From the Soviet Union to present day Russia, Indo-Russian relations have never been this good
I was in Moscow at a time when the shortest route to Siberia from Moscow was through the polling booth.
Soviet citizens had the freedom of dissent by not voting for the official candidate, but the dissenting vote had to be cast in a separate booth from where there was only a one way exit to Siberia!
The immense potential of Siberia as the source of the future growth of the Soviet Union had just begun to be discussed.
The formidable terrain and the need for gigantic investments were the only challenges to turning Siberia into a Promised Land.
The then Ambassador of India, Inder Kumar Gujral made a long trip to Vladivostok in 1976 to see for himself the prospects of Siberia as a promising destination for investment and trade.
He was greatly impressed by what he saw there and came to the conclusion that “the 21st century belongs to the Soviet Union.”
As was his wont, he sent a crash telegram to the External Affairs Minister YB Chavan, marked ‘personal’.
The classification of the telegram was such that Chavan was woken up from sleep at midnight to receive the long message. He was so irritated that he sent a reply, “Thank you, Ambassador. You could have waited till tomorrow morning to send me your findings. We still have some time for the 21st century to dawn on us!”
The Soviet Union is long gone, but the 21st century has dawned on us, with a new Russia under Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Vladivostok last week, marking a new dawn in India-Russia relations, in India’s Act East policy and in India’s competition with China for the heart of the Pacific East.
The visit had far reaching implications for India, Russia and the world.
President Pratibha Patil (remember her?) had said famously once that India-Russia relations were an exception to the first diplomatic law that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
But she was wrong, as India-Russia relations had many ups and downs since the Russian Federation was established. From the indifference of the Yeltsin days to the Soviet-like closeness to Putin’s Russia, it has come a long way.
Even under Putin, there were fluctuations. After PM Modi raised the level of India’s relations with the United States to a “new symphony” and got India designated as a “close defence partner” of the United States, Putin reacted negatively and began to flirt with Pakistan and China to the detriment of Indian interests.
Contrary to the traditional Russian position, a statement was made by a Russian envoy that the real threat of terrorism did not emanate from across the border from India, but from the Islamic State.
Russia began to supply arms to Pakistan and even engaged in joint military exercises with our neighbour.
It was after the advent of Donald Trump, which threw India-US relations into disarray that PM Modi made an effort to reset relations with Russia by having a special meeting with Putin in Sochi.
Putin responded to Modi’s overtures and reset his relations with Pakistan and China to remove Indian anxieties. One element in this new spring was the purchase of military equipment, including the S-400 missile defence system.
Russia had apparently come to the conclusion that the increasing activities of China in the east of Russia needed to be countered by India.
The visit of PM Modi to Vladivostok in early September had three components, all of them equally important: a bilateral visit, the annual summit and the Eastern Economic Forum as Chief Guest.
A Joint Statement – “Reaching new heights of cooperation through trust and partnership” - consisting of 82 paragraphs, issued after the visit was a virtual compendium of activities, which would take India-Russia relations to a level higher than the relations with the US and France.
I cannot but recall the hard time we had in negotiating a Joint Statement in Moscow during the visit of Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
We almost did not have a Joint Statement as the two sides could not agree on the wording of a reference to the Indo-Soviet Treaty in the document.
India even turned down an offer made by the Soviets to send an Indian astronaut to outer space.
On the wide canvas of cooperation are progressive development of the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia, multiplying trade and economic dialogue, cooperation in developing the Russian far east and the Arctic, energy, including nuclear and oil, railways and air transport and tiger conservation, peaceful uses of outer space, defence, strengthening the UN, including support for India as a permanent member of the Security Council, cooperation in regional organisations, the rescuing of the Iranian nuclear deal and many more.
No two countries may have ever had such an elaborate agenda for implementation before.
Without the glue of an internal lobby in India as at the time of the Soviet Union, the relations shall develop on purely strategic considerations and mutual benefit.
Such a tight embrace of Russia did not cause any flutter in India because of the benign image Russia has in our country.
Putin’s aggressive foreign policy and the forays he has made into Europe are well known, but the Indian public is comfortable with him even though he has no democratic credentials.
The opportunity the visit presented to give a signal to the US and China has been widely welcomed in India.
The message of the visit has not been lost on the US and China. Trump has been blowing hot and cold on Pakistan, but his enthusiasm to mediate on Kashmir has cooled down. His suspension of the talks with Taliban has given India some relief, though that may have been unintended.
An article in the pro-China ‘Asia Times’ said: “ There was much hype that Modi’s visit would witness the launch of a brave new world of Indian economic partnership in Siberia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic regions. But there is no evidence of a breakthrough.”
As proof, the commentator pointed out that the logistics agreement that had been expected to be signed during Modi’s visit stood deferred.
He attributed the Indian reluctance to entangle itself with Russia to the pressure from the US and UK on the Kashmir issue. China is not mentioned in the article, but its reservations are reflected in it.
In reality, however, Modi has served notice to both the US and China, who have been playing the Kashmir card, that he has a Russian card up his sleeve.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)