Enhancing bilateral trade, nuclear and technology cooperation will be at the top of the agenda, but multilateral issues will hold centre stage during his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at St. Petersburg, Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicated in an article published ahead of his visit on Wednesday.
“There is [a] loosening of the traditional power balance in the world,” Mr. Modi wrote in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “New centres of influence and new engines of growth are emerging,” he said adding that India and Russia were “natural partners” in fighting terrorism, and promoting a multipolar international system.
The PM’s words are significant as they come amid a visible strain in India-Russia ties that have further strained since his last meeting with President Putin in Goa, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in October 2016, and rising discomfort over Russia’s growing alliance with China and ties with Pakistan. The BRICS meeting came against the backdrop of the Uri attacks, as well as Russia’s decision to go ahead with military exercises with Pakistan despite the Modi government’s publicly stated policy of “isolating” Pakistan.
Not forthcoming ::
At the BRICS meet, as well as in December 2016 at the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan, MEA officials conceded, Russia was not as forthcoming in support of their formulations on “cross-border” terror as India expected. What emerged in subsequent weeks was that President Putin now had a new interest in regional strategy, one that drew China and Pakistan into a closer huddle over the future of Afghanistan, and saw Moscow reaching out to its decades-old enemy, the Taliban.
India’s other worry has been over Russia folding into Chinese President Xi’s prestige project, the Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI) on the back of the Chinese investment in the $400 billion Russia-China Power of Siberia gas pipeline that is expected to be operational by 2019-2020. India’s strident objections to the B&RI and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor on sovereignty issues led to it boycotting the B&R Forum in Beijing in May, whereas President Putin met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Xi Jinping in the first such meeting of its kind instead. The grouping is particularly problematic for India, given that it will enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with Pakistan next week, when Mr. Modi travels to Kazakhstan.
In previous decades, New Delhi may have expected Moscow, and President Putin to champion India’s cause, leaning on China to engage on India’s concerns. But the reality of the past few years is that India has been unable to effect such support from Russia on any of its issues with China, including on the Nuclear Suppliers Group and designating Masood Azhar at the UNSC.
Vision statement ::
During the summit on June 1, PM Modi and President Putin are expected to spell out a “joint vision statement” aimed at re-energising the relationship on the bilateral, and also the multilateral sphere. In an editorial this week, Mr. Putin called the two countries “equal partners in international affairs”, suggesting that a free trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union and India, as well as developing the International North South Transport Corridor would be a part of it.
The two sides are also expected to announce, or at least finalise, the MoU for the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project units 5&6. “We have had discussions with many countries, but Russia has emerged as the only country with which we have successfully collaborated in the atomic power sector,” said Indian Ambassador Pankaj Saran.
The two leaders will also have their tasks cut out in strengthening defence cooperation as well as boosting bilateral trade, which stands below $7billion despite a declared goal of $30 billion by 2025. At present, Russia comprises just 1% of India’s total trade, while India accounts for just 1.2% of Russia’s overall trade.
This will also be the first summit since the death of Russian Ambassador Alexander Kadakin who squired bilateral ties for decades, and New Delhi will feel the absence of one of the most powerful Russian voices in its favour, at a critical time for ties with Moscow.