A meeting of the Indian and Russian foreign and defence ministers has a purpose beyond clearing up bilateral misunderstandings, experts say. New Delhi reminds US of its strategic autonomy and soothes Russian qualms about Quad. Moscow tells Beijing it will keep selling arms to China’s Himalayan rival

The decision by India and Russia to hold a “two-plus-two” meeting of their foreign and defence ministers is meant not only to clear up misunderstandings in their bilateral relationship, but to send a signal to both the United States and China, experts have said.

New Delhi was keen to demonstrate that it retained its “strategic autonomy” in a signal to Washington, said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary. The US has been trying to wean India off of Russian influence and has tried to discourage it from buying weapons from Moscow, its largest defence supplier, by threatening it with sanctions.

Meanwhile Moscow was keen to show Beijing that despite their relatively warm ties it planned to continue supplying advanced weaponry to New Delhi – a sore point for China which has spent much of the past year in a military stand-off with India over their disputed Himalayan border.

“The signal to China is politically important,” said Sibal. “It is Russia’s way of telling China that their close strategic relations will not limit Russia’s choices with India and that the strands of its policy are independent of each other. It also means that Russia will continue to supply advanced weapons to India.”

Meeting of Friends

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Wednesday after an “excellent” meeting with his “friend” the Russian President Vladimir Putin that they had decided on the two-plus-two meeting to add further momentum to “our strategic partnership”.

Analysts said that despite the positive language the dialogue was more aimed at clearing up misunderstandings on various thorny issues – including India’s involvement in the US-led Quad – that had been accumulating in recent years.

This shows our relations with Russia are as important as India’s relations with the US, Japan and Australia - Gautam Bambawale

“This dialogue comes at the right time,” said Alexey Kupriyanov, a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

“Many unresolved issues have accumulated between Russia and India and a certain misunderstanding has arisen regarding many external policy concepts and actions, like the Indo-Pacific.”

Chief among these issues is likely to be India’s involvement in the Quad, a grouping of democracies that also includes Australia and Japan and is widely seen as focused on countering China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Analysts said India would be keen to show Russia that its involvement in the Quad did not mean it had given up its long-held stance of strategic autonomy or that it was distancing itself from its links with Moscow.

Kupriyanov said the two-plus-two was an effective tool for resolving these misunderstandings and moving on to “practical interactions” in areas of mutual interest. Navtej Sarna, a retired diplomat and former Indian ambassador to Washington, said a political-military discussion made sense in a “multi-power” world and was “a good step at a time when the Russia-China relationship has been growing warmer”.

Since 2000, India and Russia have been holding annual summits at which the two leaders take turns to visit each other’s country. But there has been no summit since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The two-plus-two meeting was long overdue and has been talked about for months,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation.

India has had recent two-plus-two meetings with all the other members of the Quad. The two-plus-two meeting with Russia will be its first with a non-Quad member.

“It is a very significant development that shows our relations with Russia are as important as India’s relations with the US, Japan and Australia,” said Gautam Bambawale, who was India’s ambassador to China from 2017 to 2018. He said it would also show China that India-Russia ties would not be affected by the Russia-China relationship.

While India and Russia have enjoyed strong ties for decades, in recent years India’s decision to buy defence equipment from other countries, including the US, as well as its growing diplomatic ties with the US, have raised concerns in Moscow.

Though Russia continues to be India’s main arms supplier, its share of the market is dropping. Between 2010 and 2014 it provided 70 per cent of India’s defence equipment; in the following four-year period it supplied just 58 per cent, according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute.

Sibal said Russia needn’t be concerned about the Quad. “The objective of the Quad is to counter China’s threat. Russia is not the common concern. If Russia was also the aim, India would not have joined,” he said.

Unnikrishnan said the talks could also assuage Russian concerns about how its weapons were being used.

“I would not be surprised if in the coming days Russia also insists on some foundational agreements, as the US has done, to ensure that the sophisticated weaponry it gives India is not accessed by other countries,” he said.

The forum will also provide a chance for candid discussions on other areas of mutual concern.

“There is uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan and there is a gap between India and Russia on [this matter],” Sibal noted.

“This new forum will be helpful in understanding the stakes each country has in Afghanistan and how they can prepare for unforeseen developments following a potential Taliban take over.”