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India-Russia ties are ‘back on track’ — that’s the message from Putin visit and 2+2 talks

President Putin’s 6 December visit to India sent a strong signal to China that Russia would manage its ties with the two countries independently.

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New Delhi: With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India for the annual Summit and the inaugural 2+2 ministerial dialogue, New Delhi and Moscow have made it clear that their bilateral relationship is “back on track”, with the potential for enhanced strategic and security ties.

In the summit meeting between President Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 6 December, both were “comfortable in discussing their differences”. They were able to discuss “anything and everything” from Moscow’s growing ties with China and Pakistan to India’s balancing act with the US and its growing tensions with Beijing, sources told ThePrint.

According to sources, India has “made it clear” to Russia how it views the Indo-Pacific strategy and how it aligns with Moscow’s vision of a non-aligned Asia Pacific.

Sources also said that at a time when Russia is facing multiple crises on its home front, Putin’s physical presence in India “gave out a strong signal” to Beijing, which was closely watching the deliberations.

In a 99-point joint statement issued after the summit, India and Russia “agreed to intensify consultations on complementarities between integration and development initiatives in greater Eurasian space and in the regions of Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

Also read: Putin’s 5-hr visit, 2+2 talks strengthen India and Russia’s ‘special, privileged strategic’ ties

Correcting the narrative

The year 2020 witnessed several challenges creeping into this age-old relationship, as Russia became vocal about expressing its displeasure with India’s move to engage in the Indo-Pacific construct and become party to the Quad, a strategic dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia.

Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary and ex-Indian envoy to Russia, said the summit was a “much awaited opportunity”. The two leaders were finally able to have a “confidential and in-person conversation” at a time when public perception saw growing difficulties in India-Russia ties.

These difficulties include Russia’s dealings with the Taliban in Afghanistan and its relationships with China and Pakistan, as well as New Delhi’s tilt towards Washington DC and rapidly deteriorating ties with Beijing.

Sibal added that not signing the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement and the $1-billion Kamov helicopter contract were some of the shortcomings of the summit.

P.S. Raghavan, a former Indian ambassador to Moscow, said, “The summit was very important to correct the narratives of a weakening commitment to the strategic partnership on the part of both Russia and India. The intensity of the engagement – continuous high-level engagement for nearly 12 hours, covering strategic coordination, defence, economy, energy, technology – is not something that has happened recently with any country that I can remember.”

Messaging to China

Just as Russia’s discomfort with the Indo-Pacific was discussed, India also conveyed its “security-related concerns” on the growing bilateral ties between Moscow and Beijing, said sources.

At the inaugural 2+2 talks, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh raised the issue of the ongoing Ladakh standoff.

“Among the important concerns of India is that the Russia-China relationship should not impact on our security interests – this concerns areas like military technologies and intelligence-sharing. This is likely to have been discussed in some way, though of course with utmost confidentiality,” Raghavan, who was also the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, told ThePrint.

Sibal believes that Putin’s in-person visit to India at a time when Indian troops are actively engaged with the Chinese military, which has amassed troops in border areas, has a “certain political meaning and sends a signal to China that these relationships will be managed independently by Russia”.

Earlier this year, Russia had unveiled its National Security Strategy, which explicitly mentioned that expanding strategic cooperation with India and China remained Moscow’s foreign policy priorities.

“I think the messaging was clear,” said Meera Shankar, a former Indian envoy to the US. “This summit and the meeting between the two leaders was crucial,” she said, adding, “there were concerns in India that relations with Russia were becoming less warm, that the Russian position on Afghanistan and Pakistan had shifted, and that their relations with China had become much closer.

She added, “India is navigating between the great powers — and this is an example of multi-alignment. These relationships are not exclusive.”

Also read: India-China hold another round of diplomatic talks, but disengagement still not in sight

US and the threat of CAATSA  

While India and Moscow went ahead with the $5.43 billion S-400 missiles deal, and inked another contract to produce 6 lakh units of AK-203 assault rifles, New Delhi was aware of the potential threat it faces from its closest ally — the US — through sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

“The United States policy establishment, the Congress, and the White House understand that India has a historical defence relationship with Russia dating back to the Soviet era,” said Aparna Pande, director, Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“At the same time, the US is pleased that over the last two decades, Russia is no longer the top defence supplier to India, and instead it competes with Israel, France, and the US,” she added. 

Pande said, “While successive American administrations have hoped that over time, India would lower its purchases from Russia to the bare minimum (e.g. spare parts, etc.), Washington understands that India has specific security concerns relating to its neighbourhood. Hence, Washington is often willing to look the other way when India takes certain actions because at the broader strategic level, India and the US, have similar interests.”

She added, “India is a close American partner and friend but it is not a military ally of the US, unlike many other countries in the Indo-Pacific or the other members of the Quad. So India has a lot more leeway to continue with its policy of strategic autonomy and keep relations with countries like Russia or even Iran, who the US views as threats.”

“While some in the administration and the Congress may not be happy about the India-Russia summit and 2+2, it will be viewed from the lens of India doing what it always does, trying to stay independent,” Pande said.

Raghavan said, “The US is quite well aware of the depth of India’s relations with Russia. Many in the US establishment understand that these relations cannot be easily derailed. Hence, other than the S400 deal, the US has not made any official statements concerning India-Russia relations. Even on S-400, beneath the public rhetoric, many understand India’s desire for strategic autonomy and see the wisdom of not applying sanctions.”

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: India, EU discussed need to engage with Taliban but no recognition yet: EU special envoy


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