia is understood better in the East, by China and India – which are both very inclusive cultures and civilizations.

There are other short-term options, of course.

If the US reaches stalemate, or a position of disadvantage against China, it may start wooing Russia as a potential geopolitical ally, as when Kissinger went to China. But even if this unlikely volte-face were to take place in US policy, Russian experience in the past would seem to preclude a positive response from Russia to any such overtures from America.

And as another short-term option, Russia and India can continue developing close trade links with China, but remain non-aligned militarily and geopolitically, while strengthening ties between themselves as long-time partners.

There would then be little need, without specific treaties, for Russia and India to get involved in conflicts between China and the US.

As President Putin said – when tigers fight in the valley, a smart monkey waits for the outcome

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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