The Narendra Modi-Vladimir Putin informal summit in the Russian seaside resort of Sochi, has sent out a clear message to all those who believe that India is fast gravitating to the US sphere of influence. If last month’s Wuhan meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was about cooling tensions between the two Asian rivals, Monday‘s summit was to correct misconceptions that India had turned its back on Russia.
As Moscow braces for US sanctions and a new Cold War appears imminent, President Putin suggested an informal meeting with the Indian leader. Prime Minister Modi seized the opportunity with both hands. In an uncertain world, where equations are fast changing and with an unpredictable Donald Trump at the helm, Delhi is making sure it hedges its bets. It is clear now that India will play footsie with all major powers and not be tied down by Washington. The emphasis on a multipolar world, in the statement released after the informal summit, is an indication that India and Russia are on the same page on not allowing one particular country, be it US or China, call the shots. The Europeans are also on board on this.
Russia has been forced to befriend China at a time when the West is turning against Moscow. Beijing and Moscow have buried the past, a past where the US actively helped China to counter Russia. Today, though, Russia has been stripped of its super power status, its influence in world affairs remain constant. But Russia remains economically weak, and fresh sanctions will make it even more difficult. Putin and Xi Jinping have a good equation and, at the moment, Russia needs all friends it can muster. That is one reason why Putin suggested the informal summit. The Russian President also went out of his way to Modi. He broke the protocol to see off the Indian Prime Minister to the airport when he left Sochi after talks.
Personal diplomacy has become very important today. Whether it is Trump, Modi, Putin or Xi Jinping, the personal touch has come to the fore. This comes naturally to Modi, who spoke of his visit to Moscow, with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and flattered Putin by saying he was one of the first world leaders he met. During the boat ride in Sochi the two leaders were alone, and held intense discussions without the aid of interpreters.
The fact is that India and Russia go back a long time. The two countries have been friends from the Cold War era. Russia continues to be India’s major arms supplier, and though there is competition from both Israel and the US, Moscow still dominates. Defence and nuclear cooperation has been the centre piece of India-Russia ties. At a time when India was a nuclear pariah, it was Moscow which stood steadfastly behind Delhi. The Kundunkulam nuclear power station, which was in trouble with the nuclear watchdog, was saved by calling the subsequent stages a grandfather agreement.
With the Indian defence industry long used to Russian equipment, and with the Sukhoi fighters remaining the backbone of the Indian Airforce, India is not about to turn its back on Russia. Indeed, the Sochi meeting was as much an attempt to work around the tough US sanctions which affects every country doing business with Russia. How that will be worked out remains to be seen, but Delhi is in no mood to either delay or scrap any of the deals previously agreed on. India is buying the S-400 air defence system from Russia, and Modi has assured Putin that India will not change its mind on that acquisition.
After years of cool relations with Pakistan, Russia has in recent years established ties with India’s neighbours even holding military exercises with them. India had watched this development with some concern, much in the same way that Moscow viewed Delhi’s growing warmth with the US. Putin has reassured India that it wanted Pakistan to ensure that jihadi groups do not further extend their tentacles in Central Asia, which Russia regards as its backyard. Moscow also wanted Pakistan’s help in stabilising the situation in Afghanistan. Here, there is a divergent of views between Delhi and Moscow. India believes that Pakistan is the problem and not the solution to Afghanistan.
The flux in international geo politics, the situation in the Korean peninsular, and more immediate, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal were all up for discussions. The fate of the Chabahar project, after the American sanctions kick in is a major concern for India. Chabahar, as we all know, was meant to circumvent Pakistan and open up Afghanistan and Central Asia for trade and commerce. Insulating Chabahar from sanctions would have figured in the discussions between Modi and Putin.
Sochi gave India and Russia the opportunity to revamp ties. Neither Russia nor India, paid attention to each other in the last couple of years. That would have changed with this meeting. With an understanding at the highest level, both leaders are hedging their bets and preparing as best they can to widen their choices in case of unexpected changes in a world where past certainties can no longer be taken for granted.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.