India at the Global Crossroads” was the theme of panel discussions at the annual Primakov Readings in Moscow on June 8-9, organised by the National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, which gave the frank Russian assessment of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership. Incidentally, it was academician Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov, who as the Prime Minister of Russia during his 1998 visit to New Delhi, had mooted the Russia-India-China triangle. Initially, New Delhi and Beijing had balked at his idea, although RIC has become a geopolitical reality of our times and has become the backbone of the BRICS grouping of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
However, due to adverse relations between its two members China and India these organisations are undergoing the stress-test. Naturally, the shadow of India’s northern neighbour and Indian foreign policy’s ‘Quad’ vector to contain China could be seen hovering throughout the discussions.
“Ever since its independence in August 1947, India at several junctures of its development had found herself at global crossroads, but always chose the right path,” observed long-time director of Centre of Indian Studies of the Oriental Institute, Dr Tatiana Shaumyan, noting the evolution of its foreign policy from non-alignment to present day multi-alignment.
Moderator of the panel discussion, Russia’s former Ambassador to New Delhi, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, acknowledging the disturbing factor of relations with China noted that India is de facto a global power and the only thing left is a permanent membership of the UN Security Council and this lacuna should be filled by granting India a permanent seat in the top global body for the sake of a stable multi-polar world order.
Dr Alexey Kupriyanov, belonging to the new post-Soviet generation of young scholars, underscored that the assessment of the bilateral strategic partnership in both India and Russia is based on false narratives and myths often generated in foreign think-tanks.
Dr Kupriyanov, who is head of Group on South Asia and IOR at the Primakov Institute, identified the myth of the prevalent Indian discourse about an anti-India “Russia-Pakistan-China axis” and the fact that the Russian expert community also subscribes to the view that India has become America’s vassal.
No genuine analysis of the strategic partnership described as ‘privileged’ by President Vladimir Putin can be done on the basis of these false narratives, he insisted.
However, experts and politicians from time to time, through their comments, provide ground to assert the authenticity of these narratives by omitting or distorting facts.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related global travel restrictions, the regular Indo-Russian annual summit in 2020 was postponed by mutual consent of the two principals in their phone conversation when Modi phoned Putin on his birthday (October 7) and they agreed to wait till the improvement in the public health situation in India.
On October 31, 2020, in an article published in the ‘Sunday Guardian’, senior BJP MP Subramanian Swamy declared that Russia is no friend of India. Expert community and media in Moscow saw it as a signal from the Modi government of the reorientation of South Block’s foreign policy.
Earlier in September 2019, after his annual summit meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Vladivostok, briefing the Kremlin pool reporters Russian President Vladimir Putin had said as in the past “Hindi-Roosi Bhai-Bhai” (Indian and Russians are brothers) still remains relevant. Probably it is more true that friends may change over the passage of time but brothers still remain brothers albeit with their individual and specific interests, which at times may conflict under the influence of circumstances and prodding of ‘well-wishers’.
This can be true in the case of India-Russia relations clouded by an assertive China’s muscle-flexing at the Himalayan borders and a narrative of New Delhi allegedly jumping into Washington’s lap. Such false narratives originating from the same sources find fertile soil in both countries nurtured by emotions and information gap.
Almost a decade ago, one of India’s envoys in Moscow privately sharing his views with the author had expressed concern at the information gap with Russia as a national security hazard as Indian public opinion is formed by the Western media. The last Indian correspondent was withdrawn from Moscow in 2013.
However, the month of June has witnessed some key statements clearing Moscow’s views on the bonhomie with China and ‘special privileged strategic partnership’ with India to assuage concerns about widening information gap over rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, as well as India’s participation in the ‘Quad’, described by the Russian Foreign Minister as the “Asian NATO.”
Asked on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in the beginning of June of his view on the rapprochement with China and its impact on Moscow’s strategic partnership with India, President Putin said: “As for Russia-India relations, I repeat, they are unfolding very successfully and in a trustful and traditional manner. We really appreciate this level of relations with our Indian friends. These are relations of a truly strategic nature, as they cover a whole range of areas for interaction. They include economic issues, energy, and high technologies. They also include the military-industrial complex, and here we are not only talking about the sale and purchase of Russian weapons.”
“I have already spoken about this more than once, that, we have very deep and trusting relations with India, which are manifested in the fact that we and India (probably the only such partner of ours) take up joint efforts to design and produce, including on Indian territory, cutting-edge and advanced weapons systems, including missile equipment. But these are just a few; there are other areas also in which we cooperate.”
Responding to a question on India joining ‘Quad’, President Putin said: “Each country makes its sovereign decision about with whom, how and in what capacity, and to what extent it builds its relations” notably adding that it would be improper on his part to give an assessment as Russia is not part of the construct. But it does not prevent Russia from working with both India and China as conditions have been created for the three countries to collaborate within BRICS, SCO and the UN.
“Yes, I know, of course, there are certain issues related to India-China relations. But you see, there are always a plethora of issues arising between neighbours,” President Putin observed.
The challenge of rising China is on the front-burner in the East and West where many fear Russia could become a junior partner of Beijing. In an obvious reference to this in his interview to the US NBC ahead of the Geneva summit with President Joe Biden, Mr Putin said that Russian defence capability was enough to counter Chinese threat so he was not alarmed: “China has been developing. And I understand that, what’s beginning, is a certain kind of confrontation with China. Everybody understands it. We can see it. Why hide from and be scared of these issues? However, were not alarmed by it, including, among other things, by the fact that our defence sufficiency, which is how we describe it, is at a very high level, including because of this.”
In a parallel development, speaking at the Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) on June 23, Indian Defence Secretary, Dr Ajay Kumar, termed India-Russia defence relations as an ‘integral pillar’ of special and privileged strategic partnership between the two countries. He welcomed Russia’s willingness to actively engage in India’s ‘Make in India’ programme for co-development and production of high technology defence items. Dr Kumar looked forward to the visit of Russian Defence Minister General Sergei Shoigu to India later this year for the next meeting of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military & Military-Technical Cooperation.
– The writer is a Moscow-based independent analyst. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda