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EFSAS Commentary

Putin’s visit to New Delhi was a reminder of why the India-Russia relationship has endured despite odds


President Vladimir Putin of Russia had shunned foreign travel ever since the deadly COVID-19 pandemic erupted in Wuhan, China, in 2019 and spread rapidly to disrupt normalcy and regular life worldwide. Prior to his visit to India this past Monday, the only exception that Putin had made in the past two years was a widely covered visit to Geneva in the summer to confer with the then recently elected United States (US) President Joe Biden. That both India and Russia assessed relations with the other to be important and highly relevant in a world order that is in a state of flux was evident from before Putin got airborne. Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev opined at a pre-visit briefing that Putin’s visit was of “historic importance” and that it would “testify to the importance of our bilateral relations and its exclusive nature. It is a special strategic relationship between the two countries and it is not wise to discuss very sensitive issues unless in person”.

Putin’s visit came at a time when many skeptics had begun to draft the epitaph of the over 70-year-old close ties between India and Russia. The demise of the bonhomie, they argued, was only a natural and inevitable consequence of the opposing geopolitical corners that India and Russia found themselves in. The very act of Putin opting to go to meet Prime Minister Modi in person, that after shelving several other important bilateral engagements including, notably, with China, was a statement that relations with India were too weighty to be consigned to the virtual space. Modi, equally mindful of the importance of Russia in India’s scheme of things, laid out the red carpet for the visiting President, with whom he has shared a warm personal rapport for years. By the time the visit was over and Putin headed back to participate in a virtual meeting with Biden just a few hours’ later, it was clear even to the epitaph-drafters that Putin’s visit had turned out to be another opportunity for the two leaders to shed misgivings, iron out differences, reinforce relations and enhance the bilateral partnership to a new level.

The tone for the 21st India Russia Annual Summit was set by the opening statements of the leaders of the two countries. Modi asserted that “Our two countries have faced many challenges in the recent past. We have not only cooperated, but also kept each other’s sensitivities in mind. In the last few decades, the world witnessed many fundamental changes and different kinds of geopolitical equations emerged, but the friendship of India and Russia remained constant. The relation between India and Russia is truly a unique and reliable model of interstate friendship”. Referring to Putin as a “friend”, Modi added, “our meeting today will strengthen our Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership. The initiatives that we take today will further increase the scope of our cooperation to new areas”. Putin, on his part, said that “We perceive India as a great power, a friendly nation, and a time-tested friend. The relations between our nations are growing, and I am looking into the future. Currently, mutual investments stand at about 38 billion with a bit more investment coming from the Russian side. We cooperate greatly in military and technical sphere like no other country. We develop high technologies together as well as produce in India”. Putin, pertinently, also pointed out that Russia collaborates with India in the military field “in a way that we do not work with any of our partners”.

The meeting between Modi and Putin was preceded earlier in the day by an interaction in a new formulation in India-Russia relations, a 2+2 format meeting, involving India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar and their Russian counterparts Sergey Shoigu and Sergey Lavrov. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed at this meeting that Moscow and New Delhi hold “identical or near-identical positions on the most important global and security issues”.

Following the Summit meeting and these interactions, as many as 9 inter-governmental agreements and 19 commercial pacts were signed between the two countries. The spheres that these agreements covered were wide – from space exploration, connectivity, science & technology, culture, education and people to people contact to new military and technical partnerships. The agreement to extend military technology cooperation for ten years was described by India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla as being among the biggest takeaways from the Summit.

A 99-point joint statement, which Kudashin described as “formidable” and which encapsulated what had been achieved in bilateral relations thus far and the prospects that were there for the future, was issued after the meeting. Among the important aspects perceptible in the statement was the effort to forge better common understanding on the situation in Afghanistan, as also on the contours of the response to it. According to the document, the discussion on Afghanistan revolved around the “security situation and its implications in the region, the current political situation, issues related to terrorism, radicalisation and drug trafficking etc”. The joint statement also said that both countries had common priorities in Afghanistan, which included “ensuring formation of a truly inclusive and representative government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, providing immediate humanitarian assistance and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities”. The welcome intention of the two countries to prioritize provision of “immediate humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people” was also spelt out. The finalization of a “Roadmap of interaction between India and Russia on Afghanistan, which symbolized convergence of views and interests of the two Sides” was announced.

