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Disappointed with Trump, India looks to rekindle old friendship with Russia

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Alarmed by Trump’s moves, New Delhi seems to be pivoting back to the centre, away from its pro-US tilt of the last decade.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be received by Russian President Vladimir Putin for a few hours at the Black Sea resort of Sochi Monday, his trip sandwiched between visits by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron thrown in on either side of the week for good measure.

The short visit — Air India One will directly fly from Palam to Sochi, landing around 9:30 am and leaving around 6 pm — is expected to take the conversation on the evolving “regional and international situation” forward from the three telephone calls between the two leaders so far this year.

That phrase is a euphemism for the nervousness in New Delhi over the alacrity with which US President Donald Trump is overturning the established world order, which is impacting India. Delhi’s four primary concerns are as follows:

First, the US has said that its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal will be followed by sanctions against countries who deal with Iran. From 6 August, dollar transactions cannot be made with Iran. Delhi is worried that its intended development of the Chabahar port in Iran, on which it has promised to spend $500 million, will be hit.

Ironically, Chabahar is meant to be an alternative exit to Pakistan’s Karachi port as well as the Chinese-backed port in Gwadar nearby for landlocked Afghanistan to send and receive goods — a move backed by the US when it was launched three years ago.

A related aspect is that sanctions against Iran will drive up the cost of energy. Although Saudi Arabia has overtaken Iran in the energy it exports to India (and the Saudis are Trump’s best friends), Delhi remains concerned.

Second, India is worried that the anti-Moscow mood in Washington will throw any potential arms deals with Russia into a tailspin. This includes the S-400 Triumf air defence systems that Delhi wants to buy from Moscow for approximately $4.5 billion. An agreement was initiated in October 2016, but final price negotiations are pending.

Official sources in Delhi say they are determined not to be cowed down by US pressure. But in the wake of the Wuhan summit, as a “reset” with China is underway, New Delhi seems to be pivoting back to the centre, away from its pro-US tilt of the last decade that was underwritten by the India-US nuclear deal.

Officials say they are keen to maintain close ties with the US, but add that the uncertainty generated by Trump’s daily actions is forcing them to reopen old fronts and rediscover old ties.

Third, Delhi remains worried by the continuing friction on the trade front, with the US pushing India to bring down tariff barriers.

Fourth, continuing restrictions on H-1B visa applications, now extended to spouses, are also a cause of concern.

Modi will be accompanied to Sochi by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale. Doval was in Moscow on 10 May, where he met his counterpart Nikolai Patrushev and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. The phone invitation from Putin to Modi to come to Russia is said to have been taken up during Doval’s visit and an informal summit suggested.

Since Putin moves to his Sochi resort in the summer — called Bocharov Creek-2, the dacha has two pools with fresh and sea water, a gym near the sea, as well as a quay for the presidential boat and a helipad, besides other requisite accommodation — the Russian president meets all his guests here.

Merkel was in Sochi Friday and she and Putin talked about the Iran nuclear deal Trump is threatening to tear up, and Moscow’s rapprochement with Berlin is on the cards.

Bashar al-Assad was there the day before. Putin, who has supported the Syrian leader in the face of US bombardment, told him that foreign forces would soon leave and that he had to move towards a post-conflict region.

Rumen Radev of Bulgaria, who follows Modi, is meeting Putin to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the liberation of Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78.

The Trump administration’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which went into force in January, seeks to punish Russia for its military push in Syria and Ukraine. Third countries which make “significant transactions” with Russia in the military and intelligence arenas will also be sanctioned.

In late April, US defence secretary James Mattis, in remarks to the US Senate armed services committee on the defence budget, sought a “flexible waiver authority” for countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, despite active lobbying by the US state department to the contrary.

Mattis realises that the CAATSA sanctions can further push India into Russia’s arms and weaken Delhi’s arms-buying diversification drive. “There are nations in the world who are trying to turn away from formerly Russian-sourced weapons…we only look at India, Vietnam and some others to recognise that eventually we’re going to…paralyse ourselves.”

Prime Minister Modi, incidentally, is travelling to Indonesia in end-May.

According to a March report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US has emerged as India’s second largest arms supplier, now providing it with 15 per cent of its weapons imports. Russia remains number one, with a 62 per cent share, but this has fallen from 79 per cent in the last five years. Israel is at number three, accounting for 11 per cent of India’s imports.

Modi and Putin, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping, will meet in June at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao, China, followed by the BRICS Summit in South Africa in July, and the G-20 summit in Argentina in November.

Officials insist that no agreements or deals are on the cards on this day-long visit to Sochi, but it is clear that all bilateral matters will be discussed. When the Russian President comes to Delhi in October for his annual summit, some of the deals in question will be finalised.

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  1. So disappointed that he just ordered $2 billion worth of multirole navy US helicopters with more probable.

  2. Oh look, Jyoti is echoing whatever the nationalist establishment tells her to do. Which in this case is to make a fuss to scare the US into granting exceptions to India from Iran sanctions – specifically in regards to Chabahar.

  3. India must play it very carefully here. The US is indispensable to India, while Russia no longer is.

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