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India-Russia Summit: Reading Between the Lines

Aleksei Zakharov is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 18, 2018

    The 19th bilateral summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin left a mixed feeling about the current state of the Indo-Russian relationship and its future prospects. Though a major and also the most expected deal on the supply of the S-400 Triumf missile system was concluded and several other agreements aimed at further strengthening the economic engagement were signed, a number of questions pertaining to the future trajectory of bilateral ties still remain.

    Sanctions as a common factor

    A few days ahead of the bilateral summit, a Russian media outlet, Kommersant,reported that the two sides would sign a “political document” with a clause on unacceptability of imposition of sanctions not approved by the United Nations.1 However, the word “sanctions” did not even figure in the joint statement and was never once mentioned by the officials of the two countries. By contrast, the Saint Petersburg Declaration, issued after the previous bilateral summit held in June 2017, had clearly stated that the two countries “do not accept the unilateral use of political and economic sanctions as a means of exerting pressure.”2 At that time, the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) was yet to become a legislation. Surprisingly, now that CAATSA hangs like a Sword of Damocles over Indo-Russian defence cooperation, Moscow and New Delhi seem to have decided to downplay the issue of sanctions by omitting any mention of it in the current joint statement. The idea probably is not to further irritate Washington. New Delhi is still hopeful about getting an exemption from CAATSA and that would serve Russian interests as well. In a way, the issue of sanctions seems to be bringing Russia and India together.

    Defence deals and other agreements

    Another calculated decision was the low-key manner in which officials addressed the issue of taking defence cooperation forward. Interestingly, this track was barely mentioned during the summit. Reference to defence cooperation is very short and placed somewhere in the middle of the joint statement. The two leaders did not elaborate on the bilateral military partnership. Moreover, the deal on the S-400 was neither announced by the leaders nor mentioned in the list of agreements. Apparently, officials were seeking to demonstrate that bilateral ties do not revolve around defence alone and that it is not the sole sphere of cooperation.

    Notwithstanding official intentions, the main deliverable of the summit was the contract on S-400 SAM supplies to India. As is seen, the conclusion of the deal is an important gain for the Indian Air Force, as well as a bold step in terms of India’s overall foreign policy. It is clear that ‘Triumf’ systems were necessary for Indian defence and signing the contract was not an issue of public debate. At the same time, it turned out to be the only important agreement between India and Russia.

    Surprisingly, the widely discussed deals on Kamov helicopters and Krivak/Talwar class frigates were not concluded. As the Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev explained in an interview, talks are still underway and “new sizeable deals involving Make in India programme” are expected by the end of this year or at the very beginning of the next one.3 These contracts are to be discussed at the Inter-Governmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation scheduled to take place in December 2018. There is a growing perception in Russia that India has been slowly drifting away and, as a consequence, imports of Russian arms is likely to shrink in size.4 For this reason, the finalisation of contracts, or the lack of it, on helicopters, frigates and license for the production of Kalashnikov rifles will be an important indicator of the trajectory of Indo-Russian defence cooperation.

    Before President Putin’s visit to India, his aide Yuri Ushakov had announced that there were some 23 documents on the agenda, with some of them “still in the phase of coordination”.5 Agreements between India and Russia during the summit were low in number and substance as a majority of them were pro forma documents. Yet, the two sides managed to differ in the overall number of signed documents. According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the two countries exchanged eight agreements, whereas the Kremlin indicated nine. The Programme for Cooperation Between the Governments of Moscow and Delhi was not mentioned by the Indian side but included as a deliverable by Moscow.6 The fact that an official agreement was forgotten and, as a result, omitted in the list of documents raises questions about the significance of such ‘protocols’ and ‘memorandums’.

    Iran factor

    Referring to third countries by name is not a customary practice in bilateral joint statements. Aside from Bangladesh – the first destination for Russia-India joint energy cooperation in a third country – these days Iran is an important and at the same time tricky partner for both India and Russia. Iran was mentioned several times in the joint statement: Firstly, in the context of the upcoming trilateral meeting on the side-lines of “Transport Week-2018” in Moscow and, secondly, in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme.7

