Troubled Waters: Modi Seeks to Smooth Ties with Putin

Troubled Waters: Modi Seeks to Smooth Ties with Putin
REUTERS/Stanislav Krasilnikov

What you need to know

Despite Modi’s recent visit, Moscow–Delhi ties are likely to remain tumultuous in the coming years.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently ended a six-day European tour visiting Germany, Spain, Russia and France. But it is his visit to Russia that is attracting the most attention.

Indian–Russian ties are historical and have stood the test of time. The two were close allies during the Cold War and remained so even after the demise of the Soviet Union. For most Indians, Russia is a time-tested friend — one that stood by India when no one else was ready to.

This historical memory has cushioned the challenges that have confronted the relationship since the early 1990s. Barring a fleeting hiccup during Boris Yeltsin’s term as Russian president, New Delhi and Moscow have been extraordinarily successful in nurturing a friction-free relationship that harks back to the Soviet era.

But recent changes in Russian foreign policy posture have caused consternation in India. Moscow is getting closer to China and Pakistan — two of India’s biggest foreign policy challenges.

Russia has been making common cause with China on a whole range of geopolitical issues. At a time when Sino–Indian relations have nosedived — with China’s fulsome embrace of Pakistan and repeated Chinese attempts to scuttle India’s global aspirations — Sino–Russian relations are going strong, riding on a pliant Russia and a more assertive China.

But it is Russia’s gravitation toward Pakistan that is most concerning India.

In 2014, Russia lifted an arms embargo against Pakistan and is planning to send four Mi-35M attack helicopters to the country this year. In September 2016, Moscow and Islamabad held their first joint military exercise, followed by their first bilateral consultation on regional issues in December. And earlier this year, Russian troops participated in the Pakistan Day military parade. There is also a possibility that the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar could be merged with the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.

What’s more, at the 2016 Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit in Goa, Russia did not back India’s request to name two Pakistan-based terror groups as perpetrators of terrorism against India, thereby shielding Pakistan from censure.

This shift in Russia’s stance is also evident in the role that it envisions for itself in Afghanistan. In February, Russia hosted a six-nation conference in Moscow on Afghanistan’s future — with participation from India, Iran, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. This was Russia’s second regional initiative concerning Afghanistan, after a trilateral conference in December with China and Pakistan.

The December conference agreed upon ‘a flexible approach’ to remove certain Taliban figures from UN sanction lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban. The three states also underscored their concern about the rising activity of extremist groups in Afghanistan, and conceded that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the global fight against groups such as the so-called Islamic State.

Kabul and New Delhi were surprised, while the Taliban was pleased. ‘It is joyous to see that the regional countries have also understood that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a political and military force’, noted a statement issued on the Taliban’s behalf. ‘The proposal forwarded in the Moscow tripartite of delisting members of the Islamic Emirate is a positive step forward in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan’.

Russia faced flak for not inviting Afghanistan to the December conference. The U.S.-backed Afghan government protested that — regardless of participants’ intentions — excluding Kabul would not help stabilize the country. Though Russia has since expanded its diplomatic outreach, it continues to exclude the United States and NATO in its engagement with Afghanistan.

Modi’s visit to Russia last week should be viewed in this light — an attempt to contain growing damage in Moscow–Delhi ties.

The visit ended in a number of agreements. The general framework agreement and credit protocol for two additional nuclear reactors at Kudankulam were finalized, after missing two earlier deadlines. The two countries also signed a joint declaration condemning terrorism. And in an attempt to boost flagging economic ties, the two nations outlined plans to set up joint ventures for manufacturing aircraft and automobiles.

The two leaders tried to put their best foot forward to celebrate 70 years of bilateral ties. But the fact remains that as India has gravitated to the West in its search for greater strategic heft, Russia has found new partners in China and Pakistan to serve its foreign policy agenda. Defense ties — the central element of the India–Russia partnership — are just not adequate to sustain the dynamism in the relationship, while multilateral platforms like BRICS are wilting under Chinese ascendance.

Despite Modi’s recent visit, Moscow–Delhi ties are likely to remain tumultuous in the coming years.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum.

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White