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Narendra Modi's four-nation tour: Global equations are shifting, India-Russia must reinvigorate bilateral ties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Russia comes at a time when there are growing concerns in India over Moscow's newfound closeness to China and Pakistan. The average citizen, long accustomed to Russia standing by India and against Pakistan, finds Moscow's recent overtures to Pakistan hard to digest.

This shift is due to the changing power equations in the world. Russian president Vladimir Putin is regarded by United States' lawmakers and strategic thinkers (but not by President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner) as an evil dictator out to grab smaller eastern European countries – much as he did with the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) with Russian president Vladimir Putin. AP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian president Vladimir Putin. AP

As a result, Moscow has little option but to move closer to cash-rich China, at a time when few Western democracies are willing to engage with Putin. Possibly with an eye on Afghanistan, as well as a chance to sell arms to earn much-needed dollars, Russia is also reaching out to Pakistan, China's time-tested friend.

The China-Russia-Pakistan nexus is worrisome for India as it could change the strategic balance of the region. However, when Modi and Putin sit down to talk during the former's visit, especially during the restricted one on one meetings, there is a good chance that they will clear much of these perceived misconceptions.

If India is wary of Russia's new found warmth for China and overtures to Pakistan, Moscow has been watching with as much concern New Delhi's growing warmth towards the United States. The process which began with the India-US civil nuclear deal, signed by the UPA government, has moved swiftly under Modi. But with uncertainty marking Donald Trump's presidency and his NATO allies, worried about a change of US policy, New Delhi too will be circumspect.

In this uncertain global environment where a multi-polar world is emerging, neither Modi nor Putin will want to abandon their age-old ties. What is needed is to reinvigorate ties.

But with the uncertainty marking Trump's presidency and his NATO allies, worried about a change of US policy, New Delhi too will be circumspect. In this uncertain global environment where a multi-polar world is emerging, neither Modi nor Putin will want to abandon their age-old ties. What is needed, in fact, is to reinvigorate these ties.

Modi is well aware that Moscow had in the past firmly backed India on world forums, and for decades had refused to sell arms to Pakistan – because New Delhi had often made the point that all arms supplied to its army finally ended up being used against India.

Soon after taking office in 2014, Modi is said to have told Ministry of External Affairs officials that India cannot forget that Moscow had stood firmly with it in every war against Pakistan.

In the past, India-Russia ties have also had a major consensus on important global issues. The political ties with Russia were always strong. It was, after all, one of the few countries that sided with India during the Bangladesh liberation war, when the United States was sending out its seventh fleet to back Pakistan.

But today, all this has changed. Now, Russia is one of the biggest backers of China's One Belt One Belt (OBOR) policy. Putin was present at last month’s mega event organised by China, while India decided to boycott it.

India, down the years, has been the biggest buyer of Russian arms. Even today, India continues to buy arms from Russia, though Israel, United States and France also figure in the list. But past certainties are now breaking down.

"A kind of inertia has crept into the India-Russia ties. This has to go. Both sides have to think afresh, be more innovative in their approach to infuse new life into the relationship,'' said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a leading Russian expert from the Observer Research Foundation.

"If Modi and Putin sit down together and have a heart to heart discussion, many of the current concerns on both sides can be addressed,'' Unnikrishnan said.

Afghanistan is another area where India and Russia no longer see eye to eye. Earlier, New Delhi and Moscow were on the same page – hoping to strengthen the elected government and having no truck with the Taliban.

But a fresh initiative has been on the cards for the last year or so, to stabilise Afghanistan. China, Russia and Pakistan have held at least three meetings on the issue. With Islamic State (IS) presence in Afghanistan steadily growing, both China and Russia are worried about the spread of jihadi forces in their restive Muslim-dominated regions of Xinjiang and Chechnya.

However, as of now, the initiative has achieved little success. Instead, the government in Kabul is literally under siege as the Taliban continues to attack at will. The latest is a massive explosion in Kabul on Wednesday which killed at least 90 persons. Afghanistan and terrorism are certain to be discussed at length during the Modi-Putin meeting.

Modi's talks with Putin in St Petersburg, as part of his four-nation tour, is slated for Thursday.

A major focus for both sides will be to give a thrust to their economic ties. While their relationship has flourished in defence, nuclear and space, trade has always remained a major constraint.

Having collaborated with India before, Russia is well placed to take advantage of Modi's Make in India policy. Last year, at the BRICS summit in Goa, an intergovernmental agreement was signed for the joint production of a lightweight helicopter – Kamov Ka-226. The joint venture was signed between India's Hindustan Aeronautics and Rosoboron Export Russia Helicopters.

The $100 billion deal entails that India will buy 60 of these helicopters in a fly-away condition from Russia. Another 40 will be assembled in India, while the remaining 100 will be entirely manufactured in the country.

A forward movement on the helicopter deal is likely to be announced in St Petersburg during Modi's visit. A couple of other MoU's to boost bilateral trade are also expected.

But, this time around, signing agreements is not the primary concern. It will be essential to remove the barriers that have led to the fraying of bilateral ties. Each party's concerns must be frankly discussed to restore mutual confidence and build trust once again.

Updated Date: Jun 01, 2017 11:28 AM

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