The 21st India-Russia annual summit was held on December 6 in Delhi. It was to take place last year but did not because of the covid 19 pandemic. President Vladimir Putin travelled to India only for a few hours to meet prime minister Narendra Modi. He has not travelled out of Russia since the pandemic began except for a meeting in Geneva this summer with president Joe Biden. Besides, he was scheduled to virtually meet the US president on December 7; both countries are seeking to abate tensions in Europe and also between them over the build-up of Russian troops along the Ukraine border. Obviously, Putin did not want to disappoint Delhi by either suggesting a postponement of the summit or a virtual meet.
This indicates that Russia, as does India, wishes to nourish a relationship that is important for both countries. Its roots go back to the Cold War when it was critical for India and the then Soviet Union too. From India’s perspective the high point of bilateral ties was precisely fifty years ago when the Soviet relationship was vital during the difficult days of 1971. Soviet military and diplomatic assistance was an important factor in fending off US hostility at that time. India repaid the Soviet Union when, despite its own grave misgivings, it did not take criticise Moscow for its intervention in Afghanistan.
The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union coincided with India changing its socio-economic model of development and its external priorities; and Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union, too transformed its systems. This demanded that both countries show an understanding for the others changing outlook and concerns and address these pragmatically without either nostalgia or excessive expectations. This is never easy between close partners. On the whole India and Russia have managed to successfully handle their bilateral ties over the past three decades despite passing disappointments with each other.
This mutually accommodative desire is visible even today. The joint statement issued after the Modi-Putin meeting notes that both countries ties are “charactezised” by “respect for each other’s core national interests”. Relationships between states move ahead when a partner ensures that it is able to discern what is a vital interest of the other and takes it into consideration. This is easy so long as a basic interest of one does not come in the way of what the other perceives to be its fundamental concern. Diplomacy is, however, tested when it is otherwise. It is then that wisdom and a long-term view become necessary to sustain relationships.
The proposition set out is illustrated on the issue of India’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia. India considers it necessary for its defence. The US has put pressure on India not to acquire it. The US has pointed to its laws which require it to impose sanctions on India if it proceeds with the S-400 purchase. India obviously considers the S-400 missile system essential for its security and hence it cannot make any compromise on this issue. The India-US relationship is moving well but if sanctions are imposed then it will get a set-back. The US has the option of waiving sanctions and if it is wise, it will exercise that option.
There was a time when India almost exclusively imported defence equipment from the Soviet Union. With its going away India found that the Soviet defence industry which was earlier spread across different parts of the same country was now spread over many countries. But with care and patience India and Russia managed to ensure that despite dislocations their defence relationship continued to do well. Even today Russia is India’s main source of defence equipment and systems. However, India has diversified its sources and Israel, France and the US have become important for its defence needs. It is also in India’s core interest that this diversification continues. While Russia may not be happy with India’s approach it has not come in the way. Thus, it has shown “respect” for India’s “core concern” in an area which the Modi-Putin joint statement notes thus “Military and military-technical cooperation has traditionally been the pillar of Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia”.
The tensions between the Western powers and Russia over Ukraine pose problems for India. The Western powers want to effectively draw Ukraine in their sphere of influence and even make it a member of NATO which is still aimed at Russia. Putin is interpreting these moves as critical challenges to Russia’s security and has made it plain that he will not countenance them. On their part the Western powers are insisting that a sovereign Ukraine has the right to exercise its choices. The Western powers would like to gain India’s support and confront Russia as they are doing. India is refraining from doing so. And in so doing it is showing “respect” for Russia’s core concern.
On its part despite its very close cooperation with China in the context of the new Cold War, Russia has carefully avoided any show of support for its global partner in the context of India-China tensions. Naturally, India would prefer that it is critical of Chinese aggressive approaches especially since the summer of 2020 and defence minister Rajnath Singh without taking China’s name referred to it in his statement at the 2+2 India-Russia meeting which preceded the summit. However, strategic partners have to reconcile their individual varied interests and show mutual understanding. That is the path of sustained and productive ties.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.