The Modi-Putin relationship is, perhaps, the most fascinating of India’s external “affairs”. The reasons for their diplomatic bonding and evolving personal chemistry may be many. And, the dazzle of events and optics, as is the wont in any political romance, take the focus away from tangible outcomes.
This is what happened during the two-day visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Russian port city of Vladivostok on September 4-5 for a summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin. If one is to sum up in a single sentence what India and Russia are striving for, it would be: New initiatives that could help both countries leverage their advantages and synergise their strengths to jointly resist, if not overcome, the constraints and challenges posed by other countries especially the US, the UK, the European Union and China.
The all-encompassing India-Russian friendship across a range of sectors and activities reinforced by strength of people-to-people relationship is a thing of the past. It faded away with the last century. In the 21st century, bilateral ties are essentially transactional; bereft of ideology, bound together by common interests, fears, strengths and weaknesses rooted in geopolitical compulsions, economic pursuits and security concerns.
Both India and Russia are under pressure from the West, particularly the Anglo-American axis. While Russia is hit by US-led sanctions, India’s ties with the P-5 and West have come under the ominous shadow of developments in Kashmir. Much as Russia and India want to resist the West’s pressures, on the rebound, neither wants China to get the better of them in the region.
So far China has netted the biggest gains from gaps created by western sanctions against Russia. Having India as a major buyer, investor and economic partner would help Russia to partially offset the economic effect of sanctions, which is made worse by falling oil prices in the world market. Energy, defence and space cooperation would greatly benefit Russia, raise its strategic clout in the region, and enable it to somewhat foil US designs while balancing its ties with China.
This suits India particularly at a juncture when Kashmir has, among other issues, become a diplomatic albatross. While China is backing “all-weather friend” Pakistan, US President Donald Trump keeps offering to mediate in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. Trump’s “offer” is more of a threat, calculated to keep India away from Russia and China, and as a US spearhead in the Indo-Pacific to contain China. India is not averse to the role of a leading or balancing power, with US backing, in the Indo-Pacific. But Kashmir, among other issues, is an obstacle to greater India-US strategic cooperation.
Here Russia could be useful because it is opposed to India toeing the US line in the Asia-Pacific and on the global stage. Russia wants India on its side to resist US moves that are detrimental to Moscow’s interests. India, for its part, wants Russia to not get any closer to Pakistan and support New Delhi’s ambitions in Afghanistan.
Thus, both Moscow and New Delhi are looking for mutually beneficial options to resist US pressures without becoming overly dependent on China. The Modi-Putin joint statement lists concrete steps for the two countries to, among other things: complement each other on strategic issues; coordinate positions in international forums; advance mutual agenda in priority regions; and, offset the negative influence posed by rivals and adversaries to the national and bilateral interests of both India and Russia.
Significantly, India put off signing the much-anticipated defence logistics agreement with Russia, lest it offend the US. And, Russia kept “Indo-Pacific” out of the joint statement. That says a lot about where the strategic relationship is right now.
(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. Views expressed are personal.)