India seeks a multipolar world, neither dominated by past hegemon America nor the Middle Heaven syndrome inspired China.
The 19th India-Russia summit was held in New Delhi on October 4-5, led by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both are complex personalities shaped by their nations’ past and current global dilemmas caused by Trumpian uncertainty. Mr Modi became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, while Mr Putin succeeded an ailing President Boris Yeltsin on January 1, 2000. They are both children of 21st century power competition.
Mr Putin has, whether directly as President or indirectly controlling power as Prime Minister, attempted to resurrect Russia from Boris Yeltsin letting it collapse to a tottering, second-rate power, with energy resources purloined by oligarchs. The West as well, instead of drawing Russia into a new but fair power-sharing arrangement in Europe, devoured its former Warsaw Pact periphery by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union. Russia recalled its historical experience that inability to dominate its surroundings had led to the Mongol invasion and two and a half centuries of Mongol suzerainty (1237-1480). Thus, as the rest of Europe settled after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to a balance of power order, Russia, having no natural borders between the Arctic and the Pacific, sought depth by conquest into Central Asia, the Far East and Europe. Mr Putin, through his stand in the Ukraine, laid down red lines to stop any Western encroachment. His intervention in the Syrian civil war has resurrected Russian influence in West Asia, drawn Russia closer to the Iran-led Shia crescent, seamlessly linking Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and got a seat at the Afghan peace table as well.
Thus, the summit this year repositions Indo-Russian relations in a world destabilised by maverick US President Donald Trump’s whims and phobias. The joint statement released in New Delhi on Friday recalls the 1971 Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation and the 1993 treaty, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as India faced the Cold War’s end. Article VIII of the 1971 pact enjoins that neither party would “enter into or participate in any military alliance directed against the other party”. Persisting tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the assassination of Russian defectors by GRU agents in the UK and alleged Russian interference in the American elections makes this relevant. Article X states that no obligation will be entered into “which might cause miitary damage to the other party”. It remains debatable whether Russian military sales to Pakistan and China breach that or India signing foundational agreements with the United States, last being Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), may be perceived by Russia as causing them military damage by exposing their equipment in India to US scrutiny?
However, since the May 21, 2018 Sochi summit, a new dynamism in bilateral relations is visible. The joint statement claims “deep trust” at a personal level and a shared desire for a “more interconnected and diverse world”. The agreements exchanged were not pathbreaking, but more a continuation of past engagements, with some tweaking. Most significant was the announcement of the Inter-governmental Commission on Military-Technology Cooperation meeting in December 2018, as indeed India buying the S-400 ground-to-air missile system. The announcement on the purchase of four frigates was withheld, perhaps to deal with the US and its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), from which waivers can be given only by the US President on a case-by-case basis. Incidentally, the US has imposed sanctions on Chinese entities buying the same missile system and SU-35 fighters.
Defence will remain one of the two anchors of the bilateral relationship, the other one being energy, despite India diversifying its purchases, with the US overtaking Russia in some recent years after orders for US transport planes, light artillery, Chinook and Apache helicopters, etc. Although Russia loaning India the Akula-class nuclear submarines outscores any technology sharing by the West, Russia failed to deliver on the joint production of fifth-generation fighters or medium transport planes. In this Indian balancing between Russia and the US, it is unclear what would be American red lines, beyond which the waivers would stop.
On the economic side, Indo-Russian trade has never recovered the vigour of the Cold War era, when the rupee-rouble trade provided India an easy export route. In the last year, trade has jumped 25 per cent, but the target of $30 billion by 2025 sounds ambitious, though a depreciating rupee may help. Energy cooperation is the mainstay of economic relations. Russia’s intervention in Syria has a strategic purpose as that controls the land route for the Gulf gas to flow to European markets via the Mediterranean. Likewise, for President Trump, blocking European dependence on Russian gas is a strategic imperative to market American gas. That explains his strong criticism of Germany receiving additional Russian gas via Nord Stream 2. Russia’s Gazprom dominates the Central East European energy market; it gets 37 per cent of its profits from and controls 34.7 per cent of the European market. India has to keep the Russian route open for energy security. Similarly, Russia’s Rosatom is dominating the setting up of new nuclear power plants in Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. India has benefited from past nuclear energy cooperation and can now be a partner abroad.
In Syria and Afghanistan, both sides agreed to back local-led solutions without outside interference. On Iran, both supported the US standoff over the nuclear deal being resolved through peaceful means and dialogue. On Korea, they welcomed the ongoing efforts for a peaceful resolution of all disputes. Finally, they shared incantations on fighting terrorism and avoiding an arms race in outer space. Russia committed itself to helping India’s space exploration and perhaps putting an Indian on the moon.
India seeks a multipolar world, neither dominated by past hegemon America nor the Middle Heaven syndrome inspired China. For that, Russia and Japan remain critical partners in the Indo-Pacific and continental Asia, as they cannot abandon the region as the US episodically does. The current summit is a course correction for that purpose.