Vladimir Putin in India: Headline-grabbing S-400 deal fails to mask the hollowness that defines bilateral ties

In the end, India and Russia “concluded” the signing of the much-discussed S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system deal, but the Indo-Russian joint statement released on Friday following the 19th annual bilateral summit served to highlight the impression that Indo-Russian ties have fallen prey to the ‘high-on-rhetoric and low-on-delivery syndrome’.

Both Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin made all the right noises, caught each other in a bear hug (initiated by Putin) and led both nations into signing a host of agreements. But the optics of bonhomie and warmth failed to close the strategic gap that seems to be widening despite best intentions from both sides.

The wide geopolitical calculus of the relationship remains intact. India’s growing strategic collaboration with the US on Indo-Pacific and South Asian policies, and its burgeoning defence partnership with Washington cannot alter the foundations that underpin India-Russia ties. In the Eurasian landmass, India’s priorities align more with Russian and Iranian interests, and its deep and enduring security and energy ties with Moscow and Tehran make India more of a swing state that prefers to chart its own path than an American ally.

This could have been cause enough for a more robust Indo-Russian relationship that not only looks wistfully back at decades of close collaboration in various fields but also holds promise of even greater synergy in the future towards bringing stability in Asia’s power equation. This is also where bilateral ties, despite Friday’s solemn declarations of “new direction”, are at its most disappointing.

Prime Minister Modi said India and Russia’s friendship “never changed”. Yet that is precisely the problem. Both nations must recognise the indispensability of mutual relationship and re-imagine the relationship in fundamentally different terms or risk falling into the rhetorical trap.

Russia is crucial to India’s military that remains heavily dependent still on Soviet-era equipment. Moscow remains the only major military power ready to part with critical weaponry systems for India. Russia is still vital to India’s interests in Central Asia, West Asia and Afghanistan — where its presence will be exposed to severe vulnerability if the Donald Trump administration withdraws from its role as a security provider.

As ORF president Samir Saran writes in in a piece for Valdai Discussion Club, a Russian think tank, “engagement with Moscow remains critical if India is to respond to intractable conflicts in Afghanistan, persistent security risks in the Middle East and Central Asia, and China’s steady westwards expansion. Such a partnership may also help prevent the Shanghai Cooperation Organization from becoming a de-facto police force for China’s Belt and Road Initiative; instead giving the forum a more legitimate and plural voice on Eurasian conversations on connectivity, finance, security and development.”

 Vladimir Putin in India: Headline-grabbing S-400 deal fails to mask the hollowness that defines bilateral ties

Russian president Vladimir Putin with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Conversely, India remains vital to the Russian defence industry. Its status as the world’s fastest growing large economy provides huge scope for expansion of ties in military-technical sphere, energy, nuclear cooperation and space research. It is also in Russian interest to see to it that its growing economic dependence on China doesn’t jeopardise the diplomatic, security and economic interests with India. Moscow’s growing military cooperation with Pakistan is yet another cause for deep concern in New Delhi.

In this complex, dynamic stage, a “never changing friendship” isn’t enough to mitigate the key differences that arise when the overwhelming need is for a clear-headed, rational assessment.

In recent times, Russia’s ties with Pakistan have shown exponential growth in several areas, overcoming the Cold War hangover when both nations were in opposite camps. In terms of military cooperation, the Cold War rivals have broken new ground by holding a joint military exercise that was first scheduled to be held in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir but was later shifted to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region following India’s “strong protest”.

In August, both nations signed a naval accord, raising temperatures in India. Russia has also decided to supply Pakistan with high-tech radar system to protect its nuclear power plant in Karachi, purportedly from an Indian attack.

As KP Nayar writes in The Telegraph, “The Kremlin intended the radar deal to convey to New Delhi that the US may put pressure on Islamabad to change its ways, but Pakistan has options which can neutralise India if diplomatic and security frameworks in South Asia that are decades old were rearranged or disrupted.”

Reports have emerged that Pakistani army officers and troops will now receive training at Russian military institutes for the first time — a decision taken by the Russia-Pakistan Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) that signifies the growing closeness in ties. This move came as a face-saver for Pakistan military after the Donald Trump administration cancelled a long-standing similar arrangement with the US.

What may alarm the Indian security establishment even more is an emergent Russia-China-Pakistan axis on Afghanistan that further endangers India’s role as a major stakeholder in regional stability. In July, Pakistan hosted an “unprecedented meeting of heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran to discuss counter terrorism cooperation, with particular focus on the buildup of Islamic State in turmoil-hit Afghanistan,” reads a report in Pakistani media.

