Questions have been raised as to why the India Russia summit meeting did not take place after September 2019 through videoconference…reports D. Bala Venkatesh Varma
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin for the 21st Annual Summit in New Delhi on 6th December. Though by normal diplomatic standards this official visit was a short one – President Putin was in Delhi for less than four hours, its timing and outcome were significant, both for bilateral relations and on key questions concerning the global situation.
A Joint Statement was released at the conclusion of the Summit. 28 agreements and MOUs were concluded. Earlier that day, the first 2+2 meeting at the Ministerial level was held in addition to separate bilateral meetings, respectively, between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of both countries.
Given the complications of the Covid pandemic, the restoration of physical meetings at the Summit level, after a gap of two years, is significant in its own right. The last bilateral Summit was held in September 2019, when Prime Minister Modi was chief guest at the Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok.
During the last two years it had become common practice for a number of bilateral summit meetings to take place through videoconference. Questions have been raised as to why the India Russia summit meeting did not take place after September 2019 through videoconference.
The answer is simple. Given the content of the bilateral relationship and the confidential nature of conversations between PM Modi and President Putin, it was not practical to hold the summit level meeting through video conference. In this respect, India’s relations with Russia, are unlike its relations perhaps with any other country in the world.
PM Modi and President Putin have established a unique practice, first in Sochi in 2018, later in Vladivostok in 2019, and subsequently through numerous telephone conversations of having discussions on a one-to-one basis covering not just bilateral relations but also key international issues. Discussions between the two leaders on 6th December also followed the same practice and will set the tone for our overall relations.
Since the onset of the Covid pandemic, President Putin has avoided international travel except for his visit to Geneva in July for the bilateral summit with President Biden. President Putin’s visit to India is therefore significant. When I was Ambassador in Moscow I was told very clearly in late October, that President Putin was making an exception due to the high importance that he attached to our bilateral relations as well as his personal regard for Prime Minister Modi.
The Summit demonstrated that the content of bilateral relations has undergone a quiet but fundamental transformation in the last couple of years. While defence, nuclear, space and energy continue to occupy a prominent position, new drivers have been added to our economic and trade relations. There has been a consolidation of the old strengths and a diversification into new areas which will yield substantial dividends in the years to come.
In the defence sector, apart from the implementation of the S 400 supply contract, despite strong diplomatic headwinds, as well as the ongoing construction of four frigates (1135.6), the most significant development was the conclusion of the contract for the manufacture of over 700,000 world-class assault weapons, the AK -203 assault weapon, that will be manufactured in Uttar Pradesh.
This will involve hundred percent transfer of technology to the joint venture. After meeting the requirements of the Indian Armed Forces, supplies to India’s paramilitary and police forces as well as third country exports are possibilities. This will be one of the biggest success stories thus far of our Make-in-India program in the defence sector. In addition, other agreements with regard to IGLA missiles, top-up purchases of additional MIG 29s and Su-30MKIs, quite apart from ongoing cooperation in other critical areas of strategic importance.
There has been a substantial boost in our defence relations with Russia in the last three years. Russia has returned to being the top defence supplier to India after a gap of some years. Significantly, since the summer of last year, in the context of increased tensions in the Ladakh sector, Russia has responded positively to our emergency procurement requests and has hastened the supply of some of the weapon systems that are of relevance to the current stand-off with China. This evidence of practical cooperation on the ground, in support of India, should be seen in the context of recurring reports of the closer alignment between Russia and China.
The energy sector has already attracted over $ 30 billion of l investments. There are a number of major projects under discussion, in the oil and gas and energy sectors as well as petrochemicals, where Indian companies have been in discussion with their Russian counterparts for possible participation in the future for instance, in one of the world’s largest energy projects-Vostok as well as Arctic LNG 2.
There is considerable scope for cooperation in technologies relating to hydrogen energy; given the imperatives of energy transition due to climate change, increased gasification of the economy, use of new technologies for carbon capture, drawing down of coal, long-term supplies of coking coal for our steel sector – these are some of the new areas of cooperation. We are also looking at Russia as a long-term supplier, at preferential rates, of fertilisers for our agricultural sector. Cooperation in the pharmaceutical sector received a boost during the covid pandemic, including cooperation in the production of sputnik vaccines in India.
Our Prime Minister’s announcement in Vladivostok of a billion-dollar soft credit line, when implemented will provide for Indian business a leg up for opening joint ventures in the Russian Far East- an area of high economic potential but also of geopolitical significance. The operationalisation of the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor will supplement the International North-South transport corridor through Iran. India has also expressed interest in cooperation with Russia in the use of the Northern Sea Route which passes through the Arctic region. As part of our diversification of our relations increased emphasis has been placed on inter-regional cooperation.
Following the withdrawal of American/NATO troops from Afghanistan, India and Russia have stepped up efforts to address the common challenges that both countries face with respect to terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of instability, that could also impact on the stability of Central Asia. A roadmap of cooperation has been drawn up as a result of intensive contacts between NSAs of both countries. Cooperation between the special security services have been stepped up.
The perceived gaps between India and Russia that had emerged over the last couple of years have begun to narrow. India and Russia have a vital stake in stabilising the situation in Afghanistan, in not allowing Pakistan to dominate that country for its own interests. While Russia has engaged with Pakistan, including in the Troika format, there are clear signs that Russia wants to expand engagement with India. This is a positive development. Russia continues to exercise restraint in the supply of arms to Pakistan, which is of importance to our security interests.
The broader geopolitical context is increasingly becoming an important reference point in our bilateral relations. These include the assertive nature of China’s rise – our Rashka Mantri made a clear reference to this in his remarks with his Russian counterpart-without naming China he referred to unprovoked aggression on our northern borders, India’s strategic partnership with United States as well as the perception of Russia’s own strategic closeness with China. The Indo- Pacific concept and the Quad have brought forth some differences between India and Russia. The 2+2 format provided a useful forum for exchange of views and perceptions. These were also covered during the summit level discussions. Just as Russia needs India as part of its maritime strategy, India needs Russia to achieve a credible continental strategy.
The ongoing geopolitical churn is not of a short-term character. Rebalancing within the evolving framework of multipolarity will take time before a new equilibrium emerges based on a new balance of deterrence and interests. Our bilateral relations with Russia have proven one point- perhaps unlike other big powers, Russia does not seek and nor is it in a position to demand any dilution of our strategic autonomy; on the contrary, as the Kremlin indicated on the eve of Putin’s visit to India, Russia sees the value of India as an ‘authoritative independent power’; in PM Modi’s presence, Putin during his visit, referred to India as a’great power’.
The comfort level between PM Modi and President Putin is reflective of the mutual interest of both countries in using their bilateral relations as a stabilising anchor in navigating geopolitical turbulence for the foreseeable future. The only way to strengthen strategic autonomy and our capacity for independent thought and action is to exercise it.
Herein lies the real significance of the just concluded 21st India Russia Annual Summit.
(D. Bala Venkatesh Varma was India’s ambassador to Russia from 2018 until October 2021.)