Modi and Putin meet in 2016

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent informal Wuhan visit in China yielded nothing tangible besides pretty photo ops – nor was it expected to

by Khemta H Jose

We can expect similar optics from PM Modi’s 21 May ‘informal visit’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the picturesque city of Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympics were held.

But after the 72-day standoff at Doklam between the India Army and China’s PLA in June-August 2017, an attempt to mend fences makes sense. Add to that the recurring ‘irritants’ in India-China relationship like China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, India’s NSG membership, the designation of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, and China making inroads into India’s backyard (Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Mauritius), and the strategic impetus of the Wuhan ‘reset’ was clear.

It is less immediately clear why the India and Russia relationship might need a similar kind of ‘reset.’

India and Russia Go Way Back

Since the Cold War, India had been close with the Soviet Union. When the Berlin wall came down and Russia stood in its place, the relationship remained strong. Russia came to India’s aid by using its UN Security Council veto to stymie resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir, and India didn’t publicly condemn Russia's “intervention” in Afghanistan that brought the Cold War to India’s neighbourhood. Till today, Russia and India have strong defence and energy ties, including nuclear.

But with a rising China challenging the US and India in the region on several fronts, these two largest democracies have stepped up their bilateral and multilateral ties.

So, as India has moved towards the US and other regional democracies like Japan and Australia, Russia has moved much closer to its fellow Communist great power, China.

Two Roads Diverged...

In Afghanistan, where India and Russia had long seen eye-to-eye, interests have begun to diverge. Russia, since its proxy war in Syria, now senses a greater and growing threat from ISIS’ presence in Afghanistan than from the Afghan Taliban. It favours a strategy focused on countering ISIS rather than the Afghan Taliban.

On the other hand, India is at greater threat from Afghan Taliban, which it perceives as Pakistan’s proxies, than from ISIS, and wants the focus to remain on defeating the Afghan Taliban in any Afghan-led peace process. But the Afghanistan government itself has accused Russia (and Iran) of covertly supporting the Afghan Taliban in order to counterbalance the perceived threat from ISIS, putting Russia and India at odds with each other.

Given Russia’s long-standing enmity with the US, it stands to reason that it has moved to cooperate with China on the world stage, supporting OBOR and conducting joint naval drills with China in the disputed South China Sea – both sore points for India.

In addition to being “almost allies” with China (in Putin foreign policy adviser Sergei Karaganov’s words), Russia has also begun to step up its relationship with Pakistan.

In the past few years, it has begun to hold bilateral military exercises with Pakistan, and has also begun to sell Pakistan arms – a departure from previous practice.