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The strategic calculus behind Russian President Putin’s India visit

india Updated: Dec 03, 2014 11:17 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times

After focusing on South Asian neighbours, the US and Asia-Pacific powers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi turns his attention to Russia during this month’s visit of President Vladimir Putin.

Russia no longer registers as a priority power for the Indian public but the diplomatic establishment continues to take it seriously for several reasons. For one, Russia is the one great power India has had no major disagreement with over the decades.

Moscow consistently backed India’s stand on Kashmir during the Cold War and both countries currently share outlooks on global issues including Afghanistan, terrorism and handling Iran. Both are instinctively uncomfortable with the West’s dominance of global institutions and its alleged propensity to use narratives of a rules-based international system to suit its interests.

Russia remains a key source of energy, nuclear technology and weapons for India even if New Delhi now diversifies its arms basket to consolidate ties with other strategic partners.

Putin’s visit comes amid a sensitive geopolitical juncture. Russia is rethinking its strategic future and is consolidating links with Asia even as its ties with Europe shrink following Western sanctions responding to Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine—on which issue In dia notably leaned towards Moscow.

The Russian finance minister recently disclosed that his country was losing $40 billion a year owing to sanctions, around $100 billion due to falling oil prices and some $130 billion in capital flight. Moscow is thus reorienting priorities and will be looking to India to diversify economic ties beyond energy and weapons and ramp up bilateral trade which underperforms at $10 billion.

On its part, India will be mindful of strengthening ties between China and Russia; their bilateral trade was worth $88 billion in 2013 and both recently signed a 30 year gas deal worth $400 billion. India will thus be keen on increasing Russian energy imports while inviting greater investments in infrastructure.

Indian strategists will also be mindful of Putin’s outreach to Pakistan. Russia’s defence minister visited Pakistan last month—a first since the end of the Cold War—and signed a military cooperation agreement that, as of now, entail modest sale of attack helicopters, port calls of warships and cooperation on terrorism and stabilising Afghanistan.

That level of cooperation will not worry India, but New Delhi will know that Moscow’s exercise of strategic flexibility can also be a mode of signalling. Putin’s visit will be a chance to reaffirm that India does not take Russia for granted.