This is the first time since 2000 that New Delhi and Moscow have not held their annual meeting even as tensions with China remain high

New Delhi: For the first time in the last two decades, India and Russia have not held their annual summit. This comes after Moscow expressed severe reservations on New Delhi joining the Indo-Pacific initiative and Quad, thereby tilting more towards the US.

India and Russia have been holding the annual summit, which is the highest institutionalised dialogue mechanism in the strategic partnership, since 2000 when the ‘Declaration on the India-Russia Strategic Partnership’ was signed between both sides.

This is the first such year, however, when despite several high-level visits from New Delhi to Moscow, tensions have begun to simmer in the bilateral ties over Russia’s rhetoric against India’s increasing alignment with the US, diplomatic sources said.

The bilateral ties between India and Russia were upgraded to ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’ from ‘Strategic Partnership’ in December 2010 during the visit of the Russian President Vladimir Putin to India.

“There is indeed some discontent over Russia’s repeated comments on India and casting aspersions over New Delhi’s decision to join the Quad,” said an Indian official adding that the summit may take place early next year.

So far, 20 annual summit meetings have taken place alternatively in India and Russia. The last summit — 20th India-Russia Bilateral Summit — was held in September 2019 for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Vladivostok.

Prior to that, President Putin visited New Delhi in October 2018 for the 19th annual summit. He was to visit India this year.

Sources also said while a virtual summit was planned around September-October this year, the plans did not fructify even as Russia tried to play the role of a mediator, mediating peace between India and China over the border standoff.

In fact, during both the visits of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Moscow in June and then in September, Russia discussed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) issue with India.

In September, during the RIC (Russia-India-China) meeting, it was Moscow that facilitated a meeting on the sidelines between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi. This took place post the Galwan clash in which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives while fighting the Chinese troops.

Presently, Russia is the chair of RIC, SCO and BRICS – all of these meetings went on smoothly.

On the other hand, Modi held several summit meetings with world leaders virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the key ones being the summit with the PM of Australia, which was the first virtual summit that the Prime Minister held with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, followed by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the last one being with the Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

In fact, in 2014 when the Ukraine crisis took place and Crimea got reunified with Russia, the annual summit took place between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi reaffirming their partnership in civil nuclear cooperation and defence ties.

Putin had thanked India as well as China for their “restraint and objectivity” in the Ukraine matter.

“This is indeed a matter of concern that the two countries who share a deep relationship could not even hold the summit virtually. Even in 2014 during the Ukranian crisis, President Putin was here for a few hours only to hold the summit,” said Ashok Sajjanhar, former diplomat who was posted in Moscow in the early 2000.

Sajjanhar added that if there are issues creeping up in this ‘special and privileged relationship’ then it needs to be discussed. “Both sides have to come together to address the issues.”

According to him, Russia’s attempt at mediation between India and China may have created some degree of discontent in South Block and the fact that their Foreign Minister is repeatedly slamming Indo-Pacific and Quad shows that it is saying this only to appease the audiences in China and Pakistan.

Lavrov’s Remarks Not Made At ‘Opportune Time’

While Russia has on several occasions earlier slammed the concept of Indo-Pacific as the US’s attempt to divide the world and contain China, its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov named India once again and said it is being party to “anti-China” policies by aligning with the western world.

“At a time when the Chinese are threatening us and are sitting at the border, Lavrov should have not made such comments,” said former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, who was also India’s ambassador to Russia from 2004-2007.

“This is not the opportune time for him to keep stating the same thing again and again knowing all too well that the China threat is staring at us,” Sibal added. “But wittingly or unwittingly, the Russians are overlooking the threat.”

This year while India had been preoccupied with China even as a tough border standoff, which also witnessed bloodshed, began in May, New Delhi tilted more towards the US and other “like-minded” countries such as Australia and Japan under the Indo-Pacific strategic initiative as well the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, much to Russia’s discontent.

The Quad countries — US, Japan, Australia and India — even held a joint naval exercise, Malabar, in a show of strength.

“If Russia is concerned about India and the US coming close to each other in strategic and defence terms, this is the all the more reason why they should reach out to India. New Delhi and Moscow have to bridge the gap,” Sibal said.

Reiterating Lavrov’s remarks Monday, the Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev said the Indo-Pacific has no common vision and that the Quad is detrimental to the security and stability of the region.