ON DECEMBER 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew for over six hours to spend just four hours in Delhi. During the brief visit, India and Russia signed 28 agreements, including one to manufacture AK-203 assault rifles jointly.

While India stands with the US and the Quad in facing the China challenge, the Russian strategy in the region is more aligned with that of China’s.

The scale and scope of the agreements did not require Putin’s presence. But by choosing India to be his first destination for a bilateral visit after the pandemic struck, he was sending a larger message that he did not consider the world to be a bipolar one dominated by the US and China. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi shook hands with Putin and hugged him, he, too, was sending out a similar message.

Putin was accompanied by his Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The high profile visit saw India and Russia reinforcing their ties—with a military and technical cooperation pact which would run till 2031, and with a pledge to boost annual trade to $30 billion by 2025.

“We perceive India as a great power, a friendly nation and a time-tested friend,” said Putin. Modi stressed on bilateral ties, saying both countries shared a “unique and reliable model of interstate friendship”. Moreover, the visit ended speculation about the durability of the bilateral partnership, especially because of India’s burgeoning ties with the US and Russia’s growing friendship with China.

Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said while Putin’s visit was short, it was highly productive. Before Putin touched down in Delhi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Shoygu convened the Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation, while External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar held discussions with Lavrov. Russia thus became the fourth country with which India has the ‘2+2’ dialogue which involves foreign and defence ministers of both countries; the other three countries—the US, Australia and Japan—are also members of the Quad.

A much-awaited deal worth Rs 5,100 crore for the joint production of more than five lakh AK-203 assault rifles at a facility in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi district was concluded during the summit. The AK-203 rifles will replace the INSAS rifles, which were inducted more than three decades ago.

India and Russia are engaged in advanced talks for procuring the multirole fighter aircraft MiG-29K for the new aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, 50 Su-30MKI fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force and more T-90 tanks. Discussions during the summit and the ‘2+2’ meetings could lead to some major announcements about defence purchases and initiatives like the joint human space flight programme, Gaganyaan.

India, meanwhile, is ready to take delivery of the first squadron of S-400 air defence systems, which is part of a $5.4-billion contract for five squadrons. Yet another key deal which is going forward is that of the INS Tushil, the first of four Talwar-class stealth frigates for the Indian Navy, of which two are being built by Russia and two by India. The INS Tushil was formally launched on October 28 in Kaliningrad.

While the AK-203 contract was cleared during the summit, the two countries failed to conclude the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics (RELOS) agreement. Shringla said the agreement was put off as both countries wanted more time to iron out a few more details. But he said RELOS, which would foster interoperability and allow the sharing of logistics between the armed forces of both countries, would be signed as soon as possible. India has similar agreements in place with the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore.

Both countries also failed to conclude the deal for the supply and licenced production of Igla-S man-portable air defence missile systems in India, because of some issues regarding the transfer of technology. Another deal which remains stuck is the one to purchase 200 Russian Kamov Ka-226T helicopters. The Army and the Air Force are keen to replace their Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, which are well past their service life. Although the deal was signed in 2015, it has not yet gone forward on account of issues regarding indigenous components of the choppers.

Maxim Sysoev, deputy director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said that although Putin’s visit did not result in major commercial agreements, the fact that it was one of the very few foreign visits this year by the Russian president showed the importance of relations with India. “This is a big foreign policy achievement for Modi,” he said.

Sysoev said the strategic partnership could deliver more benefits for both countries in the long run.

Major General Shashi Asthana (Retd), chief instructor at the Delhi-based United Service Institution of India, said India remained heavily dependent on Russia for technology, maintenance and procurement of hardware and spares, despite a 33 per cent decrease in import in recent years.

“Russia has been collaborating with India in manufacturing warships, nuclear-powered submarines, nuclear reactors, space programmes and missile programmes,” said Asthana. He said Russia’s new military strategy document, too, has named India as a partner, and that Moscow did not delay hardware support to India even during the standoff with China.

Sysoev, however, said the Indo-Russian strategic partnership was not a “marriage” between two countries. “India is rightfully choosing what is best for it, and has also started to produce more and more indigenous hardware,” he said. “It is for the Russian manufacturers to come up with more competitive and competitively-priced products.”

The emerging geopolitical realities, however, seem to make things even more challenging for Modi and Putin. For instance, the US has embarked upon a rebalancing mission in the Indo-Pacific, and has formulated a China-specific containment strategy. While India stands with the US and the Quad in facing the China challenge, the Russian strategy in the region is more aligned with that of China’s.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has opened up yet another challenge. It has created a vacuum and Russia is the only country which can fill the vacuum in Central Asia and Afghanistan. India is now much more dependent on Iran and Russia for its Central Asian strategy and access to the region. But the US policies in the Indo-Pacific and Central Asia, and the sanctions it has imposed on Russia, have pushed Putin closer to China.

Retired diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar said Putin’s decision to invest time, effort and energy to visit Delhi for a few hours was his way of signalling to China that the relationship with India was extremely important. “Russia wants to broaden the relationship beyond defence partnership. Though the logistics agreement did not materialise, the two countries have spoken about trade and commerce,” said Sajjanhar. He said the biggest takeaway from the summit was that it actually happened despite all the challenges.

Not so long ago, Putin had refused to travel to Rome for the G20 summit and to Glasgow for the climate summit. He even cancelled his trip to Dushanbe for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. “But he visited India, despite the high incidence of Covid-19 cases in Russia (more than 30,000 daily cases and 1,000 deaths) and the looming threat of confrontation on the border with Ukraine,” said Sajjanhar. “It is illustrative of the strategic value that Putin attaches to relations with India.”