By Ashok Sajjanhar
When the history of India-Russia relations is written in a few years, discussions held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 18th Annual Summit and during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) on 1 and 2 June will receive considerably more focus and attention than that accorded to parleys held at other annual summits. This is not as if a large number of defence deals might have been signed during the St. Petersburg Summit on 1 June or because several business contracts on hydrocarbons might have been inked on the sidelines of the Summit. In fact quite to the contrary, many more agreements and business contracts were signed during the last Summit on 15 October last year in Goa. This would also not be for the signature on the General Framework Agreement on Units 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, although this certainly represents significant progress in strengthening bilateral ties in this important sector. First and foremost, the Summit will be known for the trust, confidence and strategic equation that Prime Minister Modi and President Putin were able to establish with each other.
My earlier article, titled India-Russia Relations — Time for Serious Dialogue, had asserted that the essential significance of the Summit will be judged by the strategic connect that Modi was able to inject into this partnership. It is a matter of satisfaction that going by the pronouncements of the two leaders, the formulations on issues of interest and concern to India like terrorism, Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan, etc, India’s membership of inter-governmental and international organisations like the NSG and the UNSC etc., and most importantly the warmth, bonhomie, mutual respect and rapport between the two leaders, visible in abundance during the two days they spent together, adequately demonstrated that Modi and Putin had been successful to a large extent in bridging the gap between the two countries and bringing them on the same page as far as issues of their strategic interest are concerned.
It would be recalled that the 17th Summit, held on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Goa, had been extremely successful in advancing the bilateral partnership by the start of the construction of units 3 and 4 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant; agreement to set up 6 more nuclear plants at an alternative site; accord for sale by Russia to India of the USD 5 billion S-400 Triumph ballistic missile defence system; sale and progressive manufacture of Kamov 226-T helicopters; lease by Russia to India of a second Akula class nuclear-powered submarine, and several pacts in the area of hydrocarbons. All these were, however, not adequate to allay the misgivings and apprehensions of observers and analysts in India about the growing distance and perceived rift between the two countries. Some commentators went so far as to suggest that this relationship was irretrievably lost as India had put itself completely in the US camp by signing such far-reaching agreements like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The impression about the deepening chasm between the two countries was further reinforced by the fact that Putin did not utter the ‘T (terrorism)’ word in his statement at the plenary session of the BRICS Summit. Also he was seen to have sided with China in not including a reference to crossborder terrorism and terrorist groups like Let and JeM operating out of Pakistan against India. All this gave the impression that the strategic content of the bilateral relationship had got considerably diluted and that bilateral ties were in tatters.
Just before the October Summit and soon after the Uri terrorist attack on India from Pakistan, Russia had conducted military exercises with Pakistan. In substance, it might not have amounted to much but symbolically it sent a harsh message to India that Russia was dismissive of India’s core concerns and sensitivities. The last few months have seen several similar instances ranging from the statement by Russian representative at the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar in December last year to the effect that Pakistan was not involved in terrorist activities in India and Afghanistan, to the trilateral meeting between Foreign Secretaries of Russia, China and Pakistan on 27 December last year to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. All these developments further raised anxieties about the growing distance between strategies, interests and policies of India and Russia. The outreach to the Taliban by the three countries that became evident after the December last year meeting was another matter of concern and worry. India and Russia have normally had similar positions on dealing with the Taliban. Whatever the reason(s) or rationale might have been for Russia to develop ties with the Taliban, the fact that they decided to go ahead with it without even sounding India or keeping it in the loop came as a huge shock.
It had hence become imperative that the St. Petersburg Summit focus on restoring confidence and re-assurance between the two countries. It is a matter of satisfaction that to a considerable extent this has been achieved. It was felt for some time that notwithstanding the large number of meetings between Modi and Putin over the last three years, the two leaders had not been able to develop confidence and rapport because of the rapidly changing and evolving geopolitical situation. The body language of the two leaders during Modi’s visit to St. Petersburg told a quite different story. The spontaneous hug by Putin to Modi after the latter’s address at the SPIEF; Putin’s glowing praise of Modi in the press conference and their walk through the gardens, hand in hand, spoke of a rapport and comfort level not witnessed thus far. The visit was striking evidence that both countries are on the same page as far as their fundamental concerns and interests are concerned.
The private two hour tete-a-tete between the two leaders would have focused on the situation in Afghanistan, Russia’s relations with Pakistan, Russia’s contacts with the Taliban and Russia’s expanding ties with China, in defence as well as in the field of connectivity, and Central Asia.
The wide scope of the Vision Statement clearly demonstrates the meeting of minds of the two leaders. Language on terrorism is stronger than the one at the last summit and much closer to the Indian position. There is reference to the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), need for expeditious negotiations for India to sign an FTA with Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Green Corridor, Energy Corridor, high technology, promoting cooperation in diamonds, increased use of gas, collaboration in agriculture, railways, defence cooperation, military exercises, education, science and technology and a whole host of other areas which present excellent scope for enhanced partnership.
What is noteworthy is that while speaking about connectivity, the vision document states that connectivity “should be based on dialogue and consent of all parties concerned with due respect to sovereignty. The Russian and Indian sides being guided by the principles of transparency, sustainability and responsibility, reiterate their commitment to build effective infrastructure for the International North South Transport Corridor and implementation of the Green Corridor.” These are exactly the concerns raised by India while turning down the invitation to participate in the Belt Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing in last May (14 and 15). These concerns were also raised by EU countries in Beijing and were advanced as the reason for not signing the trade document. Putin had also raised similar misgivings on the proposed Belt Road Initiative.
The positive body language between the two leaders at all fora where they appeared together — they spent a total of more than seven hours with each other over two days — provided the much needed reassurance that considerable ground had been covered to bolster and enhance confidence between them. Much more still needs to be done. There need to be more frequent meetings and exchange of views and sharing of concerns between the two leaders and their ministers and senior officials. More work also needs to be done in the area of expanding ties in the area of trade and investment. The fact that Governors of more than 20 regions of Russia were present with well prepared, detailed plans to enhance economic and business cooperation with India gives hope that the two sides could advance fast towards achieving the target of USD 30 billion in bilateral trade by 2025.
In sum, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to St. Petersburg was extremely significant and valuable as it helped in removing several doubts and clearing many cobwebs regarding the strategic connect of this partnership. In current times when rapid transformative changes are taking place, and there is considerable uncertainty due to the mercurial behavior of President Trump and belligerent, assertive rise of China, strong and robust relations between India and Russia can be significant factors of peace, stability and development in the region and the world.