When he met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apparently told him that every child in India knew Moscow was Delhi’s best friend forever.
As they sit down for a longer and substantive conversation in Delhi this week, Modi and Putin know they have a problem. The geopolitical circumstances that bound India and Russia close together for so long have begun to change. The structure of the partnership, too, is looking less special amid extended stagnation. Modi, who has boldly moved to rejuvenate India’s ties with America and Japan and devised a more positive approach towards China, must now go back to basics on Russia and find productive ways of boosting bilateral relations in an adverse regional and international environment.
In Moscow, it was Putin who saved the relationship from becoming irrelevant to both countries. In the 1990s, India found it hard to get post-Soviet Russia’s attention, as Moscow sought to integrate itself with the West and build a “Common European Home” stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific. Much hard work of Indian diplomats and strong faith in Delhi’s political class helped sustain the relationship with Russia through the difficult decade. It was only when Putin took charge of Russia at the turn of the new millennium that the bilateral relationship took a turn for the better.
That Putin had a working relationship with the West made India’s task relatively simple. Unlike in the Cold War, Delhi simply had to engage both Russia and the West, dealing with each on its own merit. Modi, however, will find the going somewhat difficult as Russia’s relations rapidly deteriorate.
The tension between Nato’s relentless expansion eastwards and Moscow’s determination to restore its traditional sphere of influence in the “near abroad” has been gathering for a while and finally boiled over in Ukraine this year. The idea of a Common European Home stands shattered. Russia and the West are finding it difficult to restore the rules of the road invented at the end of the Cold War in Europe, during 1989-91, or devise new ones that are acceptable to both sides. If the crisis in Europe lasts too long and Russia drifts away from the West, there will be new constraints on India’s foreign policy. There is no question of Delhi supporting Western sanctions against Russia, but the secondary effects of these measures are likely to corrode India’s ties with America and Europe.
India avoided endorsing Putin’s annexation of Crimea by force in Ukraine and then legitimising it by a “referendum”. After all, Delhi is rejecting Pakistan’s demands for a “plebiscite” in Kashmir. But you don’t want to reproach your friends in public. Delhi, therefore, kept quiet, much in the manner that it refused to publicly criticise Moscow when it sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979.
If there is a new Cold War between Russia and the West, India might find itself in a cleft stick. On the one hand, India’s economic stakes in the partnership with the West have rapidly grown and those with Russia, steadily diminished. Beyond the important defence and strategic trade, there is little commercial content in bilateral ties. Changing that has long been a priority for Delhi and Moscow. Modi and Putin, one hopes, can do better.
The changing geopolitical dynamic, meanwhile, is casting a shadow over the strategic ties between Delhi and Moscow. When Soviet Russia made enemies around the world in the 1980s, Indira Gandhi began to reduce Delhi’s excessive dependence on Moscow for arms supplies and Rajiv Gandhi accelerated the search for the diversification of India’s strategic partnerships.
Russia, however, retained its special position by supplying the kind of technologies no other country was prepared to supply to India. Consider, for example, Russian assistance to India in building the nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant. Although Modi is looking for stronger defence ties with the United States, there is no possibility that it can replace Russia in the near term.
But India’s relations with Russia are complicated by one important consequence of the unfolding conflict between Moscow and Washington. It is Russia’s strategic embrace of China, which is likely to have many implications for India. For one, Russia has begun to boost defence ties with China and is exporting technologies and systems that it once reserved solely for India. More broadly, by lining up behind China on global issues, Moscow is making it harder to construct a stable balance of power in Asia. Worse still, an America preoccupied with Central Europe and the Middle East might be compelled to consider compromises with Beijing in Asia.
Put simply, Russia’s conflict with the West pushes both of them towards a rising China and improves Beijing’s leverage in all directions. Making matters worse for India is Russia’s new strategic warmth with Pakistan. This has been in the making for a while. Quite clearly, neither Delhi nor Moscow can insist, any longer, on an exclusive partnership.
The India-Russia political partnership, which had expanded from the 1960s, took place amid deepening Sino-Russian hostility and Pak-China amity. Given an unreliable America, Russia was India’s principal insurance against the security challenges from China and Pakistan. If Moscow continues to fight with the West and draw closer to China and Pakistan, there is a real danger that India’s long-standing romance with Russia might turn sour. Preventing an irreversible drift in that direction should be on the top of the agenda for Modi and Putin.
As hard-boiled realists, Modi and Putin must acknowledge the new dynamic around them, find ways to limit its impact on the bilateral relationship and move quickly towards expanding the scope of their commercial ties and revitalising their cooperation in energy, defence and high-technology sectors.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’
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