Strategic meaning of Putin’s visit to India for the 21st bilateral summit

The dormant diplomacy became far more active, keeping Moscow informed and somewhat engaged in the process.

modi putin meeting
India and Russia are caught in a paradox of having befriended the arch-enemy of each other while remaining close friends. (Photo source: AP)

By Rajan Kumar, 

In regular times, the visit of President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi would have passed unnoticed as a routine bilateral summit with the usual feel-good rhetoric of two historic partners striving to diversify their ties from a narrow defence-based relationship to one focussing on trade and investment. But two geopolitical developments in particular have changed the dynamics and re-established Russia as a crucial actor in the sub-continental politics of South Asia. First, the fatal conflict and a prolonged military standoff at Ladakh border between China and India, and second, the sudden withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. These developments have somewhat reinforced the vitality of Russia in India’s neighbourhood.

It may sound paradoxical, but India’s military skirmishes with China brought it closer to both Russia and the US. The dormant diplomacy became far more active, keeping Moscow informed and somewhat engaged in the process. India’s defence and foreign ministers visited Moscow to highlight the Indian perspective of the conflict, and in the process, also ensured an unhindered supply of defence products from Russia. To its credit, and as expected by New Delhi, Moscow remained neutral and conciliatory during the entire conflict. It regarded the conflict as a bilateral issue between the two countries to be resolved bilaterally without external intervention. New Delhi also showed a mature response and participated in all the multilateral forums such as BRICS, the SCO and even the RIC. These forums never raised the issue of the India-China border conflict. Still, the two sides were under indirect pressure to avoid escalating the conflict.

Though India’s conflict with China accelerated the formalisation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), New Delhi seems to have convinced Moscow that its ties with Washington are not pitted against Russia, and India would continue to pursue an independent course of foreign policy. In other words, it would not forge a military alliance with the US. Russia’s envoy to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, while questioning the motive of the Quad, reiterated in an interview the Indian official line that India is a big country with a diverse foreign policy and it will not forge an alliance with any pole (the US). He dismissed the speculation of emerging rifts in Indo-Russian ties. He suggested further that Putin’s visit would provide another opportunity to shed misgivings and reinforce relations between the two states.

Russia is at the helm of security architecture in Eurasia, and its influence now extends to Afghanistan. Moscow is seeking to fill the security void created by the withdrawal of American forces. Its primary goal is to ensure stability in Afghanistan and prevent it from becoming the hub of terrorist activities. It is no hurry to recognise the government of the Taliban, nor does it intend to get embroiled in factional conflicts within Afghanistan. Instead, it is projecting itself as a mediator among warring factions in Afghanistan, and between the Taliban and the international community. Its overarching presence in Central Asia and its strategic influence over China and Iran make it a credible actor in the affairs of Afghanistan. The Russian embassy continued to operate in Kabul when others were exiting in chaos and confusion.

After the take-over of the Taliban, Russia organised an ‘extended Troika’ meeting in Moscow on 19 October, which included China and Pakistan. The US did not participate in Moscow but joined the next meeting in Islamabad on 11 November. This ‘troika’ format appears far more credible than the Doha Round of talks led by the US earlier. Washington is still trying to take the route of Islamabad, but without the support from other regional powers over whom Moscow has greater influence, a negotiation is unlikely to succeed. Moscow has begun to take a sympathetic view of the Taliban, and it has urged the international community to provide urgent humanitarian and economic assistance to Afghanistan. Russia may remove the Taliban from the list of extremist organisations in the coming months.

From Moscow’s perspective, prolonged instability in Afghanistan is dangerous to the security of Central Asia, two of which are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Moscow expected the Taliban to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, but recent terrorist attacks seem to have put a question mark on the incumbent government’s ability. It is concerned about the resurgence of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations in the region. These organisations have sympathisers and dormant networks in Central Asian states and Caucasia. Moscow is also worried that the Taliban government has not demonstrated any inclination to form an inclusive government by sharing powers with Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other minority communities. It is roping in Islamabad to put pressure on the Taliban to form a representative government, but given a long history of rivalry between the Haqqani network and Tajik fighters, any sustainable coalition seems a distant dream. It is becoming evident that even Islamabad has its limits in controlling the events in Afghanistan. Russia would need the cooperation of other regional powers. India and Iran become indispensable actors in Russia’s game of balancing Pakistan and moderating the influence of the Taliban over Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

New Delhi and Moscow hold similar views on forming a representative government in Kabul, curbing terrorist activities, preventing radicalisation, refugee-crisis and checking the flow of drug trafficking. Two countries can work together in providing humanitarian assistance to the war-torn people of Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan have high expectations from New Delhi, and it should not allow the goodwill to fritter away.

Moscow’s most important concern is India’s growing security and defence ties with the US. At the same time, New Delhi dreads the prospect of a quasi-military alliance between Moscow and Beijing in the near future. The two sides would like each other to maintain the status quo and pursue an independent foreign policy.

India and Russia are caught in a paradox of having befriended the arch-enemy of each other while remaining close friends. It requires adept diplomacy to maintain such complicated ties. To be sure, Moscow’s ties with Beijing and New Delhi’s relationship with Washington are not pitted against each other. But how long these states can maintain this fragile balance remains a real challenge. It is not unrealistic to assume that the belligerence of the Biden administration will push Russia to cement a quasi-alliance with China. Such an alliance would empower China and polarise global politics. This would hasten the prospect of bipolarity and curtail the chance of multipolarity. A multipolar order is advantageous to Russia and India, while a bipolar order would benefit the US and China the most.

Putin’s visit will offer opportunities to iron out differences and enhance the partnership to a new level. Several defence deals are lined up, and they would discuss ways to bypass the CATSA on defence trade. They will hold the 2+2 format meeting of the defence and foreign ministers for the first time. Moscow is likely to push for a free-trade deal between the Eurasian Union and India. It would be in the two sides’ interest to sign the agreement and enhance the economic cooperation to a new level. After the pandemic, this is only the second occasion that President Putin is travelling to another country for a bilateral meeting. It signifies the priority that Moscow accords to India in its foreign policy.

(The author teaches in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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