Changing India-Russia relations

Lavrov's visit to New Delhi underlined that Indo-Russia relations now need careful and unsentimental nurturing
Changing India-Russia relations

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited India on April 5 and 6. He held discussions with his counterpart S Jaishankar on April 6. Lavrov has been in office continuously since 2004; consequently, he is one of the world's veteran foreign ministers. Jaishankar is a senior and influential member of the Indian cabinet. Both ministers were professional diplomats before taking to politics. They would therefore be acutely aware of the significance of gestures in bilateral relations between nation states. During official visits, especially at the political level, a departure from traditional gestures may indicate that the nature of the relationship is changing. This despite all other efforts to send out positive messages by two countries on the nature of their bilateral ties. How are these thoughts relevant to Lavrov's visit?

Russian foreign ministers are traditionally received by the prime minister when they visit India. These calls signal, among other things, that the bilateral relationship is important enough for the prime minister to invest his time to meet the foreign minister even if it is not strictly mandated by general diplomatic protocol. On this occasion Lavrov was not received by prime minister Narendra Modi. Was it because he was busy campaigning outside Delhi on the main day of the Lavrov visit? Or, was no effort made by the Indian side to accommodate Lavrov because of a growing frustration arising out of an absence of reciprocity by Russia; its top leader has stopped giving access to important Indian ministers on their visits to Moscow? In either case it can be said that it would have been inconceivable in the heyday of the bilateral relationship for a visiting Russian foreign minister to leave India without meeting the prime minister or for his Indian counterpart not be received by the Russian president.

It would have been equally inconceivable for a Russian foreign minister to combine a visit to Pakistan with India in a single foreign tour. He would not have done so to avoid treading on Indian sensitivities. Lavrov decided to go to Islamabad directly from Delhi. Apart from discussions with Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi he met prime minister Imran Khan and army chief General Qamar Bajwa.

Lavrov's visit to Pakistan was the first by a Russian foreign minister in nine years. In these years the two countries have come closer. They are developing military ties. Also, their approach to Afghanistan has common elements. This has led Russia to bring in Pakistan-but not India- as part of the extended Russia-US-China troika on Afghanistan. This position was once more confirmed when Russia kept India out of an important meeting in Moscow last month where the Taliban and Kabul political elite were present along with the extended troika. Russia deliberately ignoring India is all the more striking for after the emergence of the Taliban in 1994 India, Russia and Iran cooperated to help the then anti-Taliban forces in effective ways.

The coincidence of Indian and Russian interests was the greatest during the Cold War but once it ended and the Soviet Union, which at its core was Russian, was consigned to history, the interests of the two countries began to diverge. Changes in global geo-politics compelled India look to the West, especially the US, for the fulfilment of its needs. On its part the West began to look to India with fresh eyes particularly because it saw opportunities on account of the upward trajectory of the Indian economy. The rise of China also led to the creation of a positive environment for India-West ties which opened pathways to greater cooperation between India and the West, including the US. These developments impacted India-Russia relations.

Amidst all the global geo-political changes of the past three decades and diverging outlooks on many issues in the Indo-Pacific and other regions too arising out of differences in Sino-Indian and Sino-Russian ties there is still a vast area for mutually beneficial cooperation between India and Russia. It is in the vital interest of both countries to ensure that this area which relates to the security and defence, civil nuclear energy and space among, is insulated from mutual differences in outlook on some geo-political issues and the pressures of other powers. It was clear from the Lavrov visit that both countries wish to take decisions in defence, nuclear and space areas uninfluenced by third party considerations. However, both will have to display great will and commitment in the coming years to persist with autonomous decisions especially in relation to India's acquisition of Russia's advance defence systems such as the S-400s.

Russia will continue to remain an important supplier of defence materials and equipment of all kinds. In this context it would have been satisfying for the Indian side to hear Lavrov commit to joint production of advanced defence systems in India even if took a dig at the nature of India and the West's relations in this field when he said "I would like to note that we are the only partner that is giving India cutting edge military technology".

It would also be mutually beneficial for both countries to explore other areas of cooperation such as connectivity through both land and sea as well as trade. Lavrov especially focussed on the need of a free trade agreement. This would not be easy to finalise but efforts to augment trade should be made.

All in all, India and Russia relations need very careful and unsentimental nurturing now and in the coming years.

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