The Indo-Pacific enters the India-Russia partnership
Prime Minister Modi combined his attendance at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok with the annual India-Russia summit meeting. The four main messages from the visit were a reaffirmation of the strategic partnership, assertion of India’s strategic autonomy in foreign policy, broadening India-Russia cooperation beyond defence, and flagging the Indo-Pacific as a promising new area of India-Russia engagement.
The public statements and joint declaration contained the usual reassertions of the vibrancy of the strategic partnership. Russia’s unequivocal response to recent developments in Jammu & Kashmir (see RR 7/19) added substance to these assertions. The leaders’ personal chemistry was again on display, as they spent many hours in each other’s company outside of the official talks, visiting a shipyard and an exhibition.
The joint statement contained some perspectives different from those of the US and its allies. It declares that bilateral relations are not “susceptible to outside influence”. It expresses opposition to protectionism and unilateral sanctions, endorsement of Syria’s reconstruction efforts, support for economic cooperation with Iran and opposition to politicizing the implementation of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions.
There were the usual declarations of intent to diversify the economic engagement, with some new elements. The Strategic Economic Dialogue, launched after the “informal” bilateral summit in Sochi in May 2018, has resulted in a comprehensive strategy for expanding trade and investment cooperation. It was agreed (as many times in the past) to fast-track negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan). Trade settlements in national currencies would be explored (again, as promised many times in the past). Connectivity would be improved through passenger and cargo flights connecting regions of both countries and industrial partnerships in roads, railways and aviation (a new initiative). The effort would be (as often reiterated) to increase the bilateral trade from the present $11 billion to $30 billion by 2025.
An ambitious five-year roadmap has been drawn up for cooperation in hydrocarbons. It builds on already existing Indian investments of about $10 billion in Russia and Russian investment of about $13 billion in oil refining and downstream products in India. It envisages further Indian investments in oil, gas and LNG projects, as well as long-term purchase contracts. India is a significant buyer of Russian hydrocarbon products, importing about 2.3 million tonnes of oil and 550,000 tonnes of petroleum products in 2018. About 20% of Russia’s LNG exports in 2018 were to India.
A new element in Vladivostok was the declaration of commitment to the development of Russia’s Far East, signalled by the announcement of India’s Act Far East policy and a one billion-dollar line of credit (LoC) for projects in the region. A large Indian business delegation concluded about 50 contracts/MoUs valued at around $50 billion. A maritime corridor is to be operationalized between Vladivostok and Chennai.
This engagement with the Russian Far East is obviously of great economic potential, but it also has important geopolitical significance. It underlines common India-Russia interests in the Indo-Pacific. Efforts for a multi-polar security architecture in the Indo-Pacific have to include Russia, which (as EAM Jaishankar reminded in a speech at the Valdai Discussion Club) is a Pacific power, with a strong naval fleet in the region. President Putin’s ambition to expand Russian influence in global affairs should drive it to be an active, independent player in the region, not merely an adjunct to Chinese ambitions.
Russia has been publicly hostile to the concept of the Indo-Pacific, seeing it as a US scheme to drag India into an alliance, together with Japan (see RR 2/19). This is a misguided perception: India’s desire for strategic autonomy precludes a military alliance with any power. At the same time, President Putin’s vision for a larger Russian role in global affairs envisages a “Greater Eurasia” as a community of nations, drawing current adversaries into a cooperative relationship. A discussion club associated with the President (Valdai) describes it as placing China in “a web of ties, institutions and balances” that would prevent it from exercising hegemony. This may be exaggerating Russia’s current diplomatic strength, but it reflects exactly India’s views on the necessary ingredients for a harmonious Indo-Pacific security architecture.
There is, therefore, need for a regular India-Russia dialogue on this. The leaders’ statements at Vladivostok indicated that it is taking place. President Putin talked of India and Russia working together for security and stability in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Mr Modi said they had a “useful discussion” on an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
The thrust at Vladivostok to diversify the economic component of the India-Russia partnership and impart new geopolitical content needs effective follow-up. Business and banking communities in both countries have to dispel mutual ignorance of opportunities. This includes misconceptions in India about the application of western sanctions against Russia. The facts that the Russia-Europe economic engagement is re-intensifying and that many US companies were at the EEF should open Indian eyes to ground realities. Innovative guidelines have to be developed for disbursing the LoC. More dialogue with Russia at official and non-official levels could synchronize perspectives on the Indo-Pacific, so that the geopolitical objective of drawing Russia into an Indo-Pacific engagement can be furthered.
Ukraine in US Presidential campaign, but mending fences with Russia
The revelation that President Trump exhorted Ukrainian President Zelenskyy (in a July 25 telephone conversation) to revive corruption cases against a Ukrainian company that had employed Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, has led to impeachment moves against the US President. While the propriety of the US President’s action is a matter of internal US debate, the call transcript released by the White House has points of interest from the perspective of this Review.
President Trump’s asserted that the US has done a lot for Ukraine, in contrast with Europe, which talks about Ukraine but does nothing much (he specifically mentioned German Chancellor Merkel). President Zelenskyy enthusiastically agreed, adding that France and Germany are not enforcing sanctions against Russia or working for Ukraine as much as they should. The White House said Ukrainian consent had been obtained for release of the transcript, but it would have embarrassed President Zelenskyy, since he has recently been in close touch with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron and they have both lavished praise on him for his pragmatic handling of the Ukraine tensions.
