The backdrop to President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India this week for the traditional annual India-Russia summit is a turbulent geopolitical landscape, scarred by acrimony of unprecedented proportions between the United States and Russia, the harsh American rhetoric on China and a Russia-China strategic partnership progressing towards a military alliance. These developments are likely to dominate the agenda of the discussions between Mr Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in addition to the extensive bilateral cooperation.
Russia is under pressure from Western actions seeking to constrain its international political and economic activity. The scope of US sanctions has widened to target countries with major defence and energy cooperation with Russia. Its efforts to broker political solutions to crises in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan have been stymied by US-led counter-measures.
India is in the crosshairs of the US sanctions legislation Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) because of its defence cooperation with Russia. The principal focus is on the air defence system, S-400, which is deemed to be a “significant” defence transaction, attracting CAATSA. American officials have openly admitted that the primary criterion for invoking CAATSA would be US commercial interests in other words, to persuade countries to acquire US weapons instead. India argues that the S-400 and other systems under procurement or negotiation are important for its defence preparedness. Even as India diversifies its sources of defence acquisitions and the US defence industry has been the principal beneficiary of this in recent years there will remain, for the foreseeable future, a preponderance of Russian equipment with our armed forces.
From all indications, India will go ahead with the S-400 acquisition. Whether or how this decision will be projected at the summit bears watching.
A raft of other India-Russia defence cooperation projects is also in the pipeline, including helicopters, frigates and submarines, with emphasis on fitting them into the “Make in India” template. They are not sufficiently “significant” to attract CAATSA, especially since they may not impact US commercial interests. There is expanding collaboration in energy — nuclear and hydrocarbons — including mutual investments and India’s imports. Initiatives aiming to make economic cooperation commensurate with its potential are on the agenda of every India-Russia summit.
Afghanistan and Pakistan will also be on the summit agenda. Afghanistan is now an arena of intense US-Russian rivalry, with both pushing their peace initiatives in that country. The US accuses Russia of abetting and arming the Taliban. On its part, Russia accuses the US and its allies of threatening its security by facilitating movement of Islamic terrorist elements to Afghanistan’s borders with Central Asia. Russia sought to involve the Taliban in a political process in Afghanistan. The US blocked it, while initiating its own dialogue with the Taliban. India has concerns with both approaches. They have been discussed in recent high-level meetings with the US; the opportunity of clarifying Russian perspectives would be valuable.
Russia’s relations with Pakistan have recently attracted considerable attention in India. There have been exchanges of political, defence and economic delegations, joint military exercises and training of Pakistani military personnel in Russian defence institutions. At the same time, the Russian defence establishment has been careful to signal that no new supply of weapons to Pakistan is on the anvil (after the four attack helicopters supplied in 2016). As India diversifies its international relations and strategic partnerships, its leverage with Russia on its other relations in South Asia diminishes. It needs to ensure, however, that its political and security interests are not compromised.
Of greater concern to India should be the current direction of Russia-China relations. As both Russia and China feel the heat of US hostility, their strategic partnership is elevating to an even higher plane, including transfers of defence technologies, closer military cooperation and political coordination on the Indo-Pacific and Afghanistan. India needs to insulate its political, defence and strategic interests from this tightening embrace.
India and Russia have some shared perspectives on Iran support for the 2015 international nuclear deal, which the United States has unilaterally junked, and opposition to sanctions on Iran. India has urged the US to “exempt” its Chabahar port project from America’s new Iran sanctions, because of its importance for Afghanistan’s trade access to the outside world. Chabahar could acquire greater importance as the node for a trade corridor from South and Southeast Asia to Central Asia, as well as to Russia and further on to Europe. This “International North-South Transport Corridor” is a much shorter and cheaper trade route between Asia and Europe, compared to the existing sea route. Negotiations between India, Russia and Iran for activation of this corridor had advanced considerably after the 2015 nuclear deal presaged dismantling of international sanctions against Iran. India and Russia could strategise on taking this project forward in the present changed circumstances of fresh US sanctions.
The current global geopolitical flux has compelled countries to recalibrate bilateral partnerships as dictated by national interests. India and Russia are no exception — the texture of the relationship has subtly altered in recent years. The two leaders would be conscious of this reality, but also of the fact that, though the “exclusivity” of the partnership has been diluted, there remains a large canvas of mutual interests. The nature of challenges to the relationship in the broader international environment merits frank dialogue at the highest levels, in an atmosphere of mutual trust. This should be facilitated by the extraordinary chemistry that has developed between the two leaders, as most recently evidenced at their informal summit in Sochi in May, when they spent over seven hours together in a single day.
Analysts would be closely watching for public signals from the summit on CAATSA, Iran sanctions, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. It would be interesting to see how India walks the fine line of preserving the critical elements of its strategic partnership with Russia, without degrading that with the United States. Many of the answers may be found, not in explicit articulations, but between the lines of the joint statement and background briefings.
The writer, a retired Indian diplomat, is the convenor of the National Security Advisory Board. The views expressed here are personal.