Russian President Vladimir Putin was in New Delhi for quarter of a day to attend the India- Russia Annual summit. It was a short visit of 6-odd hours, nonetheless, he flew in all the way. So, his visit was important, from his or his country’s point of view as Moscow and New Delhi signed as many as 28 various agreements. But how fruitful it was for India is a matter of interpretation and inference as the experts would do.
The then USSR was a friend from 1971, when both countries had singed a Peace and Friendship Treaty. They remained so for a long time until Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 and declined subsequently as a super power. However, Moscow inched towards Beijing, which emerged, thanks to western countries, which were in search of ‘cheap and controlled labour force’ as the second biggest financial capital of the world. Russia has been compelled to forge closer ties with China to secure its economic and geopolitical interests in Asia as the US-led West also seeks to dominate the region. Perhaps, at the behest of China, Russia leaned towards Pakistan too in terms military interactions.
New Delhi continues to play the balancing act between Russia and its traditional rival USA and its allies. The premise of New Delhi’s continued warmth for Moscow is the long-tested friendship and its military purchases. However, in the event of the S-400 defence missile deal, it may be a tough call for India to continue to do the balancing role as the US has sanctioned arms purchases from Russia. Indian foreign policy establishment feels that the decision to buy S-400 is in keeping with India’s practice of “strategic autonomy” and it hopes that the US would respect that. Against this backdrop, one should assess each big event involving India and Russia.
The tradition of annual India-Russia summit began in 2000 during the Premiership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This was the 21st India-Russia summit. The Summits cover a range of areas with a view to enhancing the ‘special strategic partnership’ between the two countries. The annual summit is held alternately in India and Russia. This time Putin was accompanied by his Foreign and Defence Ministers. As Prime Minister Modi received and met the Russian President, the two ministers had 2+2 meeting with their counter parts.
In all, India and Russia signed 28 agreements, including nine government-to-government agreements and others relating to defence, space, finance, power, culture, scientific research, education and health among others. They signed a contract for the manufacture of nearly 600,000 AK-203 rifles, under a joint venture in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, which was cleared by the government only recently. The deal is worth over Rs 5,000 crore.
The deal that will draw international attention is the S-400 deal, because of US threat of sanctions. Supplies have begun already. Indian Air Force officials have been trained to handle this aircraft. The Russian foreign minister Lavrov said “the deal does not only have symbolic meaning, but is a very important practical, meaningful addition to Indian defence capability. With the $5.43 bn S-400 as well other big-ticket deals, the defence trade between India and Russia crossed $15 bn since 2018. In addition to the rifles and aircraft, the two countries also signed an agreement for military technology cooperation for the next decade from 2021 to 2031. This was aimed at boosting annual trade to $30 billion by 2025.
Importantly, as per the bilateral trading format followed by New Delhi, both sides agreed to encourage “joint manufacturing in India of spare parts, components, aggregates and other products for maintenance of Russian-origin arms and defence equipment under ‘Make in India’ programme through transfer of technology”. They also agreed to set up joint ventures in order to export to third countries.
On security, there was a discussion on the eastern Ladakh border situation at the 2+2 meeting. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said, “the pandemic, the extraordinary militarisation and expansion of armament in our neighbourhood and the completely unprovoked aggression on our northern border since early summer of 2020 have thrown in several challenges” and that India is “confident of overcoming these challenges with its strong political will and inherent capability of its people”. The Russian minister briefed the Indian side on developments pertaining to the Ukrainian situation where the western world is fearing an attack by Russia.
The Russian Foreign Minister pointed out their concerns on the developments in the Indo-Pacific region. Lavrov said the West was “trying to engage India in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies”. He has openly criticised Quad since India joined it — an alliance consisting of US, Japan and Australia. India has been maintaining that Quad was a non-military alliance and wasn’t aimed at a specific country. The Quad is a red line for Russia and this most likely becomes the part of the discussions between the two in most meetings.
On Afghanistan, as per the joint statement issued at the end of the meeting said, they discussed the “evolving situation in Afghanistan, especially the security situation and its implications in the region, the current political situation, issues related to terrorism, radicalisation and drug trafficking etc.” They talked of possible formation of an inclusive and representative government in Afghanistan. They also talked about combating terrorism and drug trafficking, providing immediate humanitarian assistance and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities. They emphasised, “Afghanistan’s territory should not be used for sheltering, training, planning or financing any terrorist groups including ISIS, Al Qaeda, LeT etc”. Putin said, “fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime” are key challenges for which Russia and India will have to cooperate.
But apart from the big-ticket deals, trade agreements, and Modi’s charm offensives, both New Delhi and Moscow have to grapple with many international issues. In recent years, they have drifted apart by their respective geo-political compulsions. Relations with China and USA are two such major points of departure for both the countries. Growing India-US relations is an irritant that has weighed over Delhi-Moscow ties, more so in the past decade. Moscow largely overlooked such irritants even though its own relations with Washington progressively deteriorated in recent years.
The other is China. India-China relations have been recently tense. Troops from the two countries fought a deadly clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley with clubs and stones which left 20 Indian soldiers dead. Thus, the new geopolitical realities as cited here pose a “potential threat to the India-Russia relationship”. Yet, they seem to need each other. Russia needs India as a counterweight to China. India and Russia are already partners in several multinational forums along with China like BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the RIC (Russia, India and China). India also is the second biggest importer of arms.
Reciprocally, Moscow may help New Delhi recover the lost ground in Afghanistan as the two have shared concerns about the future of the country. “Both Russia and India are wary of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, and the potential for terrorism coming out of Afghanistan and impacting their countries”.
To conclude, Moscow will continue to lean on India for arms exports. But can India leverage those transactions for political and security gains vis-à-vis China and Pakistan? Should it do so?