Last week India hosted two important visitors – Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and the US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry. These were routine visits, one to lay the groundwork for a potential Russian presidential visit to India and the other to assess Indian intentions on climate

by Harsh V Pant

Diplomatic visits, more often than not, are routine, more a function of bureaucratic necessities than of any real strategic significance. Most visits of foreign dignitaries to India or elsewhere hardly transform the underlying dynamic of the bilateral relationship. But sometimes, the tone and tenor of the engagement manages to convey more than either side perhaps intends to, thereby hinting at a fundamental transformation.

Last week India hosted two important visitors – Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and the United States (US) special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry. They did not come to sign any major documents or make dramatic declarations. These were routine visits, one to lay the groundwork for a potential Russian presidential visit to India and the other to assess Indian intentions on climate. But these short visits revealed much more about the state of play in India-Russia and India-US ties than any formal policy document.

While Lavrov asserted that India and Russia “are tied through a strategic partnership and at the heart of our partnership is the long-lived friendship between our nations and proximity of our stance on relevant international issues and our friendship,” it was evident that the partnership is drifting away from its strategic orientation.

Differences have mounted, as the prism of the two nations to view the changing world order are substantively different. For a partnership that claims to be historical, Russia’s decision to speak on behalf of China on matters from the Indo-Pacific to the Quad underscores for India a sad reality of a partner that is in terminal decline requiring the crutches of China to showcase its viability as a global power. While, in the past, Lavrov had commented on how Indian foreign policy decisions are being shaped by other powers, this visit saw him attempting to shore up Pakistan as the central pillar of Russian South Asia policy. From trying to ensure that New Delhi is kept out of the Afghan peace process to reportedly offering a blank cheque to Pakistan, Russian foreign policy has indeed come a long way.

Kerry, on the other hand, was in India to engage the country’s leadership on increasing climate ambition ahead of Joe Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate to be held later this month and the COP26 meet scheduled for later this year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is part of the 40 world leaders Biden has invited to a virtual summit on climate, aimed at underlining the urgency and the economic benefits of stronger climate action.

Soon after taking office, Biden led the US back into the Paris climate accord. India’s role is critical in ensuring that global targets are achieved. From being on the opposite sides of the ideological divide, the two democracies are now working more closely than ever on climate action — notwithstanding differences on issues such as a timeline for net zero emission goal.

These two visits firmly underscore the new operational realities of Indian foreign policy. There is no denying the fact that in an ideal world India would like to have excellent ties with both Russia and the US. In fact, for New Delhi, there is much to be gained by strengthening its ties with Moscow, something that Indian diplomacy has been trying hard to do over the last few years.

Finding new areas of cooperation, moving the relationship away from its unidimensional nature of excessive dependence on defence ties, boosting energy and trade ties, keeping high levels of communication open — all of this has been done. Yet, the relationship has failed to improve significantly. In an ideal world, Russia would have great ties with the West and it would be engaged in the Indo-Pacific, giving the region greater heft vis-à-vis China. But that’s what India would like to see happen, not Russia.

For Russia, its primary preoccupation is its growing rivalry with the West and if China helps it in pushing back against the West, then it is all for the best. Sentimentality in foreign policy is the worst possible response. While it is true that India needs Russia for its defence needs and for managing various regional issues, foreign policy is not a one-way street. India cannot keep on hoping for outcomes that Russia is not willing to deliver.

As the recent episode of the US 7th Fleet asserting navigational rights inside India’s EEZ without requesting India’s prior consent underlined, New Delhi and Washington too continue to have differences on a range of issues. From trade and human rights to defence purchases from Russia, challenges are significant and, sometimes, not prone to an easy resolution.

But what is different is that the India-US relationship is New Delhi’s strategic partnership of this century, where the two partners have a similar frame of reference to map out their strategic challenges and so are willing to work together to manage differences. Something that was true of the Indo-Soviet partnership in the 20th century.

It’s a different world out there today and there is no use complaining about change. Nations nimble enough to adapt rapidly are often the ones which emerge as the leaders.