Sunday, March 26, 2023
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Russia makes a comeback into India’s plans. All thanks to China and Covid

Vladimir Putin is perhaps the only world leader today who can pick up the phone and talk to Xi Jinping. Delhi couldn't have chosen a better time to reach out to Moscow.

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External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is reaching Moscow Tuesday evening, his first trip abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic began. He will participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting of foreign ministers, where he will come face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Jaishankar is believed to be accompanied by officials from the China desk of the ministry of external affairs, whose expertise is deemed necessary to break the Ladakh deadlock that has been escalating since the Chinese intruded into Indian territory in May.

Hope reigns supreme that these talks will hammer out some sort of a formula that will allow both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping to declare victory and pull back from their positions and return the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to status quo ante.

Only last week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh returned from Moscow, where he had gone to participate in the SCO defence ministers meeting – and came face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe. But there was no movement forward in the talks on Ladakh.

This weekend, India and Russia concluded their 11th bilateral naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, called Indra Navy, performing anti-aircraft drills, firing exercises, helicopter operations and replenishment at sea.

Also read: China has a ‘win-win’ game plan. India’s app ban and new weapons won’t change that

India’s hesitation in Malabar

However, India is yet to formally invite Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercises, along with the US and Japan, even though the so-called “Quad” foreign ministers are meeting next month on Delhi’s invite.

India’s hesitation, it seems, stems from the fact that it doesn’t want to unnecessarily aggravate China, which is already in aggressive mode in Ladakh. Inviting the Australians will presumably send the message that four democracies and their inter-operable navies in the Indo-Pacific, led by the US, are ganging up against Beijing.

There’s another unspoken message here : Delhi is holding back on Malabar because it doesn’t want to antagonise the Russians, whose help it is seeking to speak to the Chinese to find a mutually acceptable “solution” to the Ladakh crisis.

So, for the time being, as the Indian and Russian navies blaze full steam ahead, Delhi’s silence on the US-led Quad speaks louder than words.

Also read: Russia in talks with India for ‘Sputnik V tech transfer’ to boost production, exports

Covid opened the doors

But if clinching evidence were needed that Russia is, indeed, back on Delhi’s radar, it came about a week or so ago, when India’s ambassador to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Verma got a call from Moscow’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, asking if India was interested in the joint development of the ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine against the coronavirus.

With India’s Covid case numbers overtaking Brazil on the weekend, Verma put the Russians in touch with the Department of Biotechnology’s secretary Renu Swarup. “We are now deeply engaged with Russia on the vaccine front,” The Indian Express quoted a source as saying.

It’s not clear yet what kind of engagement is on the anvil, and whether the Russians are looking at India – along with other countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the Philippines – for Phase 3 clinical trials and/or joint development.

Remember that Oxford University and British pharma firm AstraZeneca are already in league with India’s Serum Institute for clinical trials, for which 5,000 Indians are believed to have volunteered.

Certainly, India’s large population is capable of absorbing a variety of vaccine candidates. But with Sputnik V having received the thumbs-up by none other than the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet — which corroborated the fact that it had produced no serious side-effects in the 76 people who participated in the trial, including President Vladimir Putin’s daughter — it seems to have become a serious contender overnight for India’s affections.

Also read: Why people from Russia, Poland and Hungary don’t want a Covid-19 vaccine

And friend Russia is back

The short point of this piece is that for the first time in several years, Delhi seems to be warming up to the Russians – again. Delhi needs Russia, not just because it has a credible epidemiological history and can offer a vaccine which may help India turn the corner, but because the Russians are the only big power today with cachet in Beijing, and can urge them to talk to Delhi on the Ladakh crisis.

Remember that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has strong ties with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev; Doval travelled to Moscow after Article 370 was abrogated last year and Patrushev offered support on the integration of Jammu and Kashmir into India — the first Permanent Five member of the UN Security Council to do so.

But what is fascinating in this brave new Covid world is that new foreign policy equations are being created and abandoned with gay felicity. The smell of Cold War ideology doesn’t seem to reach very far these days. Pragmatism rules.

Also read: India’s use of secret guerrilla force SFF in Ladakh signals a larger design to contain China

For now, Putin over Trump

There’s no denying the Modi-Trump bromance, though, and the made-for-TV ‘Howdy, Modi!’ and ‘Namaste Trump’ carnivals, when Modi walked around the stadium and held the arm of the most powerful man in the world aloft. There’s something electric in the air when you woo back someone’s who has been disdainful of you.

The PM’s boat ride with Putin in Sochi two years ago just doesn’t compare – as for the ride from the dacha to the airport in Putin’s limousine, there was no camera to record the event, so we don’t really know what happened.

What is certain is that it has taken the Russian president 21 long years to expand Russian influence across the world – from Syria and Libya to the US, where the government has accused Moscow of trying to influence the 2016 presidential election, an admission of Russian power, even if it’s negative. Putin is probably the only world leader today who can pick up the phone and talk to Xi Jinping; as a former Communist, he likely understands Xi better than most.

And now, Delhi seems to be once again walking down the road to Moscow. Much has changed, including the road itself, and there are many lessons to be relearnt – beginning from the fact that a foreign power’s respect for you is directly proportional to your own strength.

So, when Jaishankar walks into the room with Wang Yi in Moscow, many uncomfortable questions will rear their head, leading with this one: Is this 1965 Tashkent all over again? And if Moscow is able to help create the conditions for a sustained India-China conversation, what happens to the burgeoning India-US relationship?

