India-Russia Relations Under Stress?

Speculation has been rife on the viability of the India-Russia partnership in view of Moscow’s changing geo-strategic dynamics. But the upcoming bilateral summit and President Putin’s India visit could recalibrate and solidify further this enduring partnership

Foreign Affairs

By Vinay Shukla

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin

The cancellation of the annual bilateral summit in 2020 has led to the widely prevalent view that India-Russia relations are under stress and New Delhi must look at Washington to secure its vital interests. Although the Covid-9 pandemic is blamed for the cancellation of President Vladimir Putin’s scheduled India visit last year, many parallel developments deepened the impression of a withering trust among the “privileged” strategic partners over a plethora of issues. Like India’s pro-US tilt in the backdrop of the border stand-off with an assertive China; the growing proximity of Moscow and Beijing under Western sanctions; or the virtual summit of the leaders of India, US, Australia and Japan in the Quad format to manage the Indo-Pacific to counter China.

Also, while the new Biden administration invited India to join the Afghanistan talks in Istanbul under UN aegis, Russia did not invite New Delhi to the Moscow-sponsored talks involving the US, China, Pakistan and the warring Afghan sides including the Taliban. Russians argued that the Moscow talks involved parties having some channels of communications with both conflicting parties in Afghanistan – the Kabul government and the Taliban — while India could join at the later reconstruction stage.

According to sources, Foreign Secretary Shringla had very substantive and detailed talks with his counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, on a whole range of issues and agreed to further strengthen bilateral multifaceted cooperation

All this gave rise to speculation on the viability of the India-Russia partnership in view of Moscow’s changing geo-strategic dynamics. Things look in different perspectives from the top of Borovitsky Hill (the Kremlin) than from Raisina Hill (South Block). This is where the strategic partnership mechanism is instrumental in dovetailing different perspectives having direct bearing on the vital interests of the two countries.

The two-day visit of Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla in February, his first foreign trip this year after relaxation in COVID-19 restrictions, was aimed precisely at putting an end to these speculations. Moscow was eager to hear about India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific where the two countries have openly voiced differences of opinion, and in this context Shringla meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was significant. Mr Lavrov rarely entertains foreign secretary-level officials visiting Moscow.

“India-Russia relationship is very close, very special, very privileged, and strategic,” Foreign Minister Lavrov assured Shringla.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla shake hands during a meeting at the Reception House

Prior to Shringla’s visit, Indian Ambassador to Russia DB Venkatesh Varma described relations with Moscow as “rock solid and diverse” and that the FS will set the agenda for the bilateral interaction in 2021, including visit of President Putin to India at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the annual summit, which could not be held on schedule last year due to Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, President Putin, who had the first shot of the Sputnik V vaccine on March 23, himself declared that after three weeks he is going to have the second dose of the vaccine and three weeks later on developing immunity will extend the geography of his foreign visits.

According to sources, Shringla had very substantive and detailed talks with his counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, on a whole range of issues and agreed to further strengthen bilateral multifaceted cooperation.

India, Russia Foreign Ministers Discuss Two Nations’ Upcoming Annual Summit

By Sri Krishna
New Delhi. Foreign Ministers of India and Russia discussed the modalities for the upcoming annual summit of leaders of the two nations. Even the issues like pending delivery of Moscow’s controversial S-400 weapons system to India did not figure out, however, both the Ministers vowed to deepen military-technical cooperation (MTC). “We reiterated our commitment to military-technical cooperation,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said after discussions with his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar.
“We have an intergovernmental commission (IGC) on military-technical cooperation. It has its plans, and this includes discussion of additional manufacturing of Russian military equipment on Indian territory.”
Jaishankar said the S-400s would be discussed at a meeting of defence ministers later in the year. The two sides also discussed vaccine cooperation and an expected visit to India of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
India is set to clear the Russia-made Sputnik V Coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, which will make available a third vaccine option for the country, as the country battles a steep resurgence of Covid-19 infections. To be manufactured by Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd., Sputnik V is a two-dose vaccine which needs to be stored in liquid form at or below -18 degree Celsius.
The meeting comes at a time when the US is pushing Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban to reach a peace deal so it can withdraw the remaining 2,500 American forces from the war-torn country, and amid strained relations between Washington and Moscow. Despite the tensions, Russia has publicly backed the US proposal for an interim government of national unity bringing together the Taliban and Afghan leaders.
“The Taliban movement is part of Afghan society and decisions on the settlement in Afghanistan should foresee the participation of all political, ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan, otherwise it won’t be durable,” Lavrov said. “And this settlement should reflect a balance of interests of all political, ethnic and religious groups, including their representation in governing structures.”
In a statement which is welcome news to India and yet another step towards strengthening Indo-Russian ties, Russia ruled out any military alliance with China, with Lavrov saying that Moscow supply of military equipment will continue.

