Balancing acts

Although much significance has been attached to the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi is only the second time he has ventured out of his country since the Covid-19 pandemic broke in early 2020, the broad outcomes of the first-ever 2+2 dialogue ironically reflected the sub-text of the US-China superpower rivalry. To be sure, the leaders of both countries had no reason to be dissatisfied with the summit, not least because it offered Moscow and New Delhi the opportunity to signal with statements their ambit of independent manoeuvre. Mr Putin referred to India a.....
Although much significance has been attached to the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi is only the second time he has ventured out of his country since the Covid-19 pandemic broke in early 2020, the broad outcomes of the first-ever 2+2 dialogue ironically reflected the sub-text of the US-China superpower rivalry. To be sure, the leaders of both countries had no reason to be dissatisfied with the summit, not least because it offered Moscow and New Delhi the opportunity to signal with statements their ambit of independent manoeuvre. Mr Putin referred to India as a great power and time-tested friend. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reciprocated by describing Mr Putin’s visit as reflecting his commitments to ties with India.

Given that the readouts of the meetings will be scrutinised in Washington and Beijing, it is fair to say that the political signalling that emanated from the summit was stronger than any substantive gain. The big event was the signing of an agreement for the joint production of 600,000 AK-203 assault rifles. This was an expected development, which Mr Modi had announced in Amethi in March 2019. These rifles will be manufactured under collaboration in Korwa, Uttar Pradesh, under the “Make in India” programme. The two countries have also agreed to extend military cooperation until 2031, a necessary move since India uses a considerable amount of Russian military equipment — from Sukhoi fighters to tanks, submarines, frigates, and combat vehicles — for which the seamless supply of spare parts had long been an issue of concern.

 
But the bigger headline of the summit, and one that may have exposed the vulnerabilities of both countries, was what did not happen and that was the agreement for a defence logistics-sharing between the two countries. By all accounts, the agreement had been finalised and ready for signature but a statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov created a diplomatic roadblock. Referring to India’s controversial purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence missile system, for which the US has sanctioned other countries, Mr Lavrov had said India’s decision to go ahead and buy the system showed it was a sovereign country despite US attempts to “make India obey American orders”. With deeper cooperation under the US-led and China-opposing four-power Quad hanging in the balance, India did not consider it prudent to sign an agreement that would have given each other’s defence establishments access to military bases.

That said, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s reference to “the extraordinary militarisation and expansion of armament in our neighbourhood and the completely unprovoked aggression on our northern border” — an unambiguous reference to China’s border incursions along the Line of Actual Control — proved no less embarrassing for his Russian counterparts, reflecting some of the delegation-level disconnect behind the Modi-Putin chemistry. Even as Russia seeks to draw India into a Eurasian economic zone, all eyes are on the video call between Mr Putin and American President Joe Biden over the vexed question of Ukraine, on the borders of which tens of thousands of Russian troops have massed, raising fears of an imminent invasion. India’s nervousness stems from the need to fashion a response, with the knowledge that the US had been less than comfortable with New Delhi’s equivocal response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014. The space for the balancing act with an age-old ally is clearly narrowing.

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