President Zelenskyy told his US counterpart that Ukraine is “almost ready” to buy more Javelin antitank missiles. The US changed its policy of not supplying lethal weaponry to Ukraine in 2017, against the advice of some European countries (who felt it would only heighten tensions) and on the strong recommendation of the US special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker. The fact that he has close links to Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Javelins, does not appear to have attracted any conflict of interest considerations. Ambassador Volker resigned after the Trump-Zelenskyy conversation story broke, with subsequent revelations that he organized meetings for President Trump’s personal attorney with an adviser of President Zelenskyy. In any case, as mentioned in earlier Reviews, France and Germany have recently tried to reclaim their role as the mediators of the Russia-Ukraine impasse, which his appointment had diluted.
Meanwhile, and notwithstanding what he told President Trump in July, President Zelenskyy has been moving systematically towards defusing tensions in eastern Ukraine (see RR 6/19 and 7/19). A major step forward was taken on September 7, with the reciprocal exchange of 35 political prisoners. The significant inclusion in the list was Vladimir Tsemakh, who was considered a key witness in the forthcoming international trial on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. The Russians had apparently made his return a non-negotiable condition, while the Dutch government made a strong demarche to keep him in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy decided to go ahead with the Tsemakh return, braving flak from within and outside his country. He also announced that another round of prisoner exchanges can be expected by the end of the year, perhaps even an “all-for-all”.
An even bigger breakthrough was signalled on October 1, when members of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) “Contact Group on Ukraine” – Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE – and representatives of the eastern Ukraine groups, agreed to implement the “Steinmeier formula,” opening the door to elections in the Donbas region. Under this formula, this region will be accorded temporary special status for the period of elections, which should be held under Ukrainian law, with OSCE monitoring. If the OSCE recognizes the elections to be free and fair, the Donbas would be granted a permanent autonomous status. The Steinmeier formula is a reformulation of the original text of the Minsk Agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, approved by the UN Security Council, under which elections in Donbas would be held only after the special status of the region was incorporated in the Ukrainian constitution.
The October 1 agreement opened the door for a summit meeting of the Normandy Four – Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine – which brokered the Minsk agreements. Russia’s condition for the summit was a formal acceptance of the Steinmeier formula by all concerned parties. The summit should evolve agreed procedures for elections in such a way as to safeguard the interests of all sides to the dispute.
Encouraging as these developments are, and much as France and Germany would want to direct them towards a reduction of Russia-Ukraine (and hence Russia-West) tensions, the choreography of further steps is critical. Ukrainian nationalist opinion (encouraged by some European countries) opposes “concessions” to Russia. President Zelenskyy said a key condition for elections is for Russian forces and “Russian-backed militants” to leave the territory and for Ukraine to regain control over the eastern border with Russia. Russia could baulk if the sequence of events threatens to slip out of its control. It would want to ensure that the Donbas representatives do not surrender occupational control over their territory, before obtaining cast-iron guarantees that the outcome of the elections would be a special autonomous region for them. Finally, since 2014, the US has had a veto power over Ukraine developments. President Trump may have a somewhat different outlook from that of some of his government, as the resignation of envoy Volker indicated. The impeachment moves may impact on US attitude to the European initiatives to defuse Russia-Ukraine tensions.
Local elections show rise in popular discontent: The establishment party, United Russia, did relatively poorly in the regional elections on September 8. The runup to the elections was marked by protests across the country on a larger scale than in the past. Worsening standards of living, increase in pensionable ages, higher taxes (VAT, garbage tax, etc) and rampant corruption have become emotive issues. The unpopularity of United Russia was reflected in the fact that many of its candidates chose to run on an independent ballot, rather than that of the party. Though United Russia won all the regional gubernatorial elections and the high-profile Moscow council elections, its vote share was greatly eroded. Significant success was claimed for a new tactical voting technique developed by supporters of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, through a website that showed the candidate most likely to defeat the United Russia candidate in every constituency. The regional elections are the forerunner of Parliamentary elections in 2021. President Putin’s popularity has also dropped considerably, though still at around 60%, according to independent polls.
Google, Facebook accused of interference in Russian regional elections: Russia advanced its own allegations of external meddling in its elections, when its communications watchdog accused Google and Facebook of carrying political advertisements even on election day and openly recommending voting for specific candidates. Russian action did not seem to go beyond public statements about this.
Russia-France 2+2 meeting: Russian and French Defence and Foreign Ministers met in the 2+2 format for the first time in many years. This was above all a major political signal, since this form of bilateral political institutional arrangements had been totally frozen since 2014 (accession/annexation of Crimea). The French FM called it a new boost to relations of trust between France and Russia. FM Lavrov talked of the opportunity to create a Euro-Atlantic security architecture “together with Russia and not as a counterbalance to Russia”.
Netanyahu’s elections stop in Sochi: The Israeli PM made a brief visit to Russia on September 12 to bolster his election prospects (as he had done in February). Besides appealing to the significant electorate of Russian origin, his aim was to project a unity of purpose in ridding Syria of Iranian presence (a subject that was discussed at a meeting of the NSAs of the US, Russia and Israel in Jerusalem in June, see RR 6/19).
Syrian constitutional committee constituted: After years of strenuous efforts (and obstructions), the UN Secretary General announced the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, in agreement with the Syrian government. The US State Department welcomed this development, expressing appreciation of the contribution of the UNSG, UN Envoy for Syria, Turkey, Russia, and the members of the “Small Group” (US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan). The Astana group (Russia, Turkey, Iran) was not mentioned, though the idea of the Constitutional Committee emanated from a meeting of that group. The US statement also pointedly left out Iran. At its summit meeting in Ankara, the Astana group welcomed the formation of the Committee and pledged full support for its work, while maintaining the leading role of the Astana process in the settlement in Syria (emphasis added).