    Amidst the American sanctions on Iran becoming a new reality, several projects that both New Delhi and Moscow are interested in are under threat of being shelved. Developing Chabahar Port is of high significance to India as it is regarded as a crucial transit point in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and some other connectivity projects aimed at increasing Indian trade with Central Asia. A transport network connecting India and Russia could facilitate India-Iran bilateral trade as well. Hence, implementation of the 16-year old agreement on INSTC is of vital importance for both Moscow and New Delhi. During the summit, Russia and India called for the development of this initiative “…by finalizing pending issues …through bilateral discussions as well as discussions with other partner countries at the earliest”. They also agreed to “make efforts to convene the INSTC Ministerial and Coordination meeting on priority”.8

    The INSTC is not the only project which will probably suffer from US sanctions on Iran. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) offshore gas pipeline is another example of a long-standing project that may well remain on a waiting list due to America’s restrictive measures against Tehran. Beyond the issue of sanctions, negotiations among the participating countries on this project also remain at a nascent stage. The Russian and Pakistani energy ministries have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the pipeline project, whereas Russia-India talks on this matter are still underway. Moscow and New Delhi have pledged to continue consultations and move forward towards a “possible conclusion of Memorandum of Understanding”.

    With Russia eagerly looking to expand cooperation with Iran, much will depend on the Indian approach towards the US demand to halt energy ties with Tehran. As of now, it seems that India will not reduce the import of Iranian oil and petrochemicals to nil. Although private Indian companies are forced to cease connections with Iran, state-owned firms have reportedly placed orders for crude oil delivery in November.9

    The Indo-Pacific

    Dialogue on regional dynamics and maritime cooperation has turned into an integral part of India’s engagement with the US, Japan, Australia, France and other regional players. However, Moscow and New Delhi are yet to begin consultations on regional issues. In his press statement, Prime Minister Modi underlined that “both countries have common interest in cooperating on terrorism, developments in Afghanistan and Indo-Pacific ….”10 Notably, in the Russian version of the Indian Prime Minister’s statement, the word “Indo-Pacific” was not included. Although translation issues often occur in official documents, this is not evidently a case involving such a difficulty. No wonder that the India-Russia joint statement refers to the Indo-Pacific as “the regions of Pacific and Indian Oceans”, thus dividing one integrated region into two sub-regions.

    This is not the first time that the two sides have referred to the region in different terms. After the ‘informal talks’ held between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi earlier this year in Sochi, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs stated in its press release that the two leaders agreed “to intensify consultation and coordination with each other, including on the Indo-Pacific”. Meanwhile, in his comments on the meeting, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov underlined the mutual conviction that “new security architecture in Asia-Pacific should be based on non-bloc principles, principles of open, equal and indivisible security”. Moscow is apparently wary of the emergence of the ‘Quad’ and equivalent groupings’, especially platforms for cooperation in the military domain. In contrast, New Delhi is concerned about China’s assertive policies in the region and stands for ‘respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight’ in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

    The Indo-Pacific concept is not endorsed by Russian officialdom for it has been actively promoted by the Donald Trump administration. For India, Washington’s increased focus on the Indo-Pacific is considered favourable as it demonstrates its centrality in the region. Thus, the usage of terms is an indicator of different prisms through which Moscow and New Delhi view regional processes. Their approaches towards the Indo-Pacific are thus not broadly congruent.

    Enduring concerns

    The geopolitical environment that India and Russia have been operating in since 2014 continues to shape their bilateral relationship. US-Russia relations are unlikely to improve in the near-term. India-China relations, notwithstanding economic cooperation, continue to suffer from trust deficit and remain at variance on various strategic matters. Meanwhile, Moscow and New Delhi seem to be adapting to the changing geopolitical realities but they have a long way to go in terms of addressing each other’s strategic concerns. Moscow’s growing strategic convergence and understanding with Beijing and New Delhi’s growing defence and security cooperation with Washington have gained momentum due to objective reasons. Neither India nor Russia, however, view these endeavours as potential disruptors to their bilateral cooperation.

    The Indo-Russian bilateral summit also sends certain signals to both China and the US. From the Russian perspective a move to supply the S-400 is an indicator of its balanced policy in Asia, whereas for India it is a demonstration of its independent foreign policy even under the threat of US sanctions.

    While adjusting and adapting to the geopolitical challenges, the two countries cannot afford to overlook bilateral issues that remain chronically unresolved. The India-Russia partnership, albeit showing some positive signals by way of increased interaction at the top most level, is still lagging behind in many spheres. Box-ticking agreements may ultimately end up as a partnership without real benefit.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India