Reportage from Sochi, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday has been sparse. This is, of course, by design. Modi has been innovative if not anything else in his foreign forays. He has patented the use of official visits abroad to drum up support for his agenda at home.
Now Modi has come up with a new feature: informal summits to reach out to key foreign leaders. Like his meeting in Wuhan with China’s President Xi Jinping in April, his meeting with Putin was “agenda-less”. Unlike Wuhan, which was spread over two days and featured delegation-level talks, the Sochi meeting was held over nine hours, and remained an interpersonal interaction between the two leaders.
The Indian statement on Sochi spoke of the special and privileged strategic partnership between the two countries, the words “special and privileged” signifying its uniqueness as a category among scores of strategic partnerships. A suggestive point was made about the importance of “building a multi-polar order” and the significance of the long-term partnership between the two countries “in the military, security and nuclear energy fields”.
Some nuances can also be captured from the opening remarks made in Sochi, according to news reports. Modi thanked Putin for helping India get a permanent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In turn, Putin noted that “our defence ministries maintain very close contacts and cooperation. It speaks about a very high strategic level of our partnership”.
Modi made sure to make the point that India is in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an outfit championed by China, courtesy the Russians. For his part, Putin seemed to remind Modi of the important business they had on the defence front, at a time Russia’s share of the Indian arms market was declining.
The Russian view, revealed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the meeting, said that the two sides focused on economic cooperation. This is a major area of weakness between the two countries whose relationship is dangerously dependent on the arms and energy trade. The decision to institute a Strategic Economic Dialogue between India’s NITI Ayog and the Russian Ministry of Economic Development is a welcome step in this direction.
Lavrov claimed that the two sides were against a bloc architecture for security in the Asia-Pacific. Bloc here means a grouping like the Quadrilateral – consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the US – which China and Russia are not part of.
It is unlikely that India would have criticised a group of which it is a member. Though, New Delh, a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, would hardly support any group that excludes its partners in that grouping either.
Action on substantive issues, both economic and military, could come up in the formal annual bilateral summit between India and Russia in October. This could include discussions on a free trade zone between the Eurasian Economic Union and India, further movement in the International North South Transportation Corridor (to move freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia), and further cooperation in the energy sector. This area has been boosted by the reworking of the Liquefied Natural Gas supply agreement with Gazprom and the purchase of Essar oil by the Russian giant Rosneft. As for the military side, the major issues relate to the purchase of the S-400 air defence system and the Russian proposal for the manufacture of Ka-226T utility helicopters for the military. There are a number of other offers, such as that for the Project 75I submarines, and the more sensitive Indian quest for nuclear-powered attack submarines.
Modi referred to the India-Russia cooperation on BRICS – the association of major emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and the International North–South Transport Corridor. First concieved of nearly 18 years ago, the transport corridor, involving ship, rail and road routes, is an ambitious venture whose time has come. But it is not clear whether the three partners behind it – India, Iran and Russia – are ready to create a multi-modal system that will link Indian ports like Kandla and Mumbai with Russia and Europe through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. While test cargoes have been run, much more needs to be done to operationalise what could be a means of enhancing the weak non-military bilateral trade between India and Russia. But even as the three countries procrastinate, the Iran nuclear issue is casting its shadow on the region.
The shadow of CAATSA
India’s ties with Russia have been under strain for a while. The Ukraine issue and the resulting western sanctions have been steadily pushing Russia into the arms of China. On the other hand, New Delhi had made clear its interest in developing stronger ties with the US. This was manifested by the Joint Strategic Vision on Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean that it worked out with the US in 2015. This has been accompanied by greater acquisitions of military equipment from the US and the cancellation of important deals such as that relating to the India-Russia Fifth Generation Fighter.
The Russians are not too concerned about the Indo-Pacific, where in a way, their position as supporters of Vietnam is not very different from India. But as Lavrov noted, Russia is concerned about blocs that exclude them.
But now there is a bigger shadow looming – the US law called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. This law imposes sanctions on three countries, including Russia, Iran and North Korea and includes a section under which any country trading with Russia’s defence sector can face sanctions. More than 60% of India’s defence inventory comprises of Russian-origin equipment, many like submarines and missiles that the US itself is reluctant to provide. Under this Act, all this could be imperilled. There is talk of a waiver, but India needs to consider defence ties with a country that is wont to issue sanctions at the drop of a hat.
From the 1960s to 1980s, an antagonistic posture towards China cemented India and Russia’s ties with each other. But things have changed in recent years. India has become a significant customer of American weapons systems, while Russia has begun supplying its cutting edge fighters like the Su-35 to the Chinese. Beijing has also become the lead customer for Russia’s S-400 air defence systems.
In the past five years, the Sino-Russian embrace has tightened. The two countries have signed deals worth half a trillion dollars for the supply of oil and gas from Russia to China over the next quarter century. China has become an important source of Foreign Direct Investment to Russia and it is not surprising that Moscow has lined up with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and even agreed to coordinate its Eurasian Economic Union activities with the Chinese. Last December, in a visit to New Delhi, Lavrov publicly called on India to join the Belt and Road Initiative.
Russia and Pakistan
Another visible shift has been in Russia’s approach to Pakistan. Last month, Russia began supplying Mi-35M assault helicopters to Pakistan, fulfilling a deal that was originally reached in 2015. Russian goals in Pakistan relate to its Central Asian commitments. Though it is under Chinese pressure in the region, it remains the region’s principal security provider and would like to retain its status there as its principal economic partner. In this, Russia views access to the Middle East through Pakistan as a major step. There has been a flurry of Russian investments in Pakistan, and the more Moscow is isolated in Europe, the more it turns East.
India and Russia have a relationship that has been tested by time and has served both countries well. But global relations are going through a period of unusual disruption. It was therefore useful for the leaders of India and Russia to put aside their other cares and focus for a brief while on the need to shore up their relationship.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.