K.C. Singh | A play of shadows amid Modi’s reset in Moscow

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Russia underscores India's delicate balance between strategic alliances and global geopolitical tensions

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Russia, his first state visit after beginning his third term, was for the 22nd Annual Summit between the two nations. He went to Italy on June 13 only as a special invitee to the G-7 summit. On the other hand, President Vladimir Putin went on his first visit abroad, after the Ukraine war’s commencement in February 2022, to China. He followed up with visits to the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Vietnam.

This captures the Indian dilemma of being stuck between a China-Russia strategic axis on the one hand and its strong opponents consisting of the United States and its allies on the other. The unresolved war situation in Ukraine complicates matters.

India has traditionally depended on Russia for defence equipment and spare parts. This has diminished in recent times as India shifted to US weaponry and platforms. In his public remarks, Prime Minister Modi alliteratively underscored the Russian role in providing food, fuel and fertilisers. President Vladimir Putin in turn accompanied Mr Modi for a visit to the Atom Pavilion at the VDNKh exhibition, showcasing the latest developments in science and technology, especially cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

India has benefited greatly from purchasing discounted Russian oil over the last two years. Prime Minister Modi noted its benefits for the Indian consumers and economy. He added that this had also indirectly aided global stability, implying that had the Indian demand not been met by Russian oil, purchases by India globally could have spiked oil prices.

The 81-paragraph joint statement covers the entire gamut of issues discussed during the visit or in play bilaterally. But Mr Modi’s visit on July 8-9 appeared strangely timed, as it immediately preceded the 75th anniversary summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Washington DC on July 9-11. A subject that preoccupies that group is the Ukraine war, the second phase of which Russia started in February 2022.

Consequently, it elicited two immediate comments. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy found the Modi-Putin hug as a “huge disappointment” and a “devastating blow to peace efforts”. The US state department spokesman said that they made clear “our concerns” and expected Mr Modi to raise in his discussions with President Putin the primacy of the UN Charter and the sanctity of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The joint statement dated July 9 addresses these two points subtly. It refers to the conflict “around Ukraine”, clearly dodging any reference to Russia’s attack and deep intrusion into Ukraine’s four eastern provinces plus Crimea. The principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity were sacrificed to satisfy Russia. The statement also seeks an end to conflict “through dialogue and diplomacy”, while respecting international law and the UN Charter. This conforms to the American stand. In T.S. Eliot’s words: “Between the idea/ And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the Shadow”.

The play of shadows runs through the joint statement. It spans all areas of existing, future and even aspirational domains. Take trade with Russia. It is correctly described as having doubled last year, well ahead of target year 2025. But of the $65 billion two-way trade, India’s exports are a measly $4 billion. The bulk of that overall figure is increased Indian import of Russian petroleum products.

To set this imbalance right would take more than proposed committees and mechanisms to explore solutions. China has already embedded itself in the Russian market, and considering the range of its manufactured goods, India faces an uphill climb. For instance, Chinese electric vehicles now dominate automobile imports by Russia, neutralising US sanctions. The new target for Indo-Russian trade is $100 billion by 2030.

The rest of the paras are devoted to covering the “Enduring and Expanding Partnership” between India and Russia. Deepening of the “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” is also desired while realising a challenging geopolitical context.

An interesting proposal is for a Free Trade Agreement covering goods and services between India and Russia sponsored EuroAsian Economic Union (EEU). That group woos former the Soviet republics to join a Russia-led economic partnership. Out of the five Cntral Asian republics, only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members. Uzbekistan is an observer. But the move balances or limits China’s Belt and Road projects in what Russia considers as its domain. However, its limits are demonstrated by Kazakhstan not backing Russian attack on Ukraine.

Energy partnership gets extensive coverage, referred to as a “pillar” of the bilateral engagement. New, long-term agreements are envisaged, covering both fossil fuels like petroleum and coal as well as civil nuclear cooperation. The completion of the Kudankulam units and the selection of another site are mentioned.

Cooperation in the peaceful uses of space and capacity-building as well as Indian successes are mentioned. Military cooperation is also designated as another “pillar”. However, the focus is on joint research and development under the Indian rubric of “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” or Make-in-India. Also covered are the fields of education, science and technology as well as joint research. Russia has lagged in defence research, as shown by its dependence on Iran for drones and on North Korea for ammunition and artillery.

For India, the West and especially the United States will remain the new and more desirable sources of defence equipment technology. But there is no harm in exploring what Russia has to offer in a competitive world.

Plurilateral groupings like Brics and the SCO are mentioned as platforms for advancing the issues affecting the Global South. But India faces the difficulty that as these groups are expanded, they lose focus on their core agendas. They also are beginning to be perceived as a mechanism for countering the US-led or Western groupings. This is the problem India eventually had with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), of which it was one of the founders, as its discourse often got hijacked.

The Australian newspaper in an editorial voiced “cause for concern” as India is a member of the Quad, with Australia, Japan and the United States. Sometimes a “Modi hug” can get misread as something more than a handshake. The ministry of external affairs has work cut out to explain to India’s partners in Europe and the United States to not question the reliability of India for sharing technology or playing a “China balancer” role. In fact, they need to understand that a Russia under sanctions goes deeper into the Chinese embrace. Prime Minister Modi’s hug was to pull it back.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
Next Story