India and Russia need each other
Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin realise that despite the geopolitical churn, the depth of India-Russia ties is evident.
The recently concluded summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin should evoke approval from the decision-making elites of both India and Russia.
First, it dispelled the impression that India-Russia ties were on the wane because the two countries were moving closer to different partners in today’s primary international confrontation — the United States (US) and China, respectively. It showed that both leaderships are quite realistic about their relationship and where it is placed in this ongoing churn. That they are not driven by the nostalgia of restoring the “glory days” of Indo-Soviet bonhomie, even though the second of the 99-paragraph post-summit joint statement recalled the Indo-Soviet Treaty signed 50 years ago in a positive light.
In fact, the statement showcased the breadth and depth of the relationship as well as its nuanced responses to the several challenges that exist in areas where bilateral ties are affected by external developments.
Second, India and Russia clearly demonstrated the need to post-haste deal with the lack of economic traction between the two economies. This reflects Modi-Putin’s understanding that the relationship can only last, despite their close defence cooperation and similarity of long-term strategic views, if it has a robust economic foundation. That is why a large part of the joint statement is dedicated to boosting joint projects in the Russian Far East, collaboration in hydrocarbons, civil nuclear energy, science, technology, space as well as strengthening banking ties. Nothing underlines the seriousness of their intent better than the determination to pursue connectivity projects, including via Chabahar port in Iran.
Third, the extension for another 10 years of the agreement on military cooperation is an indication that the two countries will continue to be lynchpins to each other’s defence sectors for several more years, even decades. Russia will participate in the “Make in India” programme by localising the production of some weapons platforms through technology transfer. This is illustrated by the deal to produce the AK-203 rifles and frigates for the Indian Navy.
The joint statement described it as the signing of a new ten-year agreement without spelling out the details, except to say that it was “reorienting presently to joint research and development, co-development and joint production of advanced defence technology and systems”. This is likely to evoke some speculation in the global expert community, especially when considered alongside the statement made by Putin’s long-time foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov about some “semi-confidential” agreements being signed during Putin’s visit to India.
However, the two sides did not sign the widely expected Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS), which is similar to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between India and the US. This gives access to both countries to designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refuelling and replenishment. The joint statement merely noted that India and Russia “recognised the requirement of an institutional arrangement for reciprocal provision of logistic support and services for the Armed Forces”.
Fourth, both Modi and Putin appear to have reduced vexing divergences significantly on a variety of important international issues — Afghanistan, the Indo-Pacific, Quad, rapidly developing close ties between India and the US, and Russia’s growing relations with China and Pakistan.
On Afghanistan, Modi and Putin called for urgently addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the installation of a “truly inclusive and representative government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, ... and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities”.
On the Indo-Pacific, India appears to have achieved considerable progress in convincing the Russians not to hold their noses while speaking about it. In fact, the Russians have virtually accepted India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific, with both sides agreeing that the “emerging regional security architecture should be free, open, transparent and inclusive, based on universally recognized principles of international law,” and stressing the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s centrality in this regional architecture.
India’s ties with the US or Russia’s ties with China and Pakistan would have been thoroughly discussed but were not publicly addressed by both leaders and officials. However, defence minister Rajnath Singh’s public exhortation that Russia continues to play the role it has during the recent turbulence in India-China relations, and India’s resolve to go ahead with the S-400 deal despite the threat of US sanctions, reflect an understanding that neither India nor Russia will do anything that may harm each other’s strategic interests. The Russian view that India is moving closer to the US, a primary antagonist of Moscow, as well as the Indian view that Russia’s strategic proximity with China will deter ties with India, seem to have been addressed.
Overall, it appears that Modi and Putin realise that despite the geopolitical churn, India and Russia need each other. The main takeaway from the Modi-Putin summit is that old friends have had a heart-to-heart chat clearing many cobwebs and setting a road map to a stronger bilateral relationship.
Nandan Unnikrishnan is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal