Vladimir Putin visits India on October 4-5 for the 19th Annual India-Russia Bilateral Summit. The expectations and anticipations from this summit are principally regarding the defence deal concerning the S-400 missile system. Russia is a major defence supplier of India and a long time close friend. But now India and Russia should focus on upgrading their relations. This summit is important from three perspectives – reshaping India-Russia relations, balancing India’s relations with Russia and the United States (US) and forwarding India’s strategic outreach.
Reshaping India-Russia relations
Russia (which was erstwhile USSR) has been a close friend of India during the entire Cold War period when India’s relations with the US were not very cordial. Since the end of Cold War India’s relations with the US have improved significantly while friendship with Russia has continued. Despite America’s proximity to Pakistan, India-US ties have strengthened in economic as well as in defence sector. Disagreements between India and the US at bilateral and global level have not affected the progress of their relations. While India-Russia relations have been overall cordial for the past seven decades, changing geopolitical circumstances and individual interests demand that both the countries evaluate their relations and try to reshape these. The need for reshaping the relations arises from Russia’s growing proximity to China and also Pakistan. This development presents a challenge for India. It is important to see if both India and Russia can work their relations around China and Pakistan and can still be relevant partners to each other. The progress of India-US relations could act as a guide to India-Russia. For India it would be better to consider Russia as a part of a multilateral order than look at it as a traditional partner. Competing at international level to gain Russia’s cooperation could benefit India to promote its multilateral policy.
Balancing between Russia and the US
The balancing act for India between Russia and the US is that if it can keep the choice factor out of the equation. India’s decision to go ahead with purchase of S-400 Missile System despite reservations from the US is more about keeping options open. India’s stand on the S-400 should be form a strong basis for reshaping of the India-Russia relations. India’s action is also an important step towards multilateralism that is not particularly directed against the US. The US considers India as an important partner in the Indo-Pacific. For India cooperation with the US is an opportunity to mark its presence in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly Russia could be an important partner for India in Central Asia.
Forwarding India’s strategic outreach
The future of India-Russia relations also depends to a great extent to which both the countries are willing to be strategic partners. India’s relations with Russia offer the former an opportunity to expand its strategic outreach.
Putin’s visit to India comes close on the heels of India’s two diplomatic engagements with the Central Asian Region. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani visited India on September 19 while Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited India on September 30-October 1. India and Russia can take their strategic relations to a higher level if India is able to increase its footprint in Central Asia with Russia’s cooperation. But India’s entry into Central Asia depends on whether India’s decision on oil purchase from Iran. While Iran has assured continuity in oil supply to India it remains to be seen if India defies the US on this issue as well.
Putin’s visit to India comes one month after the India-US 2+2 meeting. Both Russia and the US are valued partners for India. While all the three countries share different world views, India’s world view of multi-polar order allows space for co-existence without conflict. India’s recent diplomatic engagements, especially with Central Asia, must be looked at as an effort towards creating a strategic space to meet India’s interests. With Putin’s visit, India and Russia can step towards being a part of an order and not a separate order in itself.