by Kanwal Sibal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's informal summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin on May 21 was well-timed for several reasons. It balanced the earlier informal summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping. If a long-term strategic view of relations with China motivated the Wuhan summit, arresting the perceived drift in India-Russia relations through an in-depth informal exchange necessitated the Sochi summit. The annual India-Russia summits include a one-on-one meeting, but time constraints prevent a wide-ranging exchange of views. In both Wuhan and Sochi, ensuring the success of the forthcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in China would have been on the agenda, especially in view of differences on issues such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan's terrorist affiliations and the security architecture in Asia. In Sochi, deteriorating US-Russia relations and their negative impact on India-Russia ties would have figured prominently, and, unlike at Wuhan, Trump's destabilising policies.

Defence is at the core of India-Russia ties and thus the CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) exposes India to the threat of US sanctions if any new significant defence deals are signed with Russia. This puts India in an untenable situation because of its high dependence on Russian defence supplies and procurement plans for advanced Russian equipment such as the S-400 air defence system. CAATSA provides for a presidential waiver, but it would be invidious for India to seek it. India has in recent years procured $15 billion of US defence equipment, overcoming concerns about future vulnerability to American sanctions. This is proving to be a mistaken assessment, judging by the surprising warning by a senior State Department official that India must look carefully at the US law before making large defence purchases from Russia, adding disingenuously that US intent is not to sanction partners but counter Russia's malign behaviour globally, which the purchase of large-scale Russian systems encourages.

Modi and Putin undoubtedly discussed the CAATSA challenge. They would have also discussed Trump's decision to repudiate the P-5+1 nuclear deal with Iran-the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)-on trumped-up grounds. The scope of the potential rift between the US and Europe over Trump's decision, Iran's likely withdrawal from the deal should Europe fail to salvage it, potential US military action against Iran and its fallout for India's equities in the region, and the strategic challenge to Russia this would represent would have figured in the Sochi discussions.

The threat of radical Islam and terrorism, Afghanistan, policy towards the Taliban, Russia-Pakistan ties, the North Korean issue, China's geopolitical ambitions would all have been on the Sochi agenda, not to mention the responsibility of Russia and India to work together to handle the developing uncertainties and instabilities at the international level.

Surprisingly, the press release India issued on the Sochi summit was unusually bland and less informative than the statement issued after Wuhan. A much more positive message on sensitive issues should have emanated from Sochi to reassure public opinion on the state of India-Russia ties. There is no reference to CAATSA or US sanctions policies other than the two leaders reiterating the significance of long-standing partnership in the military, security and nuclear energy fields and welcoming the expanding cooperation in the energy sector. Iran or JCPOA are not mentioned even indirectly. The wording on terrorism and Afghanistan is thin. The reference to a multi-polar world order is banal. The decision to intensify coordination, including on the Indo-Pacific region, catches attention because Russia avoids the term 'Indo-Pacific' due to its US-led anti-Chinese connotations.

The only rational explanation for this low-key press release is that India is being careful in the public projection of the informal summit with Putin so that its task of engaging the US positively on issues that adversely affect Indian interests is not made more difficult.

The author is a former foreign secretary