Vladimir Putin with Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File image)
One of the enigmas in diplomacy is how a host country receives, and subsequently treats a new Ambassador who has just arrived in that country to make its capital their home for the next two or three years. India has, on occasion, made life very difficult for some incoming Ambassadors from day one of their posting in India.
By that gold standard, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India next week promises to go very well, and New Delhi and Moscow will invest heavily in their bilateral relations in 2022.
Pavan Kapoor, India’s 24th envoy to Russia since Vijayalakshmi Pandit first occupied that post in 1947, arrived in Moscow on November 22. Within nine days, Kapoor joined 19 others from counterpart countries, some of whom have been cooling their heels in embassy residences for many months, to present his credentials to Putin.
Kapoor’s was the last name to be added to the list of incoming Ambassadors for the traditional ceremony in the ornate Hall of Saint Alexander Nevsky in the Grand Kremlin Palace, the largest building in the Kremlin. The Russian authorities at the highest levels waited for Kapoor to relocate from Abu Dhabi to schedule the unusually crowded event on December 1 so that he could hit the ground running before Putin packs his bags for New Delhi.
Anti-Russian lobbies in India will be at pains to dismiss this gesture to Kapoor as incidental to Putin’s visit, and a requirement of convenience to have a functioning Ambassador while Putin is in India. But consider this. Russia’s ties with Vietnam have been as close as Moscow’s relations with New Delhi. The Soviet Union’s brotherhood with Hanoi, as the Communists used to say, were cemented in blood. Yet, Vietnam’s new Ambassador in Moscow, Dang Minh Khoi, was not ceremonially accredited even when his President came on a visit to Russia. Technically, he remained Ambassador-designate of Vietnam.
When Putin addressed some words to Dang in the Grand Kremlin Palace, he made it a point to refer to Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s ongoing visit. On his talks with Nguyen the previous day, Putin said: “The talks reaffirmed that the position of Russia and Vietnam on topical issues on the international agenda are quite similar or completely identical.”
The same cannot be said of Russia and India any more. Yet, the incoming Indian Ambassador was given special treatment on his arrival that was not reserved for ally of long standing, Vietnam. This is a good augury for Putin’s imminent arrival in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Putin is someone who calls a spade a spade. His Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, is tough as nails, and has no qualms about mincing his words when it is necessary to preserve Russian interests. It was not surprising, therefore, that Slovakia’s new Ambassador, Lubomir Rehak, got a dressing down from the Russian President when he presented his credentials. Take it or go jump in the Moskva River, he told Rehak in words which amounted to that. “If the Slovak side is ready, we could return to the mutually beneficial and constructive cooperation that our states supported for many years and that benefitted our nations,” Putin said. He recalled the “spiritual and cultural closeness of the two nations and common pages of history in fighting against Nazism.” It is a touchy subject: many Russians believe post-Communist Slovakia — and the Czech Republic — are trying to rewrite history, and diminish the role of the Red Army in liberating Bratislava, the Slovak capital during World War II.
One of the worst examples of India cold-shouldering an incoming envoy to New Delhi happened when R Venkataraman was President. Myanmar’s incoming Ambassador, U Wynn Lwin went to Rashtrapati Bhavan in February 1992 to present his credentials. He not only did not get a warm welcome, the then President did not even express any hope for good bilateral relations with Yangon. Venkataraman scolded the new envoy, and told him to convey the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s anguish to his army bosses for keeping Aung San Suu Kyi in jail.
KR Narayanan, then President of the pro-Suu Kyi India-Myanmar Friendship Society, told this author later that he had advised Venkataraman to pull up the incoming envoy. Narayanan’s wife Usha was ethnic Burmese, and a friend of Suu Kyi’s family. Even when Narayanan became Vice President shortly thereafter, he and Usha did not support the PV Narasimha Rao government’s gradual policy shift of total support to the junta in Myanmar, and ambivalence towards Suu Kyi. The Ambassador never forgot the nastiness which greeted him right at the beginning of his stay in New Delhi.
At the Grand Kremlin Palace, Putin told the new Indian Ambassador of his expectation that during his upcoming visit, “along with Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi, we will outline new large-scale initiatives for the further development of the especially privileged Russian-Indian relationship, the Russian-Indian strategic partnership.” In addition to extensive co-operation in the defence sector, Putin said he wants to focus on energy, innovation, space, and the production of coronavirus vaccines and medicines during his stay in New Delhi.
Perhaps the most significant observation he shared with Kapoor was that “India is one of the authoritative centres of the multipolar world with a foreign policy philosophy and priorities that are closely aligned with our own.” Doomsday predictions of any downturn in India-Russia relations are, therefore, misplaced, at least during and after Putin’s summit with Modi.
KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.