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India asserts its strategic autonomy

Delhi has realised that its interests are better served when its ties with Moscow are growing

India asserts its strategic autonomy

Unambiguous: PM Modi told Putin that Russia’s war against Ukraine should be brought to an end. AP/PTI

Yogesh Gupta

Former Ambassador

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Russia took place at an important juncture. The global order is going through a historic churn due to an increase in conflicts and rivalries among the major powers and new challenges arising in India’s security landscape. India’s northern neighbour continues to dither from withdrawing its troops from Depsang and Demchok in Ladakh, which it had occupied in recent years and is building new fortifications on the borders to exert pressure on Delhi. The cross-border terrorism aided and abetted by Pakistan is continuing to foment trouble in Kashmir. A friendly country (the US) with whom India’s relations have shown great promise is now interfering in its internal affairs by shielding Sikh separatist elements on its soil and denouncing India’s policy towards its minorities and its democratic polity.

Putin used Modi’s visit to Moscow to signal to China that Russia had other friends and was not dependent on Beijing.

It is no surprise that at a sensitive time like this, PM Modi chose to make an official visit to Russia that was long overdue. Russia has historically been a reliable partner of India, providing critical support on multiple occasions and advanced technologies in the defence, space, atomic energy and other fields when other countries had declined. It has never harmed India nor ever interfered in the latter’s internal affairs. PM Modi has already met President Putin 16 times (before his trip this week) in the past decade, and the two leaders enjoy excellent rapport.

India and Russia have a special and privileged strategic partnership. The PM’s visit enabled him to exchange views with Putin on important global, regional and bilateral issues. In a signal that Russia considered its relationship with India at the same level as that with China, the PM was received at the airport by Russia’s First Deputy PM Denis Manturov, who is senior to the Deputy PM who had received Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Russia in March last year. As a symbol of the close ties, President Putin hosted a private dinner for PM Modi on July 8 before holding official talks with him the next day.

Modi told Putin that Russia was a “such-dukh ka saathi aur bharosemand dost” (a reliable, all-weather friend) and their relationship was a household word in India. It had remained resilient in the backdrop of the prevailing complex, challenging and uncertain geopolitical situation. The PM said a solution to the Ukraine war could not be found on the battlefield; it pained him that innocent children were murdered (a reference to a lethal strike on a children’s hospital in Kyiv on July 8). A peaceful solution needed to be found through diplomatic negotiations and India would provide every assistance for this purpose, he added. PM Modi is the first world leader who has told Putin in unambiguous terms in Moscow that Russia’s war against Ukraine should be brought to an end.

On the bilateral side, the thrust of the visit was on strengthening food and energy security, expanding trade, investments, connectivity and seeking nuclear, space and defence technologies to boost the indigenous defence industry. The two leaders set a target of achieving balanced and sustainable trade of $100 billion by 2030, eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers and commencing negotiations for a free trade agreement on goods. They also agreed to promote the bilateral settlement system using national currencies and find acceptable solutions for insurance and re-insurance of goods. They decided to expedite the construction of units 3-6 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant and joint manufacturing of the nuclear power plant components. They also agreed to enhance the partnership in the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, including the human space flight programme, satellite navigation, planetary exploration and rocket engine development.

The visit of PM Modi was an assertion of India’s strategic autonomy and a calculated signal to the major powers that India is a global power — it can’t be pressured and has multiple options to pursue its interests. At a time when the US gathered its NATO allies in Washington to put pressure on Russia, the trip showed the world that Russia was not isolated and genuinely enjoyed the friendship of not only countries opposed to the US (such as China, Iran and North Korea) but also strategic and non-aligned ones such as India. By carefully balancing his meetings, Modi conveyed to Washington that he had played an important role by telling Putin to end the Ukraine war quickly.

Despite a façade of a ‘no limits partnership’, the China-Russia relationship recently witnessed quiet rivalry as President Putin visited North Korea and Vietnam to enlist the support of these countries, whom Beijing considers its close allies. President Xi returned the favour by paying state visits to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan last week when he went to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Astana. Russia consider these countries as belonging to its sphere of influence. Putin used PM Modi’s visit to Moscow to signal to China that Russia had other friends and was not dependent on Beijing.

The PM’s visit sent a clear message to Washington that India would not tolerate needless poking in its internal affairs and could use the Russia option as required. It also signalled to Beijing that it would have to pay a price for its rigid attitude on the withdrawal of troops from the remaining occupied Indian territories. Russia was by no means in Beijing’s orbit and would use the India card to deal with China’s overbearing attitude. President Putin has invited PM Modi to visit Russia again in October for the BRICS Summit. India and Russia can work together to reduce China’s domination of BRICS and SCO and provide other options to the countries of the Global South. Modi has invited Putin to visit India next year for the India-Russia Annual Summit. India has realised that its burgeoning relationship with the US is at best transactional and its interests are better served when its ties with Russia are growing.

#Narendra Modi #Russia

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