Like those of the stream of Eurasian leaders heading to Russia in May, PM Modi’s informal summit with President Putin on May 21 was in the background of the disruptive global impact of recent actions and decisions of President Trump. In India’s case, there was the additional strong motivation for frank consultations on worrying developments in India’s neighbourhood, to discuss responses to US sanctions threatening India-Russia defence and energy, and to rescue the relationship from perceptions of a drift.

The optics of the visit were quite remarkable. The two leaders spent over 7 hours together in a single day, including restricted and delegation-level talks, a one-on-one lunch with interpreters, a tete-a-tete without interpreters, a boat cruise and visits to a school for gifted children and a cultural village. President Putin apparently took charge of the programme (and of his guest) from the time of their first meeting until he personally dropped off PM Modi at his aircraft for departure – a most uncharacteristic gesture for this Russian President. The intention was clearly to convey to his Indian guest – and perhaps also to his own people – the importance he attached to the relationship. The visit accordingly received considerably greater attention in the Russian mainstream media than India-Russia summits in the past.

In keeping with its billing as an informal summit, there was no joint statement. The Ministry of External Affairs issued a press release and, on the Russian side, Foreign Minister Lavrov briefed the Russian media. Both briefings were bland and largely predictable, asserting the strength of the strategic partnership, confirming the cooperation in defence and energy and with standard formulations on terrorism, Afghanistan, multilateral cooperation, etc. Two points of interest in the briefings were that Asia-Pacific [the Indian release says Indo-Pacific] developments were said to have been discussed quite intensively, and that a new Strategic Economic Dialogue is being instituted “to identify greater synergy in trade and investment”.

Frank discussions on our concerns about Chinese activities in its (and our) neighbourhood and Russian apprehensions about our Indo-Pacific initiatives with the US and Japan are valuable to clear misperceptions.

The Strategic Economic Dialogue is an addition to the many already-existing bilateral economic dialogue mechanisms; it can add value only if it can mobilize businesses on both sides to engage more intensively to exploit the opportunities to broad-base the economic engagement. Neither government has been successful in doing this, which explains the excessive dependence of the India-Russia relationship on the two pillars of defence and nuclear energy.

The participation of Commerce & Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu, leading a delegation of Indian business representatives, in the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), immediately after the Sochi Summit, helped to underline the desire to broad-base the economic engagement. The Minister had a hectic schedule of meetings with a Russian Deputy PM, Ministers of Trade & Industry, Economic Development, Transport and the Far East, several regional Governors (equivalent of Indian Chief Ministers) and various business gatherings. The fact that an Indian Minister had all these meetings, when attention was focussed on the French President, Japanese PM and the IMF MD, may indicate that the message of the Sochi Summit had filtered down to SPIEF. The ultimate test is of course the follow up on both sides of the cooperation discussed at Sochi and SPIEF.

The most important message from Sochi was undoubtedly that India would not be deflected from its partnership with Russia by the threat of American sanctions. The stark reality is that it cannot afford to do so. In the weekend before the visit, a middle-level US State Department official warned India through a media interaction, that its major defence contracts with Russia, especially the S-400 air defence system, would attract CAATSA. A US Congressional delegation visiting India after the summit, echoed the same message, adding also that such acquisitions from Russia would affect interoperability between Indian and US systems. This is a curious formulation. With 60-70% of the weapons and equipment of the Indian Armed Forces being of Russian make, interoperability with US/NATO systems is as yet a distant prospect. Even after a phenomenal growth in India’s arms imports from the US in recent years, SIPRI’s latest arms transfer statistics show that in the five-year period 2013-17, 62% of India’s arms imports came from Russia and only 15% from the US.

India has to find strategies to convince the US that application of CAATSA to India would in fact undermine one of the fundamental premises of the India-US strategic partnership: that a strong India would be a valuable partner for the US in its search for a geopolitical balance in the Indo-Pacific region. This cannot be achieved by weakening India militarily; moreover, a strategic partnership cannot be sustained at the point of an economic gun.


May 30, 2018 


E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of Ananta Centre to add comments!

Join Ananta Centre

About the Author

Ambassador PS Raghavan

Former Ambassador of India to Russia; Convener, National Security Advisory Board

Born in 1955, Ambassador Raghavan holds a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in Physics and a B.E. in Electronics & Communications Engineering. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1979. From 1979 to 2000, he had diplomatic assignments in USSR, Poland, United Kingdom, Vietnam and South Africa, interspersed with assignments in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi. From 2000 to 2004, he was Joint Secretary in the Indian Prime Minister's Office dealing with Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Energy, Space, Defence and National Security. Thereafter, he was Ambassador of India to Czech Republic (2004 - 2007) and to Ireland (2007 - 2011).

He was Chief Coordinator of the BRICS Summit in New Delhi (March 2012) and Special Envoy of the Government of India to Sudan and South Sudan (2012-13). Ambassador Raghavan conceptualized and piloted the creation of the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) in MEA, which implements and monitors India’s economic partnership programs in developing countries, with an annual budget of $1-1.5 billion. He headed DPA in 2012-13. From March 2013 to January 2014, he oversaw the functioning of the Administration, Security, Information Technology and other related Divisions of MEA. Since October 2013, he was also Secretary [Economic Relations] in MEA, steering India’s bilateral and multilateral external economic engagement. Ambassador Raghavan retired from the Indian Foreign Service in January 2016, after serving from 2014 as Ambassador of India to Russia. Since September 2016, he is Convenor of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.

You need to be a member of Ananta Centre to add comments!

Join Ananta Centre

Featured Video