Modi meets Putin as India walks US-Russia tightrope

Indian PM traveled to Sochi to hold talks with Russia’s Putin, with geopolitical issues on the agenda of summit.

Russian President Putin meets with Indian PM Modi SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 21, 2018: India''s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Russia''s President Vladimir Putin talk during a meeting. Mikhail Metzel/T
A top adviser to the Indian government says India will defend its trade interests with both Russia and Iran [Mikhail MetzelTASS via Getty Images]

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi as part of an informal summit between the two countries.

“Russia is India’s old-time friend. We share long-standing historical ties, and Mr. President is my personal friend and a friend of India,” Modi said at the meeting, aimed at underscoring close ties.

“For the past four years, you and I stood side by side in the bilateral format and on the international stage… I am very glad that it was so,” Modi told Putin. 

The Russian president reciprocated with similar sentiments, stressing the important role the two countries play in maintaining global stability.

“Last year, our trade saw a significant increase, adding another 17 percent since the beginning of this year,” Putin said.

Major international issues were the focus of the talks between the two leaders.

“The main driver of this meeting is the geopolitical environment prevailing today,” PS Raghavan, chief of India’s national security advisory board, told Al Jazeera.

“The primary purpose of Modi’s Russia trip would be to discuss the evolving geopolitical situation and to understand each other’s perspective – to be able to see how we can both deal with situations in common interest,” said Raghavan, who was also a former Indian envoy to Russia.

New Delhi’s overtures towards Moscow come at a time when India is facing the heat of a US trade war through hefty import tariffs.

The aggressive new approach towards Iran adopted by the administration of US President Donald Trump is also upsetting India’s carefully laid plans in Tehran, including operations at a strategic port in which India has pledged to invest $500m.

Reinvigorating ties

Earlier this month, Modi sent his top emissaries to Russia in what analysts say are moves aimed at reinvigorating ties with a traditional ally after a brief period of coolness.

Top Indian officials were sent to Moscow ahead of Modi’s trip. This included a three-day trip by India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last month.

India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale also held talks with top Russian officials, NSA Nikolai Pathrushev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on May 10.

“The Moscow-New Delhi ties were never hostage to a third country despite the perception to the contrary,” said Nitin Gokhale, a national security analyst based in New Delhi.

We would like to continue with our partnerships with both Russia and Iran. And we would like to do so by not impacting our partnership with the US

by PS Raghavan, Chief of National Security Advisory Board

“What New Delhi is essentially doing is to reaffirm the long-standing robust relationship between the two and continue to support each other on crucial geopolitical matters like Iran and BRICS [an association of five emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa].”

The meetings between Indian and Russian officials are aimed at “reaffirming an old partnership” even as geopolitical realities in the region are changing again.

As the right-wing government of Prime Minister Modi pursued closer ties with Washington since it came to power in 2014, relations between India and Russia had taken a back-seat.

Trump’s America-first policy

A report in Russian business daily, Kommersant, in November last year said Moscow was miffed with India reportedly allowing US forces access to a Russian-built nuclear-powered submarine that is currently on lease to the Indian navy. The report quoted Russian officials considering these as “unfriendly acts towards Russia”.

“The last thing Moscow wants to do is to alienate India now, even though India’s participation in certain military exercises with the US was certainly received without much joy in Moscow,” Dmitry Babich, a Russian political analyst based in Moscow, told Al Jazeera.

“So, even though Moscow may have felt bitter about Modi’s rapprochement with the US, Russian officials never made any remarks that could be interpreted in India as hostile or even critical,” he said.

“Russia is seeking new partners but Russia does not want to lose old ones,” he added.

Moscow has long been the main supplier of military equipment to India, but in recent years, New Delhi has been inching towards the US and Israel for weapons supply.

But with Trump’s America-first policy – as part of which the US has slapped new trade tariffs affecting Indian and Chinese firms, New Delhi is working to improve its relations with Russia and China.

In April, Indian Defence Minister Sitharaman, in an address at a security conference in Moscow said, “Russia has re-established its role and influence in global strategic and defence matters”.

India is friends with and trades extensively with Russia and Iran that are currently facing American sanctions.

New Delhi, one of the biggest buyers of Iranian crude, will have to find measures to nullify the effect of US sanctions on Iran, which would certainly be high on the agenda of talks between Modi and Putin, experts say.

India-Russia ties

India is also battling to avoid a law the US government signed last year imposing sanctions on those who do business with Russia’s military and intelligence sectors.

The law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) threatens to impinge on India’s massive defence trade with Russia.

Russian military hardware accounted for 62 percent of India’s total weapons imports during the past five years, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute said in a report this year.

India is also in talks with Russia to buy five S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems, the Interfax news agency reported, a possible deal that could face rough weather under the new US sanctions.

The top adviser to the Indian government said India will defend its trade interests with both Russia and Iran.

“We have a very extensive energy and defence relationship with Russia. It’s not a tap, which you can switch off. Russia still has the lion’s share in our defence imports as compared to the US,” Raghavan told Al Jazeera.

Washington will have to take this into account, he argued.

India’s relations with the US have also been hit by trade frictions. New Delhi is still waiting for an exemption from higher tariffs on steel and aluminum imports announced by the Trump administration.

The US is also imposing tougher visa rules that targets India’s information technology industry.

New Delhi-Beijing thaw 

Daniel Chirot, Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, said the Trump administration “believes it can bully other countries into acceding to its demands, even if those are often mistaken”.

“The Trump administration is oblivious to the harm it is doing to relations with friendly allies,” Chirot told Al Jazeera.

These irritants in the Indo-US relationship could fuel some rethink in Indian foreign policy, according to analysts.

Some signs of this are already visible – the trips to Russia from key Modi aides as well as an olive branch to neighbouring China.

“The New Delhi-Beijing thaw is a bilateral necessity again because of a fluid global order,” national security analyst Gokhale told Al Jazeera.

The Indian prime minister flew to China to hold informal talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month after a border standoff last year. The trip showed that Delhi has “essentially entered the shadow trade war between the US and China on China’s side”, wrote Mihir Sharma, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

Both these informal outreach trips of the Indian prime minister – earlier to China and now to Russia – are part of the “flurry of consultations between world leaders to discuss this geopolitical environment that exists today”, said Indian government adviser Raghavan.

“We are witness to a very acrimonious standoff between the US and Russia which has gone on to levels that didn’t prevail even during the Cold War. These anti-Russia sanctions have an extra-territorial applicability – this draws in everybody,” he said.

“There are decisions that countries take in their national interest. It is your business in protection of your national interest to see whether you can change, amend it, work around it,” he added referring to the US sanctions.

On Monday, Modi tweeted to say he was “confident” talks with Putin would boost the special ties between the two countries.

Deepening Russian and Indian economic ties stretch back to the Soviet era. Last year was witness to the biggest foreign acquisition ever in India – Russian oil major Rosneft closed their $12.9bn purchase of Indian refiner Essar Oil.

Strategically, Russia has facilitated India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and endorsed India’s long-held demand for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Moscow is also pushing for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a club of countries controlling access to sensitive nuclear technology.

The Chief of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Raghavan, however, said India would continue to walk a tightrope between Moscow and Washington.

“We would like to continue with our partnerships with both Russia and Iran. And we would like to do so by not impacting our partnership with the US,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera