Why Modi Wasn’t on the Tarmac to Trap Putin in a Bear Hug

What’s the Future of the Indo-Russian Relationship?

5 min read
Hindi Female

What’s common among Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Sheikh Hasina, Shinzo Abe, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Emmanuel Macron? Prime Minister Modi broke protocol to personally receive them at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

And now, what’s common between Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin? Modi stayed with protocol and away from the tarmac when they landed in India.

This visible ambiguity around Putin’s visit was amplified when India bought the 5-billion-dollar S-400 air defence missile system, but made very little hoopla around it. In fact, Modi, who never misses a trick to talk up his hard/militaristic nationalism, skipped any mention of S-400 at the joint press conference. Our external affairs ministry even omitted mentioning this landmark weapons’ acquisition in the list of documents signed. It was relegated to a nondescript line in the joint statement (Lutyens’ legend has it that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval wanted to hang the deal to keep Washington in good humour, but Putin leaned hard on Modi to get it over the finish line)!

Clearly, President Donald Trump’s swagger (and sanctions) were hanging heavily over the ceremonies. Adding to the uncertainty was the invisible threat of the Dragon, as China draws Russia into an anti-West embrace.

For people like me, who grew up in the 1960s/70s at the peak of the Cold War, the contrast could not have been starker. Then, a Brezhnev-Indira Summit used to be an emphatic, assertive “celebration of defiance”, gleefully cocking an Asian snook at America. On Friday, the Putin-Modi Summit was exerting hard to fly under the US radar.

So, what’s the future of the Indo-Russian relationship? Is there substance left in this once amorous union (remember how the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty had riled up Uncle Sam)?


A Quick Peep Into Recent History

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, so, too, did our relationship. Russia struggled to adjust to its diminished role in the post-Superpower age, pursuing a range of new bilateral and multilateral relations—including with Beijing, per Mikhail Gorbachev's 'China First' policy. Desperate for cash, Russia began selling its weapons not only to India and China, but also to whoever else would buy them—even Libya, Syria, Iran ... and Pakistan. When Putin visited in 2000, we regained some momentum, establishing a strategic partnership. Since then, the relationship has centered mainly on military hardware, making it more utilitarian than 'all-weather.'

At the same time, India has grown steadily closer to the US. The 9/11 terrorist attacks reinvigorated the friendship, as our interests coalesced around fighting Islamic extremism, in addition to stopping China's aggressive rise. The 2008 nuclear deal only strengthened the bond. Alarmed by the rapid Indo-US convergence, Russia began assiduously cultivating closer economic and strategic ties not just to China but to Pakistan as well—with the clear intent of antagonizing India. Moscow has stepped up its sale of military equipment to Pakistan, including attack helicopters; Pakistan's army, navy, and air force chiefs have all visited Russia to discuss other potential deals. While the two countries have conducted joint naval exercises since 2014, primarily to crack down on drug trafficking, in 2016 they upped the ante, engaging for the first time in more conventional military exercises like combat training. Adding salt to the wound, they conducted the exercises—known as 'Druzhba,' or 'Friendship'—immediately after the attack at Uri. Worse, they scheduled some of the exercises in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Kashmir, which they agreed to relocate to Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province only after a hail of protests from Delhi. Moscow, which always had India's back in the old days, also refused to support Delhi's demands in Goa that the BRICS Summit 2016 declaration mention 'state-sponsored' terrorism, which would have implicated Islamabad.


The Flip Side to an Indo-Russia Engagement

But Russia also knows that it has nothing to gain from alienating India. Despite Moscow’s growing ties to Beijing, the Kremlin still sees India as a hedge against Chinese hegemony. Russia’s staunch support of India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council—and more recently, of its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group—also speaks to its desire to diversify its regional partners. And according to US defense analyst Derek Grossman, Russia backed India’s inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization ‘mainly to constrain China’s growing influence in the organization.’

Indeed, there's no reason for India and Russia to walk away from their long, fruitful union. A large share of India's military hardware came from the Soviet Union or Russia, and Moscow still supplies the bulk of the weapons we import—62 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to SIPRI. After all, few countries even possess the advanced defence technology that India needs, and among them, Russia is both eager to share and disinclined to attach conditions to its use; it remains unconcerned with how India might deploy the imported weapons.

There are plenty of other areas ripe for expanded collaboration between us as well, including space exploration, scientific research, technology exchanges, nuclear energy, counter-terrorism efforts, and joint manufacturing. .

In an age of rising geopolitical uncertainty, Russia remains a giant, immoveable presence to our north—unpredictable, perhaps, but not unknowable in the way that China is. Our relationship is like an old security blanket: frayed, but still comforting in times of trouble

India, the Good Guy Between America & Russia

The Americans may not like it, but they will have to tolerate it. In any case, we all share the same over-arching goal: to keep Russia from getting too close to China. Since the Cold War, the West has worried about the threat of a Russia-China alliance, and has consistently sought to prevent it by driving occasional wedges between them. But with America in retreat and Europe foundering, there is little to keep them apart. And Putin’s mounting anger at NATO has deepened his embrace of Beijing. Eurasia’s two biggest powers share a distrust of the West and a preference for authoritarian rule; both resent outside nations preaching democracy and human rights. Economically, they complement each other perfectly; Russia is rich in natural resources and China, a manufacturing mecca. Trade between the two countries has expanded steadily, as have security ties. China has increased its purchase of Russian weapons, including war planes and the ubiquitous S-400, and the two countries have stepped up their joint military exercises. Their strengthening partnership has the potential to dramatically alter the global power dynamic, threatening us all. None is better positioned than India to serve as a check on that relationship, diverting Russia with both reflections of our chummy past and visions of the multipolar future.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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