Benaulim, Goa: It was no accident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first line was about old friendships. “An old friend is better than two new friends,” Modi said, reading the Russian phrase transliterated into Hindi as President Vladimir Putin cracked a smile and clapped.
It was not made clear which new friendships Modi was speaking of, but both India and Russia have found new partners who have caused some heartburn in each other’s capitals and led to fears of strategic drift in the relationship.While India has grown ever closer to United States, Russia held its first ever military exercise – just after Uri attack – with Pakistan and plans to sell four attack helicopters to Islamabad.
Therefore, when Modi and Putin met for their annual bilateral summit in Goa – a day ahead of the BRICS summit, it was not a surprise that Russia’s relations with India’s neighbour was on the table.
“After their talks, we are satisfied that Russia understands India’s interests, will not do anything contrary to India’s interest and there was very strong meeting of minds on this,” Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar said. It was an indication that the burgeoning ties were a point of discussion, but Jaishankar did not directly state that Modi had raised it during the talks.
However, when asked if it meant that Russia will not hold any more exercises with Pakistan, Jaishankar demurred, “This is not a question which I should be answering”.
The question of terrorism was front and centre, with Prime Minister Modi strongly implying that Putin Russia supports the post-Uri surgical strikes that reportedly destroyed several launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan has denied that there were any strikes within its territory, claiming that there was only cross-border firing.
“Russia’s clear stand on the need to combat terrorism mirrors our own. We deeply appreciate Russia’s understanding and support of our actions to fight cross-border terrorism, that threatens our entire region. We both affirmed the need for zero tolerance in dealing with terrorists and their supporters. President Putin and I noted the similarity of our views on the situation in Afghanistan and turmoil in West Asia”. [Narendra Modi statement, highlighted by The Wire]
The Russian President was a bit more circumspect. He mentioned terrorism right at the end of his media statement:”Of course, we are engaged in a comprehensive dialogue on the whole international agenda, where the positions of India and Russia are very close, or even coincide. One of the top-priority areas [of cooperation] is struggle against terrorism”.
Later, foreign secretary S Jaishankar said that Russia’s “unequivocal condemnation” of Uri had to be read together with “subsequent” statements by Russian officials. He also referred to Russian ambassador Alexander Kadakin’s remarks welcoming the ‘surgical strikes’ and stating that India had right to defend itself.
“If you put two and two together, you will get the desired answer,” Jaishankar answered to a question if Russia had categorically expressed support for the ‘surgical strikes’ today. He also referred to Russian ambassador Alexander Kadakin’s remarks welcoming the ‘surgical strikes’ and stating that India had right to defend itself.
“If you put two and two together, you will get the desired answer,” Jaishankar answered to a question if Russia had categorically expressed support for the ‘surgical strikes’ today.
He also indicated that the conversation over terrorism also spilled over the luncheon hosted by Prime Minister Modi to President Putin.
The paragraph on terrorism in the joint statement did not go much beyond last year’s buzzwords. The main additions (highlighted below) is a stronger emphasis on a global strategy on combating terrorism “without double standards or selectivity” and need to prevent movement of terrorists – which could also apply to Russia’s bugbear, so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
The Leaders strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and emphasized the necessity of comprehensive international collaboration in order to ensure its eradication. India and Russia recognize the threat posed by terrorism, and believe that the full implementation of the relevant UNSC resolutions, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy without application of any double standards or selectivity will be instrumental in countering this challenge. They stressed the need to deny safe havens to terrorists and the importance of countering the spread of terrorist ideology as well as radicalization leading to terrorism, stopping recruitment, preventing travel of terrorists and foreign terrorist fighters, strengthening border management and having effective legal assistance and extradition arrangements. Furthermore, stressing the need to have a strong international legal regime built on the principle of ‘zero tolerance for direct or indirect support of terrorism’, both Sides called upon the international community to make sincere efforts towards the earliest conclusion of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). [Joint Statement 2016]
Overall, 16 agreements and three announcements were made public after the talks held at Taj Exotica, where both the leaders are staying during over the next two days.
One of the reason for Russia’s overtures to Pakistan had been to control the spill-over of terror groups from Afghanistan, which has led to a slight divergence on Russian and Indian positions.
In the joint statement, both leaders “expressed concern over the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and recognised the need for resolute action against the menace of terrorism and threats of illicit drug-production and drug-trafficking, including the elimination of terror sanctuaries, safe havens, and other forms of support to terrorists”. The reference to “safe havens” and “terror sanctuaries” is usually code for Pakistan.
They also called for international cooperation to address the “domestic security situation, improving the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces, strengthening counter-narcotics capabilities, ensuring socio-economic development, and enhancing connectivity”.
“India and Russia reiterated their support for Afghan government’s efforts towards the realisation of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned national reconciliation process based upon the principles of international law,” it added.
On Syria, where Russia has militarily intervened on behalf of the Bashar Al-Assad government, the joint statement said that the conflict should be “peacefully resolved through comprehensive and inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue based on the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012, and relevant UN Security Council resolutions”.
Coming out clearly on Russia’s side, India also “India recognised the Russian side’s effort towards achieving a political and negotiated settlement of the situation in Syria”.
“Both sides underlined the necessity of strengthening the cessation of hostilities, delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas, and the continuation of intra-Syrian dialogue under UN supervision,” it added.
Ukraine also figured in the joint statement, with India maintaining its traditional position, which was largely aligned to Russia: “Both sides expressed concern over the continuing instability in South-Eastern Ukraine and supported a political and negotiated settlement of the issue through the complete implementation of the Package of Measures for the Implementation of Minsk Agreements of February 12, 2015.”
The big ticket items were in the defence sector – S-400 Triumf air defense systems, manufacture of helicopters and construction of four project 11356 frigates. “The agreements on manufacturing of Kamov 226T helicopters; constructions of frigates; and acquisition and building of other defence platforms are in synergy with India’s technology and security priorities. They also help us achieve the objectives of Make in India,” said Modi.
Two news instrument of annual military industrial conference and joint Science and technology committee for research and development collaboration in defence were also announced.
“These projects are new chapters in a long history of strong and diverse defence partnership that both sides can take much pride in,” he said.
The other major aspect for India-Russian ties was the nuclear sector. A direct video link from Kudankulam nuclear power plant saw Putin and Modi witnessing the waving of the green flag to initiate the foundation laying for units 3 and 4.
Putin stated that negotiations for General Framework Agreement and the Credit Protocol unit 5 and 6 were still underway, with the joint statement giving a deadline of two more months to finish these documents by end of 2016. “Within the next 20 years, we plan to build at least 12 nuclear reactors using Russian technology,” he added.
Describing Russia as a “reliable supplier of hydrocarbons” for India, Putin said that Russian companies have finalised deals for supplying 100 million tonnes of oil for 10 years and 2.5 million tonnes of LNG per year.
“In last four months alone, in a clear expression of our strong and deep engagement in the Hydrocarbon sector, Indian companies have invested close to .$5 billion in Russia’s oil and gas sector. And, with President Putin’s support, we are ready and willing to expand the scope of our engagement further,” said Modi.
One of the announcements made at the press event was Rosneft’s gaining 49% stake in Essar Oil Limited and Essar’s Vadinar refinery at a cost of $12.9 billion – which is India’s biggest foreign acquisition and Russia’s biggest outbound deal. Russian investment fund United Capital Partners and Netherlands-based Trafigura Group Pte (one of the world’s biggest commodity trading companies) split another 49 per cent equity equally.
On this front, both sides are also undertaking a joint study of a gas pipeline route between India and Russia.
Besides, Russia also “expressed its interest in attracting Indian oil companies to participate in joint projects in the offshore-Arctic fields of the Russian Federation”.
While defence and energy relations have remained healthy, the economic relations have not been as rosy. “If there was an area where India and Russia relations had not done as well as others, it was in the economic front,” admitted Jaishankar, adding, “In the last few years, we are devoting efforts towards that to bring it up to speed”.
There had been a dip in bilateral trade in recent year due to low oil prices, which Putin also alluded to: “There are, of course, some issues resulting from decreasing prices on Russia’s traditional exports due to the exchange rate fluctuations and price volatility.” The bilateral trade stands at $12 billion, and Putin expressed confidence that it was still on target to achieve $15 billion by 2025.
He also said that both sides were satisfied in the “composition of reciprocal export and import flows, the majority of products have high added value, including engineering and industrial processing products”.
Modi announced that India hoped to “fast track” the free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. Both sides also announced the creation of a $1 billion bilateral investment funds for high-technology investments in Russia and India.