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Modi Visits Russia - 2015

Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla

With all major foreign engagements, it takes a little time – or longer – for the full facts and implications to emerge; so it is with Modi’s visit to Russia. However, some of the important results may now be assessed. And the documents and statements made by the leaders do not cover all the ground. An illustration of this may be seen in the report in the UK Sunday Times and many other papers since – that Putin met the new Taliban leader, Mansour, in Tajikistan in September.

Of course, all the concerned sides have issued denials of one kind or another, and it may well be that no such meeting took place. But what is certainly true is that the Russian Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has stated recently that the Taliban are a national resistance force, and all countries in the region have a common interest in working with the Taliban to contain the Islamic State.

In an important sense, this sets the stage for understanding one of the more worrying aspects of Indo-Russian relations today: the Russian drift towards the China-Pakistan approach to Afghanistan. The pattern of our Summit Joint Statements since 2012 shows a progressive weakening on the issue of terrorism, and the role of Pakistan as the cause of the problem. In 2012, India and Russia condemned those who provide safe havens to terrorists, and declared that those who give shelter to terrorists were as guilty as the actual perpetrators; this time, there was only a brief reference to the need to shut down “safe havens” [the inverted commas are in the original] once and for all. Seen against the background of other developments in Russia-Pakistan relations, these are substantive shifts. In the year gone by, we have seen the Russian Defence Minister visit Pakistan, and visits by the Pakistani Army Chief to Russia are now a regular event.

A similar dilution of stance on the Russian part is visible with regard to the Asia-Pacific – to avoid language that would cause concern in Beijing. Gradually, any reference to the imperative of safeguarding “maritime security on the basis of international law” has been whittled away since it was employed in 2012. In the recent Joint Statement, there is only a call for peaceful settlement of disputes through dialogue, while respecting the diversity of political systems in the region. By contrast, the 2012 Statement made a detailed reference to the need for all to uphold international law. This change will obviously be welcome in China, and the current prescription is one that it has been promoting.

These changes, taken together with the renewed growth in military trade between Russia and China, after a period of stagnation, and the emerging contacts with Pakistan, are a legitimate cause of concern for India. They may indicate that we are facing a situation where, on Afghanistan, the US, China and now Russia, all accept the primary role of Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, the reference to Eurasia by Modi, both in his remarks to the press during the signing ceremony, and later to the Indian-Russian community suggest that Putin also came in strongly on his concept of Eurasia, though he himself did not mention it in his press statement. But he has been promoting the concept for some time now, as a counter to the US approach to Europe. For good measure, he has also been linking his concept with the Chinese one-belt-one-road proposal. It is to be hoped that the Indian leaders have weighed the pluses and minuses of these ideas before taking a final position.

None of this takes away from the depth and intensity of the purely bilateral aspects of the relationship. Indeed, it seems almost to be a conscious policy on the part of the Russian leaders that they will deepen the bilateral engagement tous azimuts – particularly in Defence and Energy. It is an impressive list of areas where the two countries are cooperating and will work together in future. Nuclear energy is one area where they have a unique position: because they moved on this as far back as 1988, they are well ahead of the competition. In Kudankulam, the first reactor is already functional; five more are in different stages of implementation, slow but steady. With Russia, we have got past the liability issue.

Perhaps of greater potential benefit, Hydrocarbon trade is picking up. Both oil and natural gas supplies have begun in recent years, and the pace of supplies is picking up. Equally important, the private sector is getting active from the Indian side. The tie-up with Rosneft is important for another reason as well: its CEO, Igor Sechin, is among Putin’s closest and most trusted allies. He had been focussed almost exclusively on China for several years, during the boom. In recent months, he has invested quite a lot of his energies on the Indian market.

One oddity that persists in this issue is the idea of a direct pipeline for Hydrocarbon supplies from Russia to India. How this can be commercially viable is hard to understand. Yet, official-level discussions are now taking place. There is a better way of promoting large-scale LNG trade instead: this is by means of a four-way swap, involving, in addition to India and Russia, major suppliers in the Persian Gulf and major importers in East Asia. Instead of the Gulf suppliers [mainly Qatar at present] shipping LNG to Japan and South Korea, Russia could swap with these suppliers, and they could divert supplies to India. All four would gain from lower transport and greater security because of the shorter distances.

