Tactical Gaps in Indo-Russia Ties Despite Putin-Modi’s Bonhomie
Speculation was rife that Indo-Russia ties had lost its strategic sheen and become a transactional one.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Russia seems to have corrected some of the misperceptions and impediments that made the bilateral relationship appear stagnant.
Significantly, visuals of the visit suggest that the Indian leader has succeeded in improving his personal bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prior to the visit, there were concerns that differences on some international issues and bottlenecks in important projects were signs of a stagnating relationship. Russia’s growing closeness with China and recent bonhomie with Pakistan were causing consternation in New Delhi.
Similarly, there were reports about Russia’s reservations on India’s growing ties with the United States of America.
Thus, speculation was rife that the bilateral relationship had lost its strategic sheen and had become a transactional one; where Russia was just a convenient one-window stop for some military equipment.
A Relation Based ‘On Trust’
The just concluded visit to St. Petersburg, the hometown of Putin, clearly puts an end to such conjecture. Putin seems to have satisfactorily addressed all the matters of concern to India, just as Modi seems to have removed any doubts Russia had about the importance India accords to ties with Russia.
Putin clearly stated that Russian relations with India were ‘based on trust’ and ties with other countries (read Pakistan and China) would ‘not dilute’ ties with one of its ‘closest friends’. And then music to Indian ears, he went on to say that Russia’s military ties with Pakistan were ‘not tight’ (the translator could have done better and said, ‘not close’).
He also emphatically supported India’s fight against terrorism, “no matter where the threat comes, it is unacceptable.” However, he stopped short of naming Pakistan. He noted the depth of the bilateral military relationship as well as the recent growth in trade and investments.
Similarly, Russia’s unequivocal support for India’s earliest membership in multilateral institutions of global governance – UN Security Council, Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, etc. – would reassure New Delhi that Moscow is not playing second fiddle to Beijing.
On his part, Modi reiterated the importance India attaches to relations with Russia. He noted that most relations have their ups and downs, but Indo-Russian ties have avoided these spurts and dips.
Modi also reached out personally to the Russian president by noting the sacrifices the Russian people made in the World War II and pointing out that many members of Putin’s family had lost their lives in that war, including Putin’s brother who died during the 900-day siege of Leningrad.
It must be noted that the Russian President did not demur while Modi lashed out against terrorism, although this time without naming Pakistan.
The renewed warmth between the two leaders undoubtedly is spurred by the tremendous uncertainty that has engulfed the world after the backlash against some aspects of globalisation and the consequent rise of populism. Both India and Russia would not want to be on the sidelines of whatever new international order that emerges at the end of this period of flux. They need each other to withstand better the winds buffeting the current international order.
Gaps in Putin and Modi’s Purpose
However, while they appear to have reiterated the commonness of their strategic vision and purpose, there appears to be still some lacunae at the tactical level.
For example, on Afghanistan, the two countries have broadly restated long-held positions supporting national reconciliation and pursuing goals outlined within the framework recently agreed upon in the Moscow dialogue – an international meeting held in April.
However, tactical differences about how to handle contacts with the Taliban, attitudes to the Afghan government, and continued US involvement in Afghanistan are likely to continue increasing friction between the two countries. This is because of the leeway the bureaucracies have to operate within the ambit of the broad strategic understanding. This is particularly true of the Russian foreign and defence ministry bureaucracies, which at the functional level, appear to lack the leadership’s strategic nous towards South Asia and Afghanistan.
The current Russian bureaucracy dealing with South Asia appears to see it through the prism of Afghanistan, which disproportionately inflates the role of Pakistan. It also appears to prioritise rivalry with the United States in Afghanistan itself, thereby exacerbating matters.
Likewise, Russia’s relationship with China is likely to continue to be a matter of concern to India. It is broadly understood that Russia, which saw its relationship with the West deteriorate because it refused to accept the role of a ‘junior partner’, is unlikely to agree to become the ‘younger brother’ to China.
But there are fears that given the uncertainties of the international world order, and Russia’s economic fortunes, Moscow may inadvertently find itself sucked into the Chinese ambit.
These fears are fed by Russia’s willingness to supply China with sophisticated weapons. Unlike in the past, there doesn’t appear to be a ‘technology gap’ between what is supplied to China and what is supplied to India. Although, the explanation for this may be less sinister than Indian experts tend to believe.
China has made tremendous progress in developing its own advanced technology for weapons. Some experts believe that it will soon stop the import of any kind of weapons platforms. Russia is, therefore, according to these experts, trying to utilise this remaining window of opportunity to sell arms for a substantial commercial benefit.
Appearances Can be Deceptive
On the economic front, much will depend on how quickly the two countries will be able to tackle some of the impediments to trade and investment.
A reliable transport corridor is a prerequisite to successful trade relations. Therefore, operationalising the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) assumes enormous significance. Building robust banking links is another obstacle that will have to be tackled rapidly.
In the military-technical sector, broad understanding and agreements have been reached, but more effort must go into dealing with the ‘devil in the details’.
Both countries have extensive experience dealing with each other, but vested interest, bureaucratic inertia and at times pure ignorance, are holding back the relationship in this area from transforming to a qualitatively different level.
Therefore, heeding the adage that ‘appearances can be deceptive’, the two sides need to avoid being lulled into complacency by the success of Modi’s visit to Russia and his bonhomie with Putin.
Efforts should be made to remove even small potential irritants – for this relationship has the potential to play an important role (may not be the determining one) in defining our places in the new international world order.
(Nandan Unnikrishnan is Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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