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