In assessing India-Russia ties, there should not be an assumption that the relationship has to be free of any differences, and that any developing gaps in our respective foreign policies are a matter of special concern, given our historic closeness.
The world has changed drastically in the last three decades. The Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Russia geopolitically weakened. China has risen dramatically as the effective number two global power, tilting the balance between Russia and China towards the latter. US power has relatively declined, even if the country still retains its pre-eminence. Asia as a whole has risen, with shifts in global political and economic from the transatlantic area to the Asian region. Russia-US ties have deteriorated very sharply, with US-China ties now headed in that direction. The US sees both these powers as adversaries. Under pressure because of the West, Russia and China have forged an increasingly stronger strategic partnership. At the same time, India-US ties have been transformed, with the US becoming India’s premier partner in many ways, and this includes a remarkable growth in defence ties.
India and Russia have to navigate their historically close ties through these changes and adapt their policies accordingly. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit has allowed us to reiterate the durable positives in our ties and address issues on which our views do not converge. But we should not give too much importance to the latter if we consider that we have major differences on several issues even with the US, despite our transformed ties, be it on Afghanistan, the Taliban, Iran, Russia, even Pakistan etc.
Clarity on both sides
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, in his joint press conference, stated that much of the discussions covered the preparations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit for the annual summit later this year. He noted the longstanding partnership in nuclear, space (Gaganyaan programme) and defence sectors (expeditious addressing of our defence requirements in the context of the Ladakh stand-off), new economic opportunities in Russian Far East, the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor as connectivity projects, the rapidly expanding energy cooperation with long-term commitments, and production of Russian vaccine in India.
On Afghanistan, our perspectives do not match. Russia backs the Taliban, and this Lavrov conveyed forcefully at the joint press conference. It has yielded to Pakistani and Chinese pressure to keep India out of the extended Moscow format involving Russia, China, US, and Pakistan. Jaishankar rightly pointed out that developments in Afghanistan impact India’s security directly. The other area of difference on which Lavrov has been blunt is the Indo-Pacific. On this, Jaishankar was firm in stating that contemporary challenges require countries to work together in new and different ways and that such cooperation also reflects the rebalanced character of global politics.
Lavrov could not call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the latter was busy with electioneering. Some bureaucratic botch-up on our side in not making sure Lavrov visited Delhi when the PM was in town was unfortunate. Lavrov spoke of increasing the share of national currencies in bilateral payments and a free trade agreement (FTA) between India and the Eurasian Economic Union. On defence, noting that Russia was the only partner that is giving India cutting-edge military technology, Lavrov made a pitch for stronger ties, including joint production of the latest weaponry in India. He noted that there was no hesitation on India’s part to expand bilateral defence ties. Interestingly, he also said that Russia respected India’s right to diversify its defence ties. Rocket engine production and satellite navigation were discussed within the ambit of space cooperation. As expected, Lavrov preferred to use the term Asia-Pacific. Lavrov denied a military alliance with China was on the agenda, though his statement that Russia’s bilateral relations with China have reached the best level ever historically would not have pleased the Indian ears, as also his indirect dig at an “Asian NATO”, with the Quad (of India, US, Japan, and Australia) in mind.
That Lavrov visited Pakistan after nine years and that too after visiting India has attracted attention. We should realistically accept the evident Russian desire to expand ties with Pakistan, the potential of which is limited, as Russia would also be competing with China. Russia’s defence ties with Pakistan are for the moment confined to strengthening Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capability for which it is ready to provide “relevant equipment”, besides conducting land and naval exercises. This, again, India should pragmatically accept as part of Russia’s broader effort in the extended West Asia region to project itself as a power that cannot be ignored in searching for solutions. In Pakistan, Lavrov sharpened his criticism of the Quad without naming it, characterising it as a “disruptive US-led geopolitical structure” and strongly objected to creating dividing lines in the Asia-Pacific. The strength of Russia’s repeated opposition is a bit inexplicable.
The author is a former foreign secretary. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)