By most accounts, the Summit was a successful one. Yet, the real achievements of Putin’s visit to India went beyond agreements and joint statements. It was the reassertion of both the trust and the strength of the bond between the two countries that stood out. The main potential test to this trust had emerged from what Dmitry Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, described in a pre-Summit article as a “situation when their best friends are bonding with their worst enemies”. In global geopolitical terms, the main issue is that Moscow and New Delhi, traditional friends and longtime allies, now find themselves ever more closely linked to two rival superpowers, China and the US. Trenin added, “Moreover, India’s relations with China following the 2020 border clashes in the Himalayas, and Russia’s with the United States since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, can be described as confrontation. Thus, in a situation when their best friends are bonding with their worst enemies, the main task for both New Delhi and Moscow is to shield the Indo-Russian strategic partnership from the wider and increasingly adverse global context, and uphold mutual trust”. Pointing out that “Ordinary Russians see India as a reliably friendly country with which their own nation has a virtually problem-free relationship” and that “For their part, most Indians regard Russia as a proven friend that in the course of India’s seventy-five years of independence has never caused their country strategic harm”, Trenin advocated that to deal with the issues piling up on many fronts “both the Indian and Russian leaderships required to rethink, adjust, and upgrade the relationship to make it fit for the twenty-first century environment”.

While persistent conflict with the West, the US in particular, has caused Russia to draw progressively closer to China in past decades, Chinese belligerence characterized by expansionist moves at the border with India has led the latter to reluctantly align itself increasingly closer to the US. India knows there is little it can do to prevent the growing Moscow-Beijing proximity, while it is not lost on Russia that India-US ties are on a firm, forward march. While this complexity has emerged and become more acute with the passage of time, the other side of the coin is the reality is that both India and Russia are becoming increasingly aware that there is nothing major that is wrong in their bilateral relationship, and that unnecessarily squandering away trust built over three quarters of a century of cooperation would be a waste and a pity. Sustaining the traditional partnership is of political and strategic value to both countries.

Russia is also not blind to the fact that it is becoming alarmingly reliant on China, and that the strength of the Chinese economy, which at nearly $15 trillion today is nearly 10 times larger than that of Russia, means that it must settle for a ‘junior partner’ status in that relationship. Further, as Harsh V. Pant of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) put it, “Russia-China engagement is a product of their joint opposition to the West. But Russia’s seven-decade-old robust ties with India cannot be jettisoned that easily. For all the testiness on the Indo-Pacific and the emergence of Quad, Moscow values a partner such as New Delhi that has demonstrated its ability to maintain its strategic space by standing up to China along the border as well as challenge the US on defence ties with Russia. Russia did not cease its defence engagement with India even during the Sino-Indian border crisis last year, though China had reportedly expressed its displeasure”.

Dmitry Trenin believes Russia can do much more for India vis-à-vis China, and this is a factor that would certainly be on the table when Indian policymakers in internal meetings discuss the contours of the future strategy towards Russia. Trenin argued that “Russia needs to proactively facilitate efforts at better understanding between New Delhi and Beijing, and promote positive interaction among the three great powers. Such interaction is also needed for engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a key aspect of the Greater Eurasian Partnership. It is even more necessary for building up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a continent-wide dialogue platform”.

Trenin also advocated that “Russians should acknowledge India’s new status and self-image as a great power, its focus on rapid economic development, and its ambition to become a global economic powerhouse and a leader in modern technologies. They need to understand the fundamental reasons behind India’s growing closeness with the United States, and its increasing hostility with China. Moscow could increase mutual trust with New Delhi by working through and patiently dispelling Indian concerns regarding Russia’s strategic ties with China and its situational cooperation with Pakistan… On a number of regional issues, from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East, India needs to be treated as Russia’s privileged interlocutor and partner. Sidelining New Delhi, as has occasionally happened in discussions on Afghanistan, should never happen again”.

Russia realizes that India’s size, economy, independent-minded foreign policy and democracy are far too important for Russia, or any country for that matter, to ignore. India, on the back of its growing weight in the global order, understands equally that Russia is important both in the regional context and in the global balance of power. India has consistently been sensitive to Russia’s core interests, as exemplified in its United Nations vote last year against a Ukraine-sponsored resolution condemning human rights violations in Crimea. Describing India-Russia relations as being “amongst the steadiest of the major relationships in the world after the Second World War”, India’s EAM S. Jaishankar elaborated that “more than its contemporaries, it has withstood the test of time, finding new convergences with changing circumstances”.

The key take away from the Summit for both Russia and India was the reiteration by each of the importance and value of the other, and the reassertion by both that they were keen, committed and dexterous enough to keep it that way in the years to come.