And yet, in overall bilateral trade, the record itself is mixed. As Putin himself brought out in his press statement, trade turnover has fallen 14% last year, and is off the peak attained in 2012 of $11 billion. This is the result of both the fall in commodity prices, and the sharp drop in the value of the Rouble, but neither is likely to change in the near future. It may be remembered that the target turnover for 2015 was $ 20b; the two countries have fallen well short. This has happened for several reasons, apart from the ones enumerated by Putin. The Russian economy has contracted 3.7% this year, and the prospects for next year, again as per President Putin, are for a marginal rise. He has declared that the worst is over for the economy, but former Finance Minister, Kudrin, who is not one of those who talks down the Russian economy, has cast doubt even on this crumb of comfort.

One proposal that Putin has been promoting for some years now has been for the two countries to trade in their national currencies. There is some irony here, because it was the Russians, in the first flush after the end of the USSR, who had demanded that we switch to Dollar-based trade and settlements. And it is India that is now reluctant to give up on Dollar-based trade – and rightly so. Nonetheless, the idea of trade in national currencies finds mention in the Joint Statement, though one presumes it is becoming a pro forma reference.

Defence remains the mainstay of the bilateral ties. Some of the reported new contracts will be welcome to Russia, especially the S400 air defence system. This is an effective system, with a proven track record. The Russians have deployed it in Syria in recent months to good effect. And here too, we are seeing the early private sector involvement, with a contract for servicing some of the new equipment to be acquired, reportedly worth billions of dollars. And, of course, Modi has himself referred to the helicopter agreement – Kamov 226 – as one of the early harvests of the Make in India programme.

Some of the long-gestation projects are not making much headway – including the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, as well as the issue of the facility in Ayni in Tajikistan. Both these are important for India, but are not delivering the kind of results that could reasonably be expected after the investment of time and money in these programmes. They are probably reflective of the inability of the two bureaucracies to carry good ideas across the finish line. The political will that should overcome such obstacles also seems to be missing.

Another element of this missing political resolve is in a significant change that had appeared in the Joint Statement issued in 2014, after Putin’s visit – and first encounter with Modi. That Statement contained a mention of “Jammu and Kashmir, India and Chechnya, Russia” in the context of both being targets of terror attacks. Not since the break-up of the USSR had our two countries agreed on such a formulation. This time, however, there was no reference to any such mutual support to the territorial integrity of the two countries. And yet, the latest Russian National Security Strategy document, signed by Putin on 31 December 2015, recognises a threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty, so it remains a worry, and legitimately so.

This essay began with saying that some of the outcomes become clearer after a lag. In this case, it will presumably take some time before we get to know what, if anything happened about the Netaji files. Perhaps a beginning will have to be made in India. If the Indian files are opened, as expected, on 23 January this year, the rest of the world will take our requests more seriously.

Similarly, there is the case of the Hindu temple. Modi was clearly impressed by the way the well-known singer, Sati Kazanova, recited the Ganesh Vandana, as also by the fact that she wishes to build a Hindu temple in Russia. Of course, the project for a temple has been long in the gestation; some time around 2010, even a piece of land was allotted for such a construction. However, there is serious push-back from the religious establishment in Russia, and the project is making slow progress. Under Russian law, there are only four established religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. This is being used to block any legitimate presence of the Hindu Dharma.

Finally, a missed opportunity – Environmnt. Putin had made a specific suggestion at his UN General Assembly session for a forum to discuss climate change together with resource depletion and habitat destruction. These are very important linkages, which are usually ignored at Conferences of Parties, since these focus heavily on energy and carbon sinks. India would benefit from broadening the agenda, and could work with Russia to bring this issue – as also the underlying one of population growth – under the aegis of BRICS or even SCO.

In fine, this was a mixed bag of outcomes. As always, much will depend on implementation – Energy, Defence technology, and the North-South Transport Corridor, if seriously implemented, could make a solid difference. Meanwhile, India will need to work hard on its regional vision, especially in the AfPak region and on terrorism, if it is to claim any lasting success.

The crux of the relationship now turns on Russia understanding the Indian approach to the US, and India finding some way of blunting the negative aspects of the Russian outreach to Pakistan. On the first, there would be some merit in trying to bridge the growing chasm between the US and Russia because that is in Indian interests. It cannot be easy, but India is probably the only country in the world today that enjoys a degree of trust on both sides. Just as Oman successfully brought the US and Iran together, because that was in its interests, so too India needs to make the effort. As to the growing relationship between Russia and both China and Pakistan, there are no easy answers; Russia has too much at stake in China to move away from that, and its corollary of closer ties with Pakistan. However, it should be possible, with patient effort, to mitigate some of the negative implications for India of this emerging tie.

December 2015,

New Delhi.

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