Harsh V Pant
Starting today Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in New Delhi on a two-day visit for the 19th India-Russia annual bilateral summit. This annual summitry is unique as Russia is one of only two countries, the other one being Japan, with which India holds an annual bilateral.
Though India and Russia have had a longstanding partnership, it has been passing through a turbulent phase even as this bilateral relationship was elevated to Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership in 2010. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sochi for an informal summit with Putin where he tried to reaffirm New Delhi’s commitment to galvanise one of India’s oldest strategic partnerships. Welcoming Modi to Sochi “personally as a big friend” of Russia, Putin said his visit would give a fresh impetus to bilateral ties. United States President Donald Trump’s disruptive attitude to international affairs has made it imperative for countries such as Russia and India to coordinate their responses on global issues.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj also visited Moscow for the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Technical and Economic Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) meeting last month where it was decided to increase the target of two-way investments to $50 billion by 2025, because the earlier target of $30 billion has already been met.
The highlight of Putin’s visit is likely to be the signing of the pact for the purchase of the S-400 Triumf — a mobile, surface-to-air missile system — which has been under discussion since 2015. The Russian-built S-400 Triumf is widely considered as the most effective operationally deployed modern long-range surface-to-air missile (MLR SAM) system in the world and therefore much in demand. China signed a pact for six battalions of the S-400 in 2015 and countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are in line.
The S-400 deal has been one of the major issues challenging India-US ties. According to the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), countries doing business with Russian, Iranian and North Korean defence companies will be placed under sanctions. There is a provision for granting of waivers to select countries and India is hoping to avail of that.
There have been signals from the highest echelons of the Trump Administration that they understand India’s predicament. With more than 60% of India’s military hardware still being outsourced from Russia and a multi-billion dollar deal for five S-400 missile systems in the offing, India cannot really afford to side-line Russia in its defence calculus. Moreover, a militarily potent India is central to the US strategy in the wider Indo-Pacific. So, the Trump Administration’s reaction to the S-400 deal will be closely watched.
Even as India is trying to stabilise its defence ties with Russia, there are growing concerns in New Delhi about Moscow’s increasing tilt towards Pakistan as it seeks to curry favour with China. Moscow had historically supported New Delhi at the United Nations Security Council by repeatedly vetoing resolutions on the Kashmir issue. Today, however, there is a change in how Moscow views its regional priorities in South Asia.
In a significant development, the joint declaration issued at the end of the first-ever six-nation Speaker’s Conference in Islamabad held in December 2017 supported a Pakistani line on Kashmir. Russia was one among the six nations.
During his visit to New Delhi last year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had publicly called on India to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and hoped that New Delhi will find a way out to benefit from the mega connectivity project without sacrificing its position on the issues flagged by it. Referring to India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on the grounds of sovereignty, he underlined that “the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional for resolving political differences.”
Sino-Russian relationship has grown to an extent where the two are now participating in joint military exercises such as the recently concluded Vostok-2018, underscoring the rapidly evolving nature of this relationship and a fluid global strategic environment. Both are now more unified than ever in posing a challenge to the US-led global order. For India, this poses a real challenge.
New Delhi has long maintained that it needs a close relationship with Moscow so that the Beijing-Moscow relationship could be dented. But India’s Russia outreach seems to have had a rather insignificant impact so far on the Russia-China dynamic. Russia is also reaching out to Pakistan despite Indian reservations and is changing its tune on the Afghanistan issue. Given the challenge China poses to India on multiple fronts, this growing Sino-Russian collusion should ideally be at the top of the agenda during this week’s summit.
India-Russia ties are passing through an interesting phase. There are bilateral challenges that need to be overcome but the global environment has provided opportunities to New Delhi and Moscow to re-calibrate their ties, away from the shibboleths of the Cold War to a more pragmatic understanding of our bilateral and global interests. It is up to the political leaderships of the two nations to rise up to the occasion.(Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College London, and distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)