The Putin-Modi informal meeting in Sochi recently could help arrest a drift in India-Russia ties. writes India Inc. Founder & CEO Manoj Ladwa.
The Indian Prime Minister's recent informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping had analysts gushing about a so-called “reset” in ties. By contrast, his meeting this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea port of Sochi generated much less hype. But if any of India's major international bilateral relationships is, indeed, in need of a reset it is the one with Russia.
The warmth of the Cold War years is slowly dissipating, being replaced on both sides with cold calculations based on a cost-benefit analysis of the relationship. India has nudged ever closer to the US and the West since the fall of the Soviet Union while Russia is lined up firmly behind China. And even as India has begun diversifying its list of weapons suppliers and turning increasingly away from Russian to the US, Israeli and French armament platforms, Moscow, too, is cosying up to India's arch enemy Pakistan in the complex geo-strategic game that is currently being played out in the Indo-Pacific (incidentally, Russia still refers to it by its old name - Asia-Pacific).
Prime Minister Modi, who has followed a very pragmatic foreign policy based on India's core interests, realises the imperative of arresting this drift in ties with Moscow.
Apart from the fact that the Indian military still depends on Russia for more than 65 per cent of its weapons, there are other reasons why India should be wary of letting go of its age-old friendship with Russia. “Friendship between India and Russia has stood the test of time. Our ties will continue to scale newer heights in the coming years... and Mr President is my personal friend and a friend of India...,” Modi said in Sochi.
This “friendship” masks several areas of stress. For one, the economic dimension of this relationship is relatively weak, the Moscow-Islamabad relationship is causing concern in New Delhi and the Russian position on Afghanistan, especially its stand that the Taliban is a legitimate stakeholder that should be accommodated, is diametrically at odds with India's world view. The statements issued by either side did not say much about whether the relationship has, indeed, been “reset” but reading between the lines clearly shows a variance in the two world views. The Russian statement, for example, focused on “non-bloc” (Russian and Chinese diplomatese for any arrangement that excludes them) security arrangement in the Asia-Pacific.
This is not to say that the two countries don't need each other anymore. Despite its palpable tilt to the US, the presence of a maverick President in the White House and his unpredictable policy flip flops is making New Delhi wary. And Modi, being a pragmatist, obviously does not want to put all, or even most, of his eggs in one basket.
Putin and he are believed to have discussed the military relationship, arguably the most important pillar of the Indo-Russian edifice, and the possible fallout of US sanctions (under a new law) on the sale of the Russian S-400 anti-missile systems that India desperately needs to shore up its air defences.
The precise details of their discussions, however, have not been released. “There was a discussion of various areas of our specific cooperation at the regional and global level,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said.
“We discussed the whole spectrum of our particularly privileged strategic partnership, paid special attention to the economy, noted the steady growth of trade turnover,” he added.
Modi, on his part, thanked Russia for facilitating India's permanent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) last year and added: “We are working together on International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and BRICS.”
The right topics were discussed, the body language of Putin and Modi was friendly throughout the day-long informal summit, the rhetoric was warm as always and in an unprecedented break with protocol, Putin saw off Modi at the airport on his return journey, a first for a Russian President. But do these actions amount to a “reset”