While Lavrov did not answer questions about India buying additional regiments of the S-400 air-defence system, he said military ties were deepening and he respected India’s decision to diversify the purchase of military weapons from other countries, a reference to the United States and France. He said Russia was reassured that there was no plan for an Asian NATO. “I shared our viewpoint on the Indo-Pacific. As our Prime Minister pointed out at the Shangri-La Dialogue some years ago, contemporary challenges require countries to work together in new and different ways,” Jaishankar said.
“By the way, we have heard speculation about pro-military alliances not only with respect to Russia and China relations, we have also heard about such alliances allegedly being promoted such as Middle East-NATO, Asia-NATO. Today we exchanged views on this and our Indian friends have the same position as we. We believe that this is counter-productive,” he said in Russian.
“We are interested in inclusive cooperation that is for something, not against somebody,” Lavrov asserted. Defence cooperation as well as weapons manufacturing was also discussed during the talks, he said.
At the joint presser after the talks, Jaishankar said the discussions were warm, comprehensive and productive. “We talked about long-standing partnership in nuclear, space and defence sectors.”
He said the discussions also covered the rapidly expanding energy cooperation as well as views were exchanged on regional and global matters. Such cooperation also reflects the multi-polar and re-balanced character of global politics, Jaishankar said.
India is strongly committed to ASEAN centrality and this is outlined by the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) that it has been advocating at the East Asia Summit (EAS), he said. “As we implement our Act East and Beyond policy, Russia is a very important partner,” Jaishankar added. The India and Russia annual summit was postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both the countries have a mechanism under which India’s Prime Minister and the Russian President hold a summit meeting annually to review the entire gamut of ties. So far, 20 annual summit meetings have taken place alternately in India and Russia.
Russia has been a time-tested partner for India and the country has been a key pillar of New Delhi’s foreign policy.

–The writer is Consulting Editor with the publication

As COVID-19 anxiety slowly subsides due to mass-vaccinations underway in Russia and India, the two sides are considering a series of high-profile visits to India of Duma Speaker Viacheslav Volodin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, co-chair of inter-governmental joint commission, to pave the ground for the summit that was postponed last year. The two countries are planning to sign several key agreements during the upcoming summit, including a mutual investment protection treaty. But no mention is being made of defence related agreements for obvious reasons, except for the commitment of Russia to commence timely deliveries of the five S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems under a $5.5 billion deal, starting later this year. India is very much on the US watch list for this deal, as indicated by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Justin during his recent India visit.

The US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanction Act, in short known as CAATSA, to punish Russia for alleged meddling in the presidential polls leading to the victory of Donald Trump in 2016, is hanging like the Damoclean sword over India-Russia arms trade. The US Defence Secretary said the issue of imposing secondary sanctions against India was not discussed during his New Delhi talks as the actual delivery of S-400 has not taken place, unlike in the case of China and Turkey, who were sanctioned after receiving deliveries of the A2AD (anti access/area denial) weapons.

However, it is most likely that Washington will use CAATSA as a bargaining tool to sell more expensive arms and systems to New Delhi in exchange for a India-specific waiver

Experts in Moscow claim that the S-400 can detect and destroy the much-hyped American F-35 stealth fighters within 400 km range. The proliferation of the S-400 missile systems in sensitive areas is the main concern for the US.

However, it is most likely that Washington will use CAATSA as a bargaining tool to sell more expensive arms and systems to New Delhi in exchange for a India-specific waiver. Although, in the backdrop of a 33% reduction in India’s arms import in 2011-15 and 2016-20, a SIPRI report noted that in 2016-20 Russian share in arms exports to India also dropped and stood at 49% as compared to up to 80% in the heydays.

India is withholding many big ticket arms deals with Russia, so as not to irk Washington. At the same time Russia still remains the source of critical strategic assets like lease of nuclear submarines and some specific technology that the US does not share even with its NATO allies. Russia is also gradually readying to embrace the “Make in India” philosophy. Under an inter-governmental agreement signed in 2019 during Prime Minister Modi’s Vladivostok visit, many Russian companies are preparing to set up shop in India for making critical defence spares through technology transfer.

S-400 Air Defence System

The head of the Kremlin-linked Russian International Affairs Council, Dr Andrei Kortunov, and the editor-in-chief of “Russia in Global Affairs” magazine, Fyodor Lukyanov, believe that Moscow balancing its relations with India and China would be “counterproductive”.

They called for “parallel” development of bilateral ties with New Delhi and Beijing. A similar message on India’s policy towards Moscow and Washington was conveyed by Foreign Secretary Shringla during his meetings in the Russian capital in February.

– The writer is a Moscow-based independent analyst. Views are personal.

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