Brics Summit: India, Russia rekindle old passion after brief strategic philandering
While India's growing strategic proximity to the US has caused irritation in Beijing, it was seen as a positively alarming signal in Moscow who was supplanted by Washington as India's largest arms supplier.
Their brief but an intense bit of adultery over, ancient partners India and Russia signaled on Saturday that they are ready to mend their philandering ways. In a tight embrace celebrated by three announcements and 16 agreements including three blockbuster defence deals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin looked to have rekindled the flame that once defined Moscow's close relationship with New Delhi.
A part of this second honeymoon has been necessitated by realpolitik concerns, part by a genuine desire to stop the drift in a historic friendship, part by Russia's clever manipulation of optics and part by New Delhi's ambition to create a global order which isn't necessarily anti-West but is catalytic to its ambition.
Fluidity and agility mark the ever-changing world of foreign policy. There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent strategic interests. Even so, the recent intricate interplay between US, Russia, China and India — two global powers and two emerging economies — have seen rapid recalibration of ties, realigning of interests and new angles in staid relationships.
Moscow and Beijing have noted with concern India's recent tilt towards America even as they themselves grew closer to each other due to a common need to counter US influence. Washington, its power already on the wane from the heady heights of the 80s and unquestioned supremacy of 90s, has similarly grown closer to India even as it seeks a pivot in Asia to contain China's meteoric rise. It has also found a huge market in New Delhi who relies exclusively on imports for defence needs.
While India's growing strategic proximity to the US has caused irritation in Beijing, it was seen as a positively alarming signal in Moscow who was supplanted by Washington as India's largest arms supplier. For a commodity-based economy struggling with low oil prices, this was a huge blow. Russia had traditionally enjoyed a prime share of India's defence market.
For India, this interplay posed a different problem. Even as the Narendra Modi government warmed up to the US to balance the increasing assertiveness of China in the region, it crucially left drift the relationship with its all-weather friend Russia.
If this was the realpolitik backdrop amid which Modi and Putin met in a closed-door bilateral on the sidelines of Brics on Saturday, the deals that followed the meeting were to some extent influenced by post-Uri developments in which Russia played no mean part.
As KP Nayar writes in The Telegraph, Moscow cleverly manipulated the optics to roar back into New Delhi's defence balance sheet. "…the Kremlin has virtually forced India into catapulting Russia once again as this country's main arms supplier. This has been done with Putin's repeated threats to sell weapons to Pakistan and by holding military exercises with Rawalpindi — the seat of its Army General Headquarters — during precisely the time when terrorists who attacked Uri prompted India to cross the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir."
It would be unfair, however, to see Modi as the innocent victim of Russian manipulation. If he appears ready to be caught in Russian embrace, Modi would have ensured India's strategic interests are respected by Moscow.
Towards that end, Saturday' deals and joint statement are forged in a context that should please India. The terms of the deals will give a boost to his pet Make In India project and the joint statement carried enough indications to show that Russia has put its weight behind India when it comes to tackling cross-border terrorism.
The deals include five "game changing" surface-to-air missile defence systems which lies at the pinnacle of cutting-edge technology and military advancements. As a cost of $5 billion, the S-400 'Triumf' air defence systems can apparently tackle incoming airborne targets — including drones, fighter aircraft, and even missiles at ranges of up to 400 km.
According to The Hindu, China became the first export customer of the S-400 last year when it signed a $3 billion deal for six systems. The newspaper also flags two other strategically important deals including four stealth frigates and a joint venture to manufacture at least 200 Kamov-226T helicopters in India.
And in a final sweetener to the new, rekindled bonhomie, New Delhi appears satisfied that Russia's brief flirtation with Pakistan does not reflect any long-term strategic shift.
Modi's opening remarks (delivered in halting Russian) after the bilateral that "one old friend is better two new ones and his subsequent statement that "Russia's clear stand on the need to combat terrorism mirrors our own" gave enough indication that the laal topi once again adorns pride of place in India.
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