Views are personal.

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  1. Its the left leaning lobby in Indian establishment including Jaishankar that will never allow India to go westwards!! This lobby is committed to torpedoing any efforts of Modi to break from the clutches of a second rung power like Russia. Its disappointing and disgusting to see India toeing Russia and China. Russians have no balls to stand up to China. Should a war breakout between India and china, Russia will be the last country to be of any help to India? As it neither has the economic heft nor diplomatic heft. India’s choices of friends leave us bewildered and wondering if there are any India centered thinkers, bureaucrats and politicians left in the establishment. Mark my words India will scamper for cover behind USA should a war breakout trw between the two like in 1962. India should be allied with USA not with Russia. Russia has for long sustained her defense industry with India’s help its time to break this burdensome alliance.

    • Ms Jyoti Malhotra your article fails to present the larger historical perspective before the readers. But then its only natural as you are no expert on India-China-Russia matters!

  2. In terms of the global balance of power, reaching out and consolidating support with Russia (who also have hypersonic nuclear capacity with China and US) is a master stroke. Putin is the only world leader China will listen to and hopefully be moved to compromise. Both sides MUST compromise and accept compromise. The disputed areas aren’t needed for either sides economic growth and should be designated as nature reserve void of any road building or construction

  3. Jyoti, you sounded so despondent that India is back on somewhat friendly terms with Russia and your anxiety about ruining India’s new-found infatuation with US is written all over your face! I counsel relaxation via medication or a valium. And believe me, Xi would have gladly taken Modi’s call if Modi were to pick up the phone, but alas Modi is psychologically emasculated by his imaginary bromance with Trump.

  4. The honest and sincere India -Russia bond is there for everyone to see globally. The China is essential to Russia for economic reasons, but relation between the two is full of suspicion and mistrust. India’s relation with the USA is getting warmer, and India needs the US technologies and market, but India-Russia relation is a special one, and they have time-tested relation. China is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and you never know when they will stab you in the back.

  5. So, like a bullied kid, the 56 inch liar who denied about Chinese intrusions will now go pleading to Russia for help. What happened to the superpower in making which the Bharatiya Jhooti Party has been bragging about for the last 5 years. These compulsive liars must be held accountable for lying to the nation about issues of such importance.

  6. Modi foreign policy has no head or tail ……….for last 6 years it was all Trump………………now when chips are down Modi is pleading to Putin…….rather than fighting all neighbor perhaps Change of leadership at the very top in India can perhaps make the foreign relations more beneficial !!1

  7. India, the forever trapeze artist, dilly dallying around the world with no permanent friends or enemies around the world. Except in its neighbourhood where it has antagonised every one.

  8. Any negotiation and withdrawal will work to India’s disadvantage. When you have two untrustworthy neighbors you cannot afford to withdraw from positions of advantage. China will just take those position once we have withdrawn. The best strategy for now is to just not engage with the other side and wear them down. India can do it. China will play us along and string us along. The same Jyothi Malhotra will be the first to criticize when China reoccupies the positions where we have the advantage. These opinion writers do not seem to know much about strategy and game theory.

  9. Americans don’t like Russia because they don’t like communists in general. They may not like Putin in particular because he interfered with the American election in 2016, is reported interfering with the 2020 election, AND BECAUSE OF RECENT REPORT THAT HE TRIED TO POISON THE RUSSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER NAVALNY. H had also tried to poison some renegade Russian spy in Britain a few years ago. He is also accused of supressing dissent in general, and having journalists murdered in the streets.

    So the Americans, including the incoming new administration of Joe Biden, are not going to like if Modi is going to once again give a bear hug to the killer and murderer Putin. Now you have an answer to your question, ” …… what happens to the burgeoning India-US relationship?”

  10. Three visits to Moscow since June by members of the CCS for events / issues of largely symbolic value. When most meetings are virtual. At a time of pandemic at home and a warlike situation at the borders. Clearly, we are seeking the Bear’s help to deal with the dragon. President Xi does not need a face saver. FS Shyam Saran has posited that the main object of the Ladakh intrusions was to demonstrate to the world, starting with the neighbourhood, the power differential between the two Asian giants. 2. The volte face the column describes is unusual in the foreign policy of a country that has a world class diplomatic corps. One that involves three permanent members of the UNSC. It appears that, as is happening in all other domains, the people with expertise and institutional memory are being given instructions and orders.


  12. It should never have been pushed out in the first place. A few years ago, there was an aero exhibition. The Russian delegation was treated with utter disdain by the former Raksha Mantri, who had also kept Indira Nooyi waiting outside her office. Galtiyan toh foreign policy mein bahut hui hain. Very amateurish. The bills are coming due, all together.

  13. Amid the doom and gloom of Covid, Ladakh Crisis, Economic Downturn and what not, this article itself has brought a bit of solace in the difficult times.

    It’s like an old friend, whom you lost track of for some time now but know that he/she is trustworthy, signalling that he’s got your back in the time if a crisis.

    If things go right, Russia will be involved in solving two of India’s deadly and present dangerous issues.

  14. Well with the kind of jocker trump is india has extracted maximum benefits from him with abrogating article 370 cutting Pakistan’s financial aid who is know solely dependent on only china who offers aid with high interst rates slowly PAKISTAN’S will realize their foolishness and will eventually turn to india to get support for their economy and with uncertainty over trump winning again india have cleverly crafted his diplomacy

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