Indian Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to meet President Putin on May 21st in Sochi. This meeting comes weeks after Putin was sworn in for another 6-year term as President, and amidst shifting geopolitics across the world.
Russia and India have a long strategic partnership. Moscow has supplied 62% of India’s military hardware in the past five years.
Russia is considered an important ally for India. The two countries have shared strategic, military, economic and diplomatic relations for years. The Indo-Russian intergovernmental commission is one of the largest comprehensive governmental mechanisms that India has had with any country internationally. However, the 1960s were testing times for the two, when Russia started getting closer to Pakistan. After the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Russia reduced its support to India on the Kashmir issue. However, ties normalized and became strong in its aftermath. India’s participation in the Non-Aligned Movement helped it maintain a position of neutrality during the Cold War and maintain cordial relations with Russia.
Moscow has supported India’s application for the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In 2014, India abstained from voting in favor of Russia on the Ukraine issue to maintain its neutrality with Russia and the US. Last year, Russia pushed for New Delhi’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A recent report on global arms trade that analyzed the past five years, noted that Russia still remains India’s top supplier of weapons. According to SIPRI, Russia’s share of military hardware stands at 62% in the last five years compared to the 79% from 2008-2012. In 2016, India and Russia signed billions of dollars of defense and energy deals, and in 2017, trade grew by 22%.
Sanctions on Russia
In April 2018, India’s defense minister visited Moscow to finalize a weapons deal worth $5 billion. Russia is currently under a number of sanctions from the US. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act or CAATSA, any country trading with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors could also face sanctions. India has recently finalized a deal with Moscow worth $5 billion. As part the deal, the Indian military wants to buy five S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems, leading to fears that India could face collateral damage from the sanctions against Russia. Additionally, US sanctions on Russian oligarchs including Rosoboron export, a state owned Russian weapons trading company, has raised apprehensions about further imports.
Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and Defense Secretary Sanjay Mitra have held high level meetings in Washington to address potential concerns. Read more on this here.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi on May 21st. The summit will reportedly be an informal, “agenda-less” meeting which will allow the leaders to exchange views on “international matters in a broad and long-term perspective with the objective of further strengthening our Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.”
There are a number of potential concerns that India may feel the need to address at the summit. The first of these could be the potential impact of CAATSA on India. New Delhi finalised the deal despite sanctions and is heavily reliant on Moscow for its defense supplies. Indian military forces feel that the S400 Triumph air defence missile systems are important to deter threats across both the border. “We are not going to allow our defense requirements to be dictated by any other country. Whatever is in India’s interests in terms of procuring equipment for national security is what will determine how we act with various countries,” an official source told Indian newspaper, The Hindu ahead of the talks.
Pakistan is another major issue of concern. A joint declaration issued by Russia, Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey last year supported Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir issue. “For ensuring global and regional peace and stability, the issue of Jammu and Kashmir needs peaceful resolution by Pakistan and India in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions,” the statement read.
Greater China-Russia strategic and military cooperation is another source of worry for India. On a visit to New Delhi last December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pushed for India to join China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative. India opposes OBOR due to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which gives China access to the Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea, and runs partly through Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
Meanwhile, for Russia, rapidly deteriorating ties with several Western democracies may have left it looking to secure old ties. Former Indian ambassador to Russia, P.S. Raghavan, noted that recent events have resulted in similarities to the cold war, with tensions in Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan. “Given today’s geo-political situation, it is a very, very good idea to reaffirm the India-Russia strategic partnership and hold consultations on how to react to situations, find commonality in views,” Raghavan said.
One area of concern in Moscow could be that India has become too close strategically to the US. India sees its relationship with the US as a means to counter China and has increased its purchases of defense equipment from the US. In April this year, for example, India secured a deal with Boeing for 110 fighter jets. Moscow has also opposed the “Quad”, the four-way strategic partnership of US, Japan, India, and Australia. It has said that “sustainable security architecture in the Asia Pacific region cannot be achieved through [a] bloc arrangement and is only possible through an open-ended collective basis.”
Our assessment is that amidst shifting geopolitical dynamics, India and Russia may both want to ensure that their time-tested relationships remain strong. New Delhi is heavily reliant on Moscow for defence capabilities, and US sanctions are likely to affect military supplies to India. The US’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal may radically alter global power matrices, and Russia, China and India will be recalibrating bilateral relationships to adjust to such an eventuality. Modi’s recent meeting with Xi Jinping in Wuhan may also have been a result of these changes.
We believe that India’s relationship with Russia serves as an important balance in its foreign policy. With this visit, India may want to ensure that it has a friend and strategic partner in the region.