Why Modi is going to Sochi
AFTER his informal summit with the Chinese President last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be heading to Sochi for an informal summitry with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Growing global challenges are forcing India to coordinate its policies with Russia and China more closely. Even in the past, the three nations have tried to ground their bilateral relations in the wider realities of changing global balance of power. Now with the Trump administration upending the rules of global governance, there is renewed concern in the three capitals that their foreign policies need greater coordination, if only to preserve their equities in the global order.
India, of course, has a long standing relationship with Russia but that is undergoing a shift in light of rapidly evolving geopolitical realities. While the top leaderships of the two nations have continued to engage with each other, divergences have been cropping up with disturbing regularity. For India, what should be concerning is Russia’s increasing tilt towards Pakistan as it seeks to curry favour with China. Moscow had historically supported New Delhi at the United Nations Security Council by repeatedly vetoing resolutions on the Kashmir issue. Today, however, there is a change in how Moscow views its regional priorities in South Asia.
In a significant development, the joint declaration issued at the end of the first-ever six-nation Speaker’s Conference in Islamabad held in December 2017 supported Pakistani line on Kashmir. This declaration signed by Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey underscored that “for ensuring global and regional peace and stability, the issue of Jammu and Kashmir needs peaceful resolution by Pakistan and India in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.” Pakistan’s Kashmir fixation meant that it forced other interlocutors to bring the Kashmir issue to the declaration.
During his visit to New Delhi in December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly called on India to join China’s Belt and Road initiative and hoped that New Delhi will find a way out to benefit from the mega connectivity project without sacrificing its position on the issues flagged by it. Referring to India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the grounds of sovereignty, he underlined that “the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional for resolving political differences.” Lavrov also made his displeasure clear over New Delhi’s warming up to the idea of a quadrilateral engagement involving the US, India, Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific. He suggested “that sustainable security architecture in the Asia Pacific region cannot be achieved through bloc arrangement.”
Despite the best efforts of the top leaderships in India and Russia, divergences are growing in this bilateral relationship as the underlying structural changes in the international environment are pulling the two nations apart.
For Russia, the US-led West presents its biggest challenge and its foreign policy priorities increasingly revolve around pushing back against the West at every level. From the UN Security Council to the western European periphery, this is what Russia is doing. The West views Russia as one of the most disruptive forces in global politics, even more so than China in many ways. The initial optimism of a US-Russia rapprochement post Donald Trump has died down now with domestic politics in the US becoming ever so contentious. Britain and Russia are entangled in a dispute pertaining to an attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on the UK soil. And the West has united behind the UK in responding against Russia. Cold War type rhetoric against Russia is gaining traction in Western Europe.
For India, the prism is different as it has to manage the negative externalities emerging from the rise of China in its vicinity. Chinese power is now intruding into India’s traditional sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. The growing power disparity between India and China is making the border situation more unstable. China-Pakistan nexus is proving difficult to contain as India gets ready to face a two-front challenge. China refuses to recognise Indian global power aspirations and has not yielded on key Indian security demands. As a result, while Russia may find cooperation with China as a perfectly legitimate response to its problems with the West, India does not have that luxury. New Delhi has to therefore find like-minded countries to build alternative platforms and narratives so as to preclude Chinese hegemony in the wider Indo Pacific. India, of course, continues to engage China too as was evident during Modi’s visit to Wuhan.
As India resets its engagement with China and as Russia adjusts to its growing isolation in the western world, time has come for renewed Indo-Russian engagement. For a relationship that largely relies on defence and where the economic underpinnings are lagging, the need of the hour should be to have candid conversations about the current state of play in the relationship. Just relying on sentimentalism of the past won’t work anymore as new challenges confront India and Russia and the global geostrategic environment undergoes a profound reordering.
The writer is professor, international relations, King’s College London. The views expressed are personal