Russia’s energy ties with Pakistan are also experiencing an uptick with both nations set to ink a $10 billion offshore pipeline deal.

In contrast, India and Russia cannot even agree on naming Pakistan as the net exporter of terror in India and the joint statement, despite its elaborate wording, mentions the name of not a single terror outfit that operates out of Pakistani soil and destabilises peace in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The India-Russia joint statement “denounced terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and reiterated the need to combat international terrorism with decisive and collective response without any double standards.” There are passages alluding to Pakistan but the statement steers clear of taking names.

“The Sides agreed to converge their efforts to eradicate terrorist networks, their sources of financing, arms and fighters supply channels, to counter terrorist ideology, propaganda and recruitment. The Sides condemned all kinds of state support to terrorists including cross border terrorism and providing safe havens to terrorists and their network.”

There are references to Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and the need to “address the threats of chemical and biological terrorism”.

Juxtaposing this with the India-US joint statement at the conclusion of the recent 2+2 summit, we find that the ministers from both sides “denounced any use of terrorist proxies in the region, and in this context, they called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attack, they called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri, and other cross-border terrorist attacks. The Ministers welcomed the launch of a bilateral dialogue on designation of terrorists in 2017, which is strengthening cooperation and action against terrorist groups, including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, D-Company, and their affiliates.”

The difference is stark and self-explanatory.

However, this isn’t to nullify the weight of agreements that were signed on Friday. The S-400 is marker enough of a relationship that is prepared to weather the repercussions of continuing with a close defence partnership. The deal was reportedly signed on the sidelines of the summit and the joint statement refers to it in one brief sentence. It shows that India is aware of the risks involved.

It has more skin in the game than Russia in choosing to go ahead with the deal and securing its strategic interests, triggering US sanctions under CAATSA. It is also an extraordinary dare by India. It reinforces New Delhi’s sovereign interests and forces Washington to choose between retaining the integrity of its sanctions procedure against Russia or dealing a blow to its partnership with India, where successive US governments have considerable investments.

However, initial reports suggesting more deals involving four Krivak-class frigates, 48 Mi-17 helicopters and 200 Kamov Ka-226 helicopters and AK-103 assault rifles (to be licensed-produced in India) did not appear to have materialised, that could have pushed the defence purchase bill upwards of $8 billion. Be that as it may, India has shown commitment. The joint statement, however, doesn’t reflect a similar heavy lifting by Russia, which indicates that the relationship will be skewed at least in the short-term in favour of Moscow that reckons it has more cards up its sleeve.

In the larger picture, Putin’s visit yielded eight pacts between India and Russia following the annual summit, including an agreement for collaboration on India’s ambitious manned space project, Gaganyaan, and pacts on nuclear energy, railways and space. The MoU signed between Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Federal Space Agency of Russia ‘ROSCOSMOS’ on joint activities in the field of human spaceflight programme may involve Indian astronauts getting trained at Russian space training facilities.

The joint statement “stressed the importance of the longstanding and mutually beneficial India-Russia cooperation in outer space and welcomed the activity on setting up measurement data collection ground stations of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System NavIC and the Russian Navigation Satellite System GLONASS in the territory of the Russian Federation and the Republic of India respectively.”

Apart from the GPS systems, “both sides”, read the joint statement, also “agreed to further intensify cooperation in the field of exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes, including human spaceflight programmes, scientific projects, as well as agreed to continue developing cooperation on BRICS remote sensing satellite constellation.”

The Indo-Russian space collaboration is a marker. From Indian astronaut Rakesh Sharma’s journey to Salyut 7 space station aboard USSR shuttle Soyuz T11 in 1984 to launch of India’s first two satellites, Aryabhata and Bhaskar through Russian launch vehicles, both nations have a seven-decade old collaboration on space exploration.

Both nations also pledged to develop six nuclear power plant projects. According to the joint statement, “Civil nuclear cooperation between India and Russia is an important component of strategic partnership contributing to India’s energy-security and its commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The Sides noted the progress achieved in the construction of the remainder of the six power units at Kudankulam NPP as well as the efforts being made in the components manufacturing for localization. The Sides welcomed consultations on the new Russian designed NPP in India, as well as on the NPP equipment joint manufacturing of nuclear equipment; cooperation in third countries.”

The effort to broad-base the relationship comes off as insincere, and there is precious little to how except the signature deal. The lofty rhetoric is not enough to mask the onset of a Russian winter in ties.

Updated Date: Oct 05, 2018 20:56:55 IST