Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi Modi and Putin are slated to meet at least four more times this year. Hopefully Indo-Russian relations are back to the energetic mode they have always been in

by Syed Ata Hasnain

If anything, the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Russia on May 20-21 2018, which by no means was an unscheduled visit, did help in conveying the thought that India values Russia as a friend and partner. The Prime Minister’s easy and effusive way of meeting his international counterparts does help in breaking the ice and strengthening bonds. Concerning Russia, no one in India can forget that it was the strength of the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971 which greatly helped India plan its response to the then insecure situation on its borders; the rest of course was history.

Following high-profile visits to the US, UK, Middle East and China, Modi’s second official visit to Russia was overdue and will be seen in the light of the emerging ‘reset’ in India’s foreign policy which anyway is a dynamic process. It also comes in the middle of some path breaking times in international affairs; with the Iran nuclear deal almost on the rocks and the scheduled Trump-Kim summit in Singapore next month which has been called off recently by President Trump. 

The manner in which the Prime Minister’s visit was conducted by President Vladimir Putin should be a reflection of the value of the relationship. Observers in Russia report that it is for the first time that an Indian leader was invited to the summer residence of President Putin signifying growing ease between the two leaders. Throughout this working visit the President and PM were together with the host conducting his guest personally. Except for the initial 90 minutes, the balance of the six hours, were spent by the two leaders without aides. This is reported to be an unprecedented courtesy by the Russian leader. Both countries probably realise the importance of each other and desire to present the right optics. President Putin also broke protocol to be at the airport to see of the Indian Prime Minister.

All this must be viewed from two angles. First, the optics present in China during the Modi-Xi summit at Wuhan had adequately projected dilution of the tension due to Doklam and indicated India’s willingness at some ‘reset.'

Taking a cue from that, Russian and Indian leaders were reiterating the warmth and confirming that the Indo-Russian relationship yet remains a special one; not a ‘reset’ in this case but more a refocus after perception of deviation and dilution in the partnership. Second, now that India is a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), along with Pakistan, a strong Indo-Russia relationship will always be an advantage. The three-way Russia-India-China initiative which did not appear to be finding any energy can be more active on the back of matching relationships.

What’s more important is that with the visibility of an emerging Indo-US strategic partnership Russia was not complaining but in private parleys Russians were conveying and reminding India about the past strength of Indo-Russian relations. It is agreed that only optics of warmth between leaders isn’t ever enough. We witnessed that when Modi hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Ahmadabad even as the PLA was conducting serious transgressions at the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. Walking the talk is also necessary. 

The issues discussed by PM Modi and President Putin included the economic impact of the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, terrorism, the situation in Afghanistan and Syria, matters related to SCO and the BRICS summit at Johannesburg in July 2018. Considering the fact that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval made two visits to Moscow prior to this meeting reveals that a focused agenda was drawn up. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was also in Moscow a few weeks ago and the Russian S-400 Air Defence (AD) system, the most advanced AD system of the world was under negotiation; the Rs 40,000 crore deal could be signed in 2018 except that there is now a creeping problem. Under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act), the newly enacted US law India’s planned defence procurement from Russia could potentially come under US sanctions. Although no country has yet been sanctioned India’s $11 billion budget for defence procurement this year with promise of much more in the future could also not invite sanctions, as the US has no guarantee that India will not go with its old and trusted partner on the issue of defence equipment.

Among other important areas of discussion included North Korea and the political implications of the US pullout from the Iran Nuclear Deal. For India the Chabahar port issue, energy security and the future of access to Russia’s North-South Corridor (which cuts the trade routes from India to St Petersburg and many East European countries), all linked to the deal were the key issues. How Russia, China and Europe intend to keep the Iran Nuclear Deal in place and what it will entail to have an increasingly grumbly US would have been brought to the Prime Minister’s notice by President Putin.

Lastly, on Pakistan, Afghanistan and international terror Russia usually has a lot to say because what is known in Moscow is not usually put out in the public space. Moscow’s fears on ISIS in Afghanistan and the potential of its spread into Central Asia has always been a matter of great concern. The small negative signals that Russia gave through its bilateral military exercise with Pakistan and the sale of a few helicopters were intended perhaps only as signals of beckoning. India’s concerns about these were largely allayed by the Russian leadership.

PM Modi and President Putin are slated to meet at least four more times this year but there is nothing like an official visit with optics also forming an essential aspect. Hopefully Indo-Russian relations are back to the energetic mode they have always been in.

The author commanded the 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir. Views expressed are personal