Russia’s Foreign Minister’s visit: Challenges in Relations


Russia’s Foreign Minister’s visit: Challenges in Relations

Lavrov arrived in New Delhi Monday and held talks with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar about defence cooperation among other aspects of bilateral ties. He also laid the groundwork for a bilateral summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this year.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, in his joint press conference, noted the longstanding partnership in nuclear, space (Gaganyaan programme) and defence sectors (expeditious addressing of our defence requirements in the context of the Ladakh stand-off), new economic opportunities in Russian Far East, the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor as connectivity projects, the rapidly expanding energy cooperation with long-term commitments, and production of Russian vaccine in India.

Both foreign ministers reiterated their commitment to the bilateral relationship. But beneath the story of cordiality, writes the Hindustan Times  “is a story of increasing differences on two key issues, visible during the joint press conference of the two ministers on Tuesday.

“The first is on the wider relationship with the United States (US) and China. Moscow sees Washington as a belligerent actor out to contain Russian influence and punish it through sanctions. This has pushed it towards Beijing…….

“New Delhi sees its partnership with Washington as an important security pillar, and views Beijing as the core problem. India, thus, has chosen to remain more aligned with the US — while keeping up its independent relationship with Russia, especially on defence. Till the US and Russia achieve a degree of rapprochement or Russia and China fall out, none of which are imminent, India will have keep striking this difficult balance.”


Russia is no longer a strategic ally for India

India and Russia are talking frankly, but the “time-tested relationship” is clearly headed for greater challenges. According to ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Russia is no longer a strategic ally for India. Gupta explains that over the last four years, the global power balance has changed. “It’s been a confused world for the past four years, but it’s now quite clear that it is again becoming a bipolar world.” The United States is one pole and China is the other pole. Meanwhile, Russia has resigned itself to being “the junior partner of China”. India is an aspiring big power and the world is increasingly looking at it as a “balancing new power” argues Gupta.

Like the US of the past, Russia is hyphenating Pakistan with India : “Since Vajpayee came to power, we have seen the India-US relationship get warmer and stronger and the relationship with Russia becoming more transactional,” says Gupta. But it took time before the US stopped de-hyphenating Pakistan with India.   Now Russia has started to hyphenate India with Pakistan. Russia therefore, is becoming “what was America” in the past.

Lavrov first visited India and then Pakistan and his statements in both countries were markedly different. While in Pakistan, Lavrov said Russia sees Pakistan as an “important friend”, seeks to continue exercises called ‘friendship druzhba’ and is willing to supply Pakistan high-tech or specialised military equipment to fight terrorism.

Gupta observed that Lavrov did not get an audience with PM Modi on the pretext that the former was campaigning in West Bengal. “In January 2020, when Lavrov came to India, he had been given an audience by Modi. On the other hand, when he goes to Pakistan, he meets… the Army Chief who matters most of all, and the Prime Minister.’’

So if anything, “he [Lavrov] had much more ceremony about his visit to Pakistan,” said Gupta.

Dependence on Russian military supplies: However, it is a fact  that over 80 per cent of India’s military hardware is still Russian. “In fact, if India goes to war with anybody right now… all the tanks will be regimes that will be T-72s and T-90s” and  “two-thirds of combat Indian Air Force will be of Russian origin which are Sukhois and the various MiGs.”

But,  points Gupta, that although a nuclear-powered submarine has been routinely leased to India by Russia, the growing India-France relationship for military supplies may change this. “Meanwhile, Russia’s dependence on China now is extreme as China is a market for a lot of Russian military technology.”


Ties can still grow despite differences

Kanwal Sibal (former foreign secretary) writes that “in assessing India-Russia ties,” one should recognise that the relationship will not “be free of any differences, and that any developing gaps in our respective foreign policies are a matter of special concern, given our historic closeness.

A changing world: “The world has changed drastically in the last three decades…….Russia-US ties  have deteriorated very sharply, with US-China ties now headed in that direction. The US sees both these powers as adversaries. Under pressure because of the West, Russia and China have forged an increasingly stronger strategic partnership. At the same time, India-US ties  have been transformed, with the US becoming India’s premier partner in many ways, and this includes a remarkable growth in  defence ties.”

India and Russia, argues Sibal  “have to navigate their historically close ties through these changes and adapt their policies accordingly. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit has allowed us to reiterate the durable positives in our ties and address issues on which our views do not converge. But we should not give too much importance to the latter if we consider that we have major differences on several issues even with the US, despite our transformed ties, be it on Afghanistan, the Taliban, Iran, Russia, even Pakistan etc.”


Differences over Afghanistan

There are differences over Afghanistan, with Lavrov unequivocally stating that the Taliban had to be a part of any sustainable peace process and power-sharing compact.  India was not invited to the  recent talks held in Moscow.  Sibal  says Russia “has yielded to Pakistani and Chinese pressure to keep India out of the extended Moscow format involving Russia, China, US, and Pakistan. Jaishankar rightly pointed out that developments in Afghanistan impact India’s security directly. The other area of difference on which Lavrov has been blunt is the Indo-Pacific. On this, Jaishankar was firm in stating that contemporary challenges require countries to work together in new and different ways and that such cooperation also reflects the rebalanced character of global politics.”


India should get practical over Russia getting closer to Pakistan

Sibal acknowledges that Lavrov visiting Pakistan after “nine years and that too after visiting India has attracted attention. We should realistically accept the evident Russian desire to expand ties with Pakistan, the  potential of which is limited, as Russia would also be competing with China. Russia’s defence ties with Pakistan are for the moment confined to strengthening Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capability for which it is  ready to provide  ‘relevant equipment’, besides conducting land and naval exercises. This, again, India should pragmatically accept as part of Russia’s broader effort in the extended West Asia region to project itself as a power that cannot be ignored in searching for solutions.

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