Why Putin is as important to Modi as Obama

India's relationship with Russia is vital for the balance of our foreign policy and for managing our wider strategic interests.

 |  5-minute read |   09-12-2014
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President Putin's visit to India for the 15th India-Russia summit is timely for several reasons. It will put the spotlight back on India-Russia relations seemingly suffering from some neglect.

Our relations with immediate neighbours, China, Japan, the US and Australia have drawn considerable attention after Prime Minister Modi took power because of his high profile diplomatic engagement with all of them. Although Modi met Putin at the BRICS summit in Brazil and with Prime Minster Medvedev at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin has visited India in June and November this year, other relationships, intensively covered by the media, have overshadowed our ties with Russia and created an impression that these had declined in relative importance. Putin's visit will be an occasion to correct this misperception.

The unexpected invitation to President Obama to be the chief guest at our R-Day celebrations in January next is seen as reflecting our new foreign policy priorities. This initiative comes at a time when US-Russia relations have dramatically deteriorated, with the US determined to isolate and punish Russia over Ukraine and Putin excoriating US policies, to the point of accusing it of seeking Russia's break-up.

While Modi's gesture to Obama is independent of the state of US-Russia relations, external observers will closely watch the outcome of Putin's visit and the space that Putin gets in India to show that he is not isolated and that India's special relationship with Russia remains unaffected. The State Department spokesperson's recent remarks, in the context of Obama's visit, cautioning against business as usual with Russia were quite inopportune. Our challenge would be to ensure that while we add warmth to India-US ties, those with Russia do not lose warmth. This adds to the salience of Putin's visit.

For India, it is increasingly difficult to understand the rationale of US/EU policy towards Russia that, amongst other consequences, is throwing the latter into China's embrace. The strategic winner in this needless confrontation between the West and Russia is China, whose challenge to the West's hegemony is now backed by enormous financial strength and expanding military capability. Not only has Russia's reluctance to feed China's inexorable economic rise with its natural resources ended, it is now supplying advanced weaponry to China.

While India seeks greater Chinese investments in its economy and forges common positions with China in the Russia-India-China (RIC) and BRICS formats, it cannot but be concerned at China excessively dominating these and other forums because, with Russia's loss of weight, it will only weaken our position and make the major territorial and strategic challenges we face from China more difficult to counter. How much Russia will henceforth need to factor in China's interests in formulating its policies in our region in particular would need careful assessment by us.

With our improved strategic understandings with the US, Japan and Australia that could cushion the Asia-Pacific region against China's increasing self-assertiveness, and the West's geopolitical belligerence against Russia compelling increased Russia-China geopolitical understandings as a result, a gap should not develop between the Russian vision and our vision of peace and stability in this region. Putin's visit should be an occasion to understand his long-term vision of Russia-China ties, including its military dimension.

The perceived westwards shift by India and greater Russia-China bonding may well have precipitated the defence cooperation agreement between Russia and Pakistan. With instabilities ravaging Pakistan, from street challenges to its elected government manipulated by the armed forces to widespread terrorism directed at the state institutions and minorities, not to mention spreading sectarian conflict, the country's economic woes, its nuclear adventurism and destabilizing ambitions in Afghanistan, such an agreement and possible sale of Russian attack helicopters to follow would hardly seem opportune. In addition to our concern about Russian defence material and technologies supplied to China finding their way into Pakistan, we would now be facing the prospect of direct Russian arms sales to Pakistan.

While our recent decisions to buy non-Russian equipment may have deprived Russia of export earnings, they did not undermine Russian security, whereas the supply of arms to Pakistan directly affects our security. That the US can sell arms to both Pakistan and India is hardly a reason for Russia to emulate the US, given the historical depth of India-Russia defence ties as well as long-term joint programmes under implementation. The US is trying to build a relationship of trust with us; Russia should avoid diluting the trust built up over the years with India. This could be one more subject for discussion during Putin's visit.

Our limited economic exchanges with Russia constitute a major weakness in bilateral relations. Energy cooperation could be boosted with more openings for us to invest in Russia's hydrocarbon sector. Diamond trade between the two countries could be substantially increased. Putin's call for building Russia's pharmaceutical industry to lessen dependence on the West creates opportunities for us. Current western sanctions on Russia open up possibilities for new economic partnerships. More cooperation in the space sector is needed. Clear prospects for enhanced nuclear cooperation should be announced during Putin's visit. A huge scope exists in the area of high technology where, while more liberal than others, Russia has also been inhibited because of its "international obligations".

For both sides it is important that Putin's visit is visibly successful. For Putin it would be important to demonstrate that he and Russia have friends who esteem him and his country. For us it would be important because our relationship with Russia is vital for the balance of our foreign policy and for managing our wider strategic interests.


Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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