Why Indo-Russian relations continue to remain strong despite divergent geopolitical and strategic drift
Vladimir Putin, travelling only the second time since the commencement of the Covid-19 pandemic, conveyed the importance he attaches to Russia’s relations with India
The recently concluded Indo-Russian summit was more than just an annual dialogue between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin. It also included the inaugural 2+2 meeting, which is the working horse in determining the future direction of Indo-Russian relations. The summit had all trappings of being termed a success, especially in a changing global environment. Apart from a one-to-one meeting between Modi and Putin, as also the 2+2 dialogue, the defence and foreign minister’s held separate one-to-one discussions with their counterparts clarifying aspects concerning their different portfolios and seeking to push cooperation forward.
Representatives from both sides shared their perspectives on global and regional issues while displaying that despite current geopolitical leanings, existing Indo-Russian relations remain on a firm track. In all, 28 agreements were inked spread across sectors from defence to space exploration. However the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistical Support agreement could not be signed as it was announced that further discussions were essential before it could be finalised. The agreements displayed the vastness of cooperation between both sides.
On the Indian side, defence minister Rajnath Singh raised the Chinese bogey on India’s northern borders, aware that China-Russia relations are close. He stated, “The completely unprovoked aggression on our northern border since early summer of 2020 have thrown up several challenges.” He added that India was capable of handling its challenges, while seeking partners “who are sensitive and responsive to India's expectations and requirements”.
It was aimed to convey to the Russians that India considers China as an enemy and seeks Russian support on the issue as also continuation in defence cooperation.
On its side, Russia shared its perspective on the Ukraine crisis, which has dominated Russia’s divergence with the US and Europe. It is evident that Russia expects India to stand by it in any future course it adopts. There were no further details shared on the subject. Putin-Biden talks on the subject were held on Tuesday.
Geopolitically, both nations have drifted in opposite directions. India, pushed by China, has gravitated towards the US and become an active member of the Quad, while Russia, sanctioned by the US, has moved closer to China. With the US distancing itself from both Russia and China, it is but natural for them to move closer. While the West announces a diplomatic boycott of the Chinese Winter Olympics, Putin has accepted the invite to attend the opening ceremony of the Games. India targets China, while Russia supports it. However, this geopolitical divergence was pushed to the background during the summit.
For the Russians, India sticking to its procurement of the S-400 missile system despite US threat of sanctions indicated that India will not permit the US to derail long-standing Indo-Russian ties. These ties were further cemented by the signing of the AK-203 procurement deal and extending military technical cooperation for another 10 years.
Indian actions were positively commented upon by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who stated: “Our Indian friends clearly and firmly explained that they are a sovereign country. They will decide whose weapons to buy and who is going to be a partner of India in this and in other areas.” The Russian decision to support production of spare parts of Russian-origin equipment currently in service in Indian armed forces displayed growing confidence in ties.
Of course, differences have remained on the role of India as part of the Quad and the US policy in the Indo-Pacific. Lavrov, in his address to the media, stated: “We expressed our serious concern about US activities under the slogan of Indo-Pacific strategies. They are creating exclusive membership blocs there.” This was not the first time the issue was raised and discussed. Jaishankar has repeatedly conveyed the Indian view on multiple occasions, but differences remain unbridged. These have in no way impacted growing ties.
Putin and Modi were supportive and appreciative of each other. In his remarks, Modi stated, “The relation between India and Russia is truly a unique and reliable model of interstate friendship.” Putin commented, “We perceive India as a great power, a friendly nation, and a time-tested friend. The relations between our nations are growing, and I am looking into the future.”
There are multiple common grounds, including future scenarios in Afghanistan, rising terrorism including narco-terrorism and growing geopolitical hotspots in West Asoa, on which there was commonality in approach. Measures to boost trade, which remains low, were discussed and would be the focus of attention. The two leaders agreed to meet for the next summit in Russia in 2022.
The summit sends multiple messages across the globe. First, Putin travelling only the second time since the commencement of the COVID-19 pandemic conveyed the importance he attaches to his relations with India. Second, despite being in different camps, Indo-Russian relations are stable and will continue to develop in the future. Third, both nations, despite their opposite leanings, would back each other on the global arena. Fourth, setting differences aside, there are many common grounds where the two nations can work in unison. Finally, the bonhomie and trust between the leaders would ensure that stability on relations remains.
In summary, the summit indicated that Indo-Russian ties would be further cemented.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.
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