MOSCOW -- Indian and Chinese troops participated in Russia's Victory Day military parade in Moscow on Wednesday, a rare display at a time of rising tensions between the two Asian neighbors over a decades-old border dispute.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin watching from just outside the Kremlin walls, a Tri-Service contingent of the Indian Armed Forces marched through Red Square. Minutes later, a unit of the Chinese People Liberation Army's honor guard paraded by.
The sight of Indian and Chinese soldiers marching in the same parade together came just over a week after a deadly border clash between the two countries in the Himalayan region of Ladakh.
Both Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe attended the parade. Although Chinese state media initially reported that a meeting between the two ministers in Moscow was "very likely," the Indian Defense Ministry denied that report on Tuesday.
"This parade is a very rare example of how Russia is an important international player, since for both China and India it is important to demonstrate a symbolic solidarity with Moscow," said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Russian government.
"Although Moscow doesn't have many concrete ways to influence the current situation [between India and China], Russia, just by its presence in Eurasia, determines too much to ignore," Lukyanov added. "This symbolic gesture from Beijing and New Delhi confirms that."
About 14,000 soldiers from 13 countries took part in the parade, which commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The pageantry comes after Indian and Chinese troops fought with wooden clubs, rocks and fists in the Galwan River valley of the Ladakh region last week. The incident on June 15 marked the first deaths in a border clash between Indian and Chinese forces since 1975.
According to Indian military officials, 20 Indian soldiers died in the clash. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has confirmed that it lost troops in the battle, but it has avoided providing an exact number. Both sides have since agreed to a truce.
The confrontation has put Russia, which has sought to court both countries in recent years, in an awkward spot. China is Russia's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade turnover exceeding $110 billion last year. India, on the other hand, is Russia's largest arms customer and has recently pledged to invest $1 billion in the Russian Far East.
"Any conflict between India and China is extremely unpleasant for Russia because Moscow has placed a bet on its close strategic partners trusting each other as much as possible," said Alexey Kupriyanov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Kupriyanov said that despite Putin's efforts in recent years to position Russia as a global deal-maker, the longtime Russian president was far more cautious about offering himself up as a mediator for India and China than he was for the conflicts in Syria, Libya or Venezuela, where Moscow plays a significant diplomatic role.
"There is a demand for Russia's mediation in countries that are half in ruins because the two sides there cannot reach a deal with each other or because one side believes itself to be much weaker than the other," he said. "In this case, however, we have two nuclear-armed powers with decades of experience in managing their border conflicts by themselves. So while we are willing to help, we realize that neither side is eager for a third player."
In recent weeks, as tensions between India and China have escalated, senior Russian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Moscow had no plans to mediate the conflict or support either side.
"We do not have any intention to interfere in the matters of India and China, as they themselves are capable of sorting it out among themselves, without any third party," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday during a videoconference with his Indian and Chinese counterparts.
Last week, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that while Russia found reports of a clash between Indian and Chinese forces "very alarming," it was confident that the "two countries are capable of taking necessary steps to prevent such situations in the future and to ensure that there is predictability and stability in the region."
Russia, however, is discovering that completely staying out of the conflict between its two close partners is not so easy. Following the Galwan Valley incident, India announced that it would purchase 33 new Su-30 and MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia. At the same time, New Delhi has asked Moscow to speed up its delivery of the first batch of S-400 air defense systems, which is currently scheduled for December 2021. The two countries had signed a $5.2 billion contract for the S-400 back in October 2018.
State media controlled by Beijing have already begun a campaign to sway Russian public opinion against the move. In a popular Facebook group for Russian experts on Asia, China state-owned newspaper People's Daily put up a post arguing that weapon transfers to India would only exacerbate tensions in the region.
"As experts say, if Russia wants to soften the hearts of the Chinese and Indians, it is better off not delivering arms to India in such a sensitive moment," the newspaper wrote. "The two Asian powers are Russia's very close strategic partners."