Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India-Russia ties in trouble?

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India-Russia ties in trouble?

Putin’s India Summit: Is India’s traditional partnership with Russia in trouble, or stronger than ever?

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India this week for the 21st annual summit that was put off last year due to Covid. There were a stack of outcomes on paper- including 28 agreements- and some big ones including a ten-year defence cooperation partnership-  but many others did not get announced, leading to speculation that the traditional partnership lacks some punch at present.

First, lets take a close look at what was achieved, and some of it is still filtering in:

1.      Putin’s presence – albeit a short visit- itself was a major takeaway, given that this is only the 2 time he has travelled abroad during the Covid pandemic- the other flight was to Geneva for a meeting with US President Biden. Coincidentally a day after meeting PM Modi, he spoke via videoconference with Mr. Biden as well.

2.      The leader level meeting was effusive- Putin called India a “great power”, Modi called Putin a key architect of the India-Russia relationship

3.      Not only did the leaders meet, but the two sides met for the first time in the 2+2 format- with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh meeting with Russian counterparts Sergey Lavrov and Sergei Shoygu.

4.      There was also a meeting of the Inter-Governmental Commission on Military & Military-Technical Cooperation- and announcements included the renewal of their military and defence partnership for 10 years to 2031, broadening their cooperation

5.      India also cleared a deal to manufacture Russian AK-203 rifles in Uttar Pradesh in a 5-50.5-49.5% joint venture, which will see technology transferred by Russia to India.

6.      28 agreements on everything ranging from Oil and Energy to intellectual property rights and Culture were signed

7.      India’s decision to move ahead with the S-400 deliveries that began this month was hailed by the Russian side as a symbol of its independence and assertion of strategic autonomy

8.      Decision to do joint projects in third countries of Asia- they already have a joint nuclear power project in Bangladesh’s Rooppur

9.      99 point joint statement that dwelt on how robust the relationship is, and committed to more close cooperation between India and Russia.

In particular, the two sides sought to dispel the idea that they have differences over Afghanistan, especially as India has regarded with suspicion Russia’s role in the US-China-Russia Troika with Pakistan, which allowed the Taliban takeover in many ways.

In four points, the two sides articulated their joint stand on Afghanistan, including

1.      Support for a peaceful Afghanistan, non-interference in internal affairs, and humanitarian assistance

2.      Afghanistan must not be used for terror groups- significantly mentioning LeT along with ISIS and Al Qaeda.

3.      A permanent consultative mechanism on Afghanistan between the NSAs of both countries, and a Roadmap of cooperation on Afghanistan

4.      Welcoming the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue of NSAs, held by NSA Doval

The emphasis on this was underlined as last week, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar criticised the US on Afghanistan- in a rare statement he linked the US troops pullout to the rise of security concerns- thus far, it has been Russia that has held the US directly responsible for the problems emanating from Afghanistan. Listen in:

However, the India-Russia Summit wasn’t all smooth sailing and it is important to note the flashpoints and the agreements that were expected but not announced:

1.      The day began with a statement by Rajnath Singh on India facing “Unprovoked Aggression at India’s Northern borders”, lashing out at China in talks with the Russians, which would have led to awkward moments given the very close Russia-China relations

2.      It ended with Russian FM Lavrov hitting out at the US at a solo press conference- specifically criticising the Quad strategy that India is a part of, and the new AUKUS agreement for nuclear submarines in Australia. Both statements appear to show the India-Russia relationship is being overshadowed by the US China rivalry.

3.      Important agreements bilateral logistics support deal Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS), as well as a Navy to Navy cooperation MoU had been outlooked, but weren’t announced

4.      No progress was reflected on other military deals, like for Mig 29s, Sukhoi fighters and a Igla-S-  VSHORAD very short range surface to air missiles- leading to speculation that the Modi government might go slow on other deals until it is clear about the US decision on possible sanctions on India for the S-400 deal (previous WV)

5.      Most importantly, the relationship seemed stuck in the P2P- President 2 PM or G2G level, and initiatives for B2B have not taken off. There has been little movement on the usage of a 1bn dollar Line of Credit for Eastern Russia projects announced by PM Modi in 2019, and trade remains at very low levels, about $10bn at present, or on the People 2 people front. During covid, trade decreased 17% in 2020, but has bounced back 38% this year.

6.      We also saw a different summit this week: US President Joseph Biden invited PM Modi for a 100 nation Summit for Democracy, where both exchanged views on the need to promote democratic practices worldwide- a summit where Russia was not invited- giving the impression that while the traditional Russia relationship has turned more transactional, the India-US relationship is more value based. However, it is also true that while US leaders frequently criticise India on the functioning of democracy here, the Russian leadership never makes value based judgements.

Whatever the net result, the truth is, Russia remains an indispensable partner for India, and the source of about 70% of its military hardware. India’s decision to go ahead with the S-400 deal is expected to make it clear globally that not only is it willing to brave US sanctions, unlike what it was prepared to do for Iran oil imports, it is unlikely to reduce its military dependence on Russia as the US would like, regardless of whether it receives a waiver from Washington. However, it is also true that India Russian ties remain stuck in the stratosphere, and people to people connections and civilian exchanges are at a low point.  While India has proven its strategic autonomy, Russia too must prove its ability to prioritise its India relationship- especially when it comes to India’s tense ties with China.

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