India and Russia must ensure their relationship is not strained by changing realities
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Delhi this week saw him and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar reaffirm traditional India-Russia relations, but there are signs that ties are being tested. Mr Lavrov’s trip is to make preparations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit for the annual summit – it was postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. On the bilateral side, the two sides appear to be making progress on strategic cooperation, cooperation in the fields of energy, nuclear and space, and talks on a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). More deals were also discussed on military-technical cooperation for the joint production of Russian-made Indian weapons, with Mr Lavrov highlighting Russia as the only partner supplying India’s “cutting-edge military technology”. While neither side was referring to the upcoming $ 5 billion delivery of S-400 missile defense systems directly, they reaffirmed their commitment to their defense partnership, as well as avenues for more investment in connectivity including the International North-South Transport Corridor and Chennai- Vladivostok East Maritime Corridor. Their area of difference in world views seems to have emerged during their public speech, which was preceded by Mr. Jaishankar on the “balanced nature” of international relations. Mr Lavrov’s praise for Russia-China relations was clearly not accepted by Jaishankar. While he repeatedly refers to India’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy, Mr Lavrov prefers a more continental reference to the “Asia-Pacific” region. Lavrov’s indirect derisive reference to the Quad as “Asian NATO” is significant, although he says both sides agree that a military alliance in Asia is discouraged and counterproductive. In Afghanistan too, Russia’s push to bring the Taliban into power-sharing arrangements in Kabul appears to run counter to India’s consistent push for a “democratic Afghanistan”.
Despite these differences, it was the optics from Mr Lavrov’s brief visit that sparked the impression that New Delhi and Moscow were not on the same page as usual; it does not include a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like never before. The absence of a meeting at the highest level seemed more of a focus, as Mr Modi met US Special Envoy John Kerry only a day later, and at the next stop, in Islamabad, Mr Lavrov was received by Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Commander of the Pakistan Army, Bajwa. This is Mr Lavrov’s first visit to Pakistan in nine years, and is a clear message about strengthening ties. Unlike 2012, Lavrov said this time that Russia was ready to strengthen Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts with a supply of “relevant equipment”, which would be a surprise in Delhi. While India and Russia have managed to overcome their differences, even the deep, traditional and time-tested relationship of the kind they have shared for decades cannot be taken for granted, and both sides must move quickly, if they are to dispel the idea. that the bond is under any stress.