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Modi-Putin Summit: Russia, India Strengthen Each Other’s Strategic Autonomy

© Photo : Social MediaPresident Vladimir Putin and Prime Pinister Narendra Modi
President Vladimir Putin and Prime Pinister Narendra Modi - Sputnik India, 1920, 05.07.2024
For the first bilateral foreign visit early in National Democratic Alliance's third-term, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be travelling to Moscow on 8-9 July to hold 22nd India-Russia Annual Summit with President Vladimir Putin.
Much water has flown under the Ganges and Volga since last Modi-Putin summit was held in New Delhi in December 2021.

In between, there were some missed chances where the two leaders could have met – G20 summit in India and BRICS summit in South Africa, both in 2023. In his previous two terms, it was India's neighbourhood (Bhutan in 2014 and Maldives in 2019) that was at the centre of PM Modi's first bilateral engagements after assuming office. This time, he would begin with Russia, a country that remains very important for India's Eurasian engagement, apart from a comprehensive bilateral strategic relationship.

The two leaders could have also met later in the year as Russia will host BRICS summit in October 2024; however, they chose not to wait and instead, decided to hold an annual summit almost immediately after PM Modi's re-election.

India-US & Russia-China Ties: Alignments, not Alliances

PM Modi's third term has begun amidst an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment. Frozen conflicts like Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas have erupted again with no endgame in sight in near future.
India's relations with the US are steady; however, some wrinkles have appeared in recent times. India-China ties remain on a downward trajectory as border tensions continue since 2020 while Russia-China strategic embrace seems to be intensifying. Upcoming elections in major Western countries like the US, UK and France only add to this global uncertainty.

In this geopolitical scenario, PM Modi has rightly decided to visit Russia, highlighting the resilience of India-Russia ties, which has been a 'constant' amidst many geopolitical changes for more than seven decades. However, the current geopolitical trend in which India and Russia have strategic ties with their respective security concerns – China and the US – is a situation in which New Delhi and Moscow need to be more careful about each other's perspective.

© AP Photo / Anupam NathRussian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand at the start of the BRICS Summit in Goa, India, Oct. 16, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand at the start of the BRICS Summit in Goa, India, Oct. 16, 2016.  - Sputnik India, 1920, 05.07.2024
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand at the start of the BRICS Summit in Goa, India, Oct. 16, 2016.
The 'third country' ties are now casting a shadow over India-Russia bilateral relationship. Many in the Indian strategic community have been questioning Russia's growing proximity with China while there are doubts raised by Russian experts on India's strategic alignment with the US.
However, there is less attention paid to the fact that neither India wants to have a military alliance with the US nor Russia wants one with China. They may be aligned but want to maintain their strategic autonomy and independence of action. India had refused to join NATO Plus security arrangement in 2023, arguing that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) template does not apply to India.
Similarly, Russia and China do not have an advanced level of defence cooperation as practiced by the US with its European and Asian allies. Neither they have a common defence policy nor do they have agreements to base military units and equipment on each others' territory. Mutual defence is not part of Russia-China Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed in 2001.
Despite this, the strategic experts in the West generally portray Russia-China relations as an alliance, however, that is not the reality, nor is it inevitable. India understands the Russia-China relationship in a more nuanced and less monochromatic way, as often not seen by the Western experts. This opens space for India and Russia to build on their historical and time-tested relationship even though they may be on the opposite sides in the global balance of power. Both India and Russia strengthen each others' strategic autonomy and would remain