At First Summit in 2 Years, India and Russia Will Take Forward Defence Ties, Try to Bridge Differences

While Russian President Vladimir Putin will only be in India for five hours, the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries will hold their first-ever 'two plust two' summit.

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New Delhi: When India and Russia hold their annual summit after a gap of two years, it will provide a chance for the top leadership to catch up and bridge the gap between the two sides on critical issues ranging from Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in India for just five hours to participate in the first in-person summit since September 2019. 

The truncated period of Putin’s stay in Indian territory is blamed on COVID-19 protocols, with Indian sources quickly pointing out that this is only the Russian president’s second visit abroad in the past one-and-half years. In July, he had travelled to Geneva to meet US President Joe Biden for a bilateral summit.

On the same day, India and Russia will also hold their first-ever ‘two plus two” summit between their foreign and defence ministers.

Both sides note that the “special privileged strategic partnership” remains strong in the run-up to the summit. However, some differences are still unresolved between India and Russia, mainly emanating from their relations with the US, China and Pakistan.

On Friday, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Moscow that around ten agreements are expected to be signed during the summit. A joint statement will be released, but there will be no press appearance.

There have been solid overtures from both India and Russia in the months before the summit, which will undoubtedly help the atmospherics.

The Russian national security adviser (NSA) Nikolai Patrushev came to Delhi twice in three months. The second time was to attend the first multilateral meeting organised by India on Afghanistan after the takeover in August. This was important because it ensured the presence of at least one heavyweight international player in Afghanistan that has maintained close ties with the Taliban.

India’s differences with Russia on its approach towards the Afghan issue began when Moscow decided that courting the Taliban was necessary to keep the Islamic State in check from spreading into central Asia. This led to Moscow moving closer to Pakistan due to their access to and influence over the Taliban leadership.

After the Taliban took over the entire country, Russia maintained its embassy in Kabul, even as India, the US and other western nationals withdrew their diplomatic presence. Russia, Pakistan and China have since actively advocated engaging with the Taliban

They have, however, not yet taken the step themselves to recognise the Taliban government. Russia and China also did not disrupt the consensus in the UN General Assembly credentials committee to defer recognition of the Taliban official as Afghanistan’s envoy to the UN.

It will undoubtedly figure during the talks between New Delhi and Moscow and have a substantial reference in the joint statement, focussing on the need to send immediate humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

The joint statement is also likely to figure stronger language on combating terrorism from Afghanistan, explicitly mentioning terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba. These Pakistan-based groups that target India were missing from the Russia-India-China (RIC) minister joint statement, which resulted from negotiations by consensus.

Officials, including representatives of the Taliban delegation, attend international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2021. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via Reuters

The other contentious topic is the Indo-Pacific policy – a term that Russia does not even acknowledge, while India has embraced it fully. Senior Russian officials have also cautioned India of getting “too involved” in the ‘Quad’, which it considers a US-led instrument to contain China.

In previous joint statements, the workaround was to use more generic terms like “Asia and Pacific region” and “regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans”.

This November, Russia finally became a dialogue partner for Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) – on the second attempt. It took place a year after Australia, among others, had opposed Russia’s entrance to the IORA. This time at the IORA ministerial summit, Russia finally got the green light – with India lobbying strongly in its favour as a quid-pro-quo for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

One area that continues to thrive

If there was one area that continues to thrive is the defence relationship. While Russia’s share in India’s defence purchases has gone down, it has regained the title of being the single largest source of Indian weapons procurement in recent years.

During an interview with Russian state news agency TASS, the outgoing Indian ambassador D.B. Venkatesh Varma said defence contracts have increased from around $2-3 billion per year in 2018 to about $10 billion currently.

Despite the shadow of US sanctions, India has started to receive deliveries of S-400 air defence systems from Russia. Indian officials have asserted that the S-400 purchase should be seen as a reflection of New Delhi’s “strategic autonomy”. “We have bought Rafale (jets) from France, Apache (helicopters) from the US, and we will have Russia’s S-400,” sources said.

Also Read: Hopeful of a CAATSA Bypass, India Looks to Bolster Air Defence With Russian S-400

Among the pacts to be signed is the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics (RELOS), which will allow the Indian and Russian militaries to use each other’s ports and facilities while on deployment abroad.

So far, India has signed a military logistics agreement with all the Quad countries, Singapore, France and South Korea.

As per The Hindu, RELOS will give access to Russian facilities in the Arctic region, where there has been a sharp rise in Chinese activities.

Another defence agreement will be to manufacture AK-203 assault rifles in India. Besides, both sides will also sign the ten-year extension of the military-technical cooperation agreement.

India and Russia have also found themselves primarily in sync at debates in the UN’s most powerful body, the Security Council. India’s punctilious application of principles against country-specific resolutions and ‘mandate creep’ by various UN groups mean that more often than not, Indian officials find themselves on the same side as their Russian counterparts on multiple global topics ranging from Syria to climate change.

The joint statement, which will be released tomorrow, will likely highlight the need to preserve the UN’s central role and strictly adhere to its charter.

Many experts have repeatedly highlighted that the weakest link in India-Russian ties is the economic pillar.

As per Indian government records, the total trade in 2020 was $9.31 billion, a drop of 17% from the previous year. But total trade in the first six months of 2021 was $5.23 billion, indicating that the numbers seem to have picked up to pre-COVID-19 levels. However, the trade figures are small compared to India’s trade with the US and China, which have crossed the $100 billion mark.

Both New Delhi and Moscow are attempting to attract Indian investment to Russia’s far east region, but it has not been an easy journey. India’s offer of a $1 billion line of credit for developing the far east region has still not been operationalised.

Russia has been keen for India to start negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEC). While a feasibility study showed the potential, there was a difference in perception, with the Russians not keen to include services and investment within the scope of the FTA.

However, sources added that India’s department of commerce was looking at terms of reference, and the negotiations may start soon.