Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi today is a defining moment in the India-Russia relationship. Much is being made of the symbolism of the visit – this is only the second time that Putin has stepped out of his country since Covid-19 swept the world in March 2020, and the other time was to meet United States President Joe Biden in Geneva in summer this year.
Make no mistake, this encounter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi will set the direction of the bilateral relationship in the years to come.
There are three reasons why this visit is so important. The first is that Putin seems to be persuaded that his own foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, have not been able to establish certain chemistry and that they have let recent differences cloud the strengths of the more than 50-year-old relationship.
A case in point is the difference between the two countries in the description of the Indian Ocean. Is it the “Indo-Pacific,” as India and the US describe it, or is it the “Asia-Pacific,” as Russia and China call it? At last week’s Russia-India-China trilateral meeting, Jaishankar and Lavrov, naturally, differed on this description again.
At the highest levels of the Indian and Russian establishments, however, the thinking is that it doesn’t really matter what this body of water is called. What is more important is what you do with it. And that’s the second reason for the Russian president’s trip to Delhi. Conversations with several Russian analysts reveal that Putin believes that India is too important to let slip away into the extended US embrace that is manifested in the Quad — the informal coalition between Australia, Japan, the US and India.
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The Quad effect
Now, remember that both Australia and Japan have independent security alliances with the US. India has always hesitated to be part of any military grouping. On the Quad, too, India has made clear, time and again, that in its view the Quad is not a military alliance, that it will only pursue “non-military determinants” such as fighting the Covid pandemic by helping deliver vaccines, etc.
There is no shying away from the fact that the Quad’s real purpose is to shadow China. Four of the world’s largest democracies are coming together, however loosely, to send the message to the rest of the world that they will stand up for their democratic rights, freedom of speech and expression, the rule of law and a market economy.
Fact is, Putin’s visit to India is, really, to meet PM Modi. Indian diplomats, who have served in Russia, point to the extraordinary personal warmth that Putin and Modi shared during the PM’s trip to Sochi in 2018 when Putin ferried him around in a private boat and when they came aboard, little Russian children were waiting to applaud an Indian prime minister.
The aforementioned Russian analysts, who spoke off the record, pointed out that Putin would like to assess for himself the direction in which India’s foreign policy is moving. What, indeed, is the value of the Quad for India? Should Russia continue to sell the highly sophisticated S-400 missile systems — that India has ordered and at least partially paid for, expecting the first deliveries by the end of the year — if New Delhi is seeking to become part of a charmed US circle?
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Rajnath Singh’s visit to Russia
There is no such implied Russian threat for sure. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Remember the time when defence minister Rajnath Singh visited Moscow in May 2020, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, to participate in the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War — which the Russians believe they helped end because it was the Red Army that finally liberated Berlin. Singh gave the Russians a list of 10 pieces of military equipment that India needed to fight off Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops facing off against Indian soldiers on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
The Russians delivered. That in itself was a signal to India that despite Moscow’s own proximity and warmth with Beijing, its relationship with India was far too important to be left alone.
According to several Indian observers, who also spoke off the record, the Prime Minister understands the state of play between Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, Modi isn’t about to abandon his Russian trump card just because India and the US are getting along like a house on fire these days.
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Modi’s flexible foreign policy
The fact that India’s foreign policy has become truly flexible is quite fascinating to watch. First, Modi and Putin are likely to embrace and talk, and generally reassure each other that they still mean many things to the other country. Second, within days of Putin returning home, Modi is participating in a virtual Democracy Summit called by Joe Biden, to which neither Putin nor China’s president Xi Jinping were invited, but Pakistan’s Imran Khan was.
Modi understands that to be “non-aligned” is not such a bad thing after all. The end of the Cold War actually gives him the space to forge partnerships with several antagonistic players at the same time.
The third important reason for Putin’s visit, is that it is a signal to none other than Xi Jinping. As a former Communist who cut his teeth in the Soviet intelligence agency — the KGB — Putin understands well the manner in which his current Communist comrade thinks about the world. Putin will never forget that the Chinese learnt from the disintegration of the Soviet Union — that however strong you are military power, a weak economy will let you down — and that the great leap forward in China’s power since has been because it became the world’s shop-keeper, even as it consolidated the power of the Communist Party within.
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Putin’s telling message
For Putin, to visit India at a time when Indian and Chinese troops are facing off on the LAC is certainly a telling message to Xi Jinping.
Putin knows the Chinese fancy themselves as a power that will soon overtake the US, that Beijing only respects power and that it assigns to Russia a position far below the scale on which the US lies – that of a “junior partner”. And so the underlying message of the Russian leader’s visit to Beijing is: “Not so fast, comrade.”
Don’t forget that Putin has only chosen to meet Joe Biden so far, a Cold War antagonist, over Xi Jinping and other European leaders, despite the fact that Russia is such a Euro-centric nation. Putin understands that Russia’s survival is linked to a diversity of powers, with whom he can ally for a variety of reasons.
This is exactly Modi’s view too. The PM has ordered the red carpet to be pulled out for Putin today, while he virtually schmoozes with Biden later this week. The cold treatment continues to be reserved for the Chinese until tensions are resolved on the LAC.
There are other irritants, of course, like Sergey Lavrov’s flight to Pakistan from New Delhi earlier this year to appease the former because of Rawalpindi’s influence with the Taliban. Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, is, more often than not, dismissive of New Delhi on the Afghan question.
Putin, however, realises that India’s size, economy, independent-minded foreign policy and democracy are far too important for Russia or any country to ignore. Moreover, Modi is a powerful prime minister and Putin recognises power.
That is why the Russian president’s visit this week is such an interesting moment. It comes at a time when geopolitical friendships are in a state of flux. As middling powers, both India and Russia recognise that. They also recognise their values for each other. Despite all the surrounding noise, Putin and Modi are not about to loosen their very special embrace.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)