President Putin will meet Prime Minister Modi on May 21, 2018, in Sochi. Putin’s office on May 14 announced- the two leaders will discuss the key issues of developing the Russian-Indian privileged strategic partnership and exchange opinions on pressing items on the international and regional agenda. The visit is viewed as a working visit- not an informal summit. India and Russia are positively fraternal countries and thus at the outset, the meeting is welcome and timely even as Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, goes down in history as the only Minister of Defence who walked past the Russian Pavilion at the DEFEXPO-2018 which prompted a Russian executive at the pavilion to remark- India’s political environment is no longer friendly to Russia.
The accepted narrative is that the Soviet Union and now Russia has been a time-tested friend and strategic partner for India. However, Nirmala’s deliberate walking past Russia’s DEFEXPO Pavilion spells the current state of bilateral relations. Given this fact, the forthcoming working visit of Prime Minister Modi to Sochi is appropriate and he must take the bilateral relations forward for mutual benefits. It is indeed an opportunity for Modi to place the India-Russia relations back on its correct trajectory.
The New Delhi declaration of October 2000 on India-Russia Strategic Partnership remains relevant to bilateral cooperation. Notwithstanding the new normal of cold-shouldering Russia, the prevailing broad spectrum of cooperation and convergence of interests, there is the necessity for frank discussion and Putin is a master at this. Modi should be prepared to hear out some frank views.
The meeting in Sochi also has a special meaning for President Putin. Sochi is more than a home to 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi narrates Russia’s re-emergence as a power and reassertion of its sovereign right as it is the key to strengthen its foreign and domestic policies. The events in Sochi and Crimea are grounded on the idea of a strengthened Russia redefining its power to decisively face and neutralize unfriendly external forces. Thus, the meeting in Sochi will be a polite display of Russian resilience, earnestness and seriousness to take the bilateral relations forward for mutual benefits.
Given the short duration of the working visit and a simple agenda, Russia is keen to take forward the privileged strategic partnership. Thus, discussions will focus on defence, security, and civilian nuclear energy. Bilateral trade is on auto pilot with a healthy turnover of $ 8.5 billion of which India’s exports is under $2.5 billion.
On defence needs, India is diversifying its source of procurement and is reflected by high-end procurements from the United States since 2008, and all are excellent pieces of military hardware but all of it combined still does not make a fighting force per se in a complex security environment that India is in with two adversaries- China and Pakistan and both with nuclear arsenal with a possibility of two war fronts. Amidst this, Russia remains the main supplier to India’s armed forces- accounting for 74% of defence procurement while US and Israel combined account for 19%.
Viewing the April 2018 international tender for 110 jet fighters- Russia is bound to make an offer from its large stable. On this note it would be correct to make a quick re-think on procuring 36 FrenchRafale- they were to come off the shelf but delivery will not happen even in 2020. Thus, India should go for the offers available from the Sukhoi and MiG stable at less than half the cost.
Of concern is the US Congress Act of August 2017 enacting a comprehensive law on Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act [CAATSA] imposing sanctions on Russia. The CAATSA demands compliance from all failing which the US Government takes punitive action. Of the twelve listed sanctions, two calls for stringent restrictions on US export licenses and suspension of supplies of spares, munitions etc., for all US supplied equipment; and, five relate to defence and security. These have a direct effect on India’s defence procurement from Russia and also effects supply from the US. The Make in India and joint production of US fighter aircraft becomes a non-starter. It is India’s call.
India needs Russia but Russia can move on without India in the international arena. India indeed has a choice of consolidating its strategic partnership with Russia or embrace a new found doubtful friend armed with CAATSA.
(The article is authored by B.R. Muthu Kumar, a former diplomat and served as Ambassador to Tajikistan, Belarus, Lithuania and Azerbaijan and travelled extensively in the Commonwealth of Independent States region. Views expressed are the author’s own)