A realistic appreciation of the state of India’s relationship with Russia — which remained high in areas such as military sales and energy, nuclear and space cooperation, even after the collapse of Communism, and while New Delhi’s convergences with Washington took on strategic dimensions — can be gained when President Vladimir Putin visits India later this year. The compatibility between Indian and Russian political positions in the region, or internationally, is likely to be better in view then.
But there are straws in the wind that can be picked up at this stage. These were available during the visit earlier this week of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who held detailed confabulations with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar on a range of bilateral and regional issues, before embarking for Pakistan, with which Moscow has expanded its relationship in recent years, particularly in the field of fighting terrorism, sale of defence equipment and energy.
Moscow-Islamabad views on the peace process in Afghanistan, and the place of importance in it given to the Taliban on the question of future power-sharing, appear convergent at this stage. More, they are not different from that of Washington and Beijing, which is happy to go along with Islamabad. The Indian position, although not fully articulated except on first principles, may be seen as differently nuanced on the Taliban factor and in the context of the relationship with the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
And yet New Delhi-Moscow ties have historically had a broad sweep. To what degree this changes, if at all, in the context of India’s favourable positioning with the US, Russia’s close proximity with Beijing and America’s contentious relationship with both China and Russia, can be better understood after Mr. Putin meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi later in the year.
But the observations of Mr Jaishankar and Mr Lavrov suggest that there is a desire on both sides to keep the bilateral relationship well-oiled. Will India go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 anti-missile defence system from Russia in the face of serious US reservations on this? This is a serious question for later, the answer to which could have a bearing on India-Russia as well as India-US relations.
In his remarks, the external affairs minister called the relationship “energetic and forward-looking”. This is a speculative formulation, which leaves the door open for positivity. The Russian foreign minister said that the bilateral ties were “valuable, mutually respectful” and “not subjected to political fluctuations”. The two formulations are far from being at odds. Perhaps they are at the stage of probing. The reference to “mutually respectful” is suggestive of differences at the tactical level in a variety of arenas. These will need to be ironed out or taken out of contention in mutually acceptable ways even while cooperating significantly in a range of areas.
Mr Lavrov noted that Russia-China ties are “at the highest” level, historically, but it is not a “military alliance”. At the same time he expressed Moscow’s unease with India being a part of the Quad, obliquely calling it the “Asian Nato”. These observations are not adversarial, as is being sought to be made out in some quarters, but a reflection of the current state of play in the world. India and Russia both need to move with their eyes open and remain carefully calibrated.