Can India-Russia level up bilateral relations at the 21st Annual Summit?
New Delhi, Dec 5: On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will welcome the President of The Russian Federation Vladimir Putin for the flagship annual meeting between India and Russia. The visit has been touted to be of great significance in light of this being President Putin's only second work visit outside Russia since the onset of the pandemic last year, and amidst the ongoing tensions between the west and Russia over Ukraine.
The summit will also witness the inaugural session of the India-Russia 2 2 dialogue. Russia's Defence and Foreign Ministers will hold talks with their Indian counterparts. This highlights the increasing mutuality of strategic interests between the two close partners.
Considering how the cancellation of the annual summit last year caused rise in speculations in Chinese and Pakistani media pertaining to the waning India-Russia partnership, the21st summit has attracted more attention than most Indian engagements India this year.
This is in light of several tectonic shifts occurring in the global geopolitical landscape concurrently- the return of Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the AUKUS pact, the institutionalisation of Quad, tensions between Ukraine and Russia, and India's volatile relations with China and Pakistan, to name a few.
The summit will be convening at a time when the Russian S-400 anti-missile defence system deliveries are underway to India. The deal worth more than $5 billion has attracted much attention due to the US' CAATSA act which sanctions substantive engagements with US adversaries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Whether India faces sanctions or gets waivers by the Biden administration will decide the future course of the India-US partnership as well.
What is on the Table?
India and Russia have shown renewed interest in strengthening defence partnership lately. This will be highlighted with India inking the RELOS (Reciprocal of Logistics Agreement) with Russia during the summit. It will allow militaries from both sides to access logistics at each other's bases. Further, there are reports that the two sides are looking towards signing a 10-year agreement for military-technical cooperation as well.
India cleared the AK-203 assault rifle deal last week which includes technology transfer and provisions for manufacturing in India. Russia sees India as a prospective customer for the recently unveiled Su-75 'Checkmate' stealth fighter aircraft, and India has shown interest in the new S-500 'Prometey' anti-missile system.
An increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific arena makes this year's summit even more interesting. India has regularly held 2 2 dialogues with Japan, the US, and Australia in recent years. The maintenance of a 'Free-and-Open-Indo-Pacific' has featured as a central theme in all these engagements.
Russia is not new to the 2 2 mechanism having held the dialogue with Egypt, UK, and Japan in the past, the format has lately been used by most nations (US, South Korea, Japan, Australia) as a way to enhance interactions in the Indo-Pacific region.
This is much different to how Russia has utilised the 2 2 framework, focusing on counterterrorism and trade. With India and Russia having disagreements around the Indo-Pacific construct, the contours of the 2 2 dialogue will be interesting to observe.
India sees the Indo-Pacific as a mechanism to increase co-operation and co-ordination with other countries in the region. On the other hand, US has been emphasising on India's vitality for counter-balancing the increasing Chinese dominance and aspirations in the region. Russia sees the Indo-Pacific concept as a western construct based on 'unequal partnerships', for Chinese containment, as well as to limit the Russian ambition for a substantial role in the broader Eurasian region.
With India and Russia still not able to find common ground over the Indo-Pacific, the India-Russia annual summit and the 2 2 ministerial dialogue is expected to revolve around key themes like Afghanistan, Syria, coordination in multilateral forums like BRICS, SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and RIC (Russia-India-China), coordination to combat Covid-19, and trade and investments.
In last few years India has expressed interest in increasing investments and presence in the Russian Far East (RFE). India has also shown increasing appetite for collaboration with third countries like Japan and South Korea to create capacities in the RFE region to benefit from the vast potential it holds in sphere of hydrocarbon exploration. The two countries have closely coordinated their efforts towards tackling the pandemic, and both will look forward to strengthening cooperation in the healthcare sphere.
A major theme for discussion remains the vulnerabilities associated with the Taliban government now firmly in control in Afghanistan. Any issues emanating from this region are seen as an equally undesired prospect by both Moscow and New Delhi.
With the governments now realising the vulnerabilities and necessities revolving around future cyber warfare, India and Russia should also look towards enhancing cooperation in cyberspace.
Another key theme on the agenda will be cooperation through the various multilateral mechanisms like the SCO, BRICS, RIS and UN. India and Russia both see benefits in utilising these mechanisms to promote multipolarity. The rejection of western unilateral sanctions, especially those propounded by US, and unilateral decisions like withdrawal from the JCPOA treaty are also expected to be discussed during the summit.
Both India and Russia have focused on establishing transport corridors to enhance accessibility. The Northern Sea Route and the Arctic region developments, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Vladivostok-Chennai corridor are also expected to find place during the interactions.
What Lies Ahead
India and Russia are going through a sort of rejuvenation in bilateral ties since last two years. The two partners enjoy a 'special and privileged strategic partnership', which has stood the test of times. However, there remain some concerns. The recently held Russia-India-China Foreign Ministers' meeting reflected most of the areas where Indian and Russian interests converge and diverge.
The annual summit will be followed by the US President Joe Biden's "Summit for Democracy", where Russia has not been invited while India is looking to attend. The Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement urging all the foreign partners not to engage in democratisation and draw dividing lines.
India is also set to host the US for the Indo-US 2 2 dialogue later this month. The case of CAATSA sanctions is bound to come up and will undoubtedly shape India's relations with not just the US but also with Russia. But before that, the direction that the 21st Indo-Russian summit will take, will signal the direction of India's upcoming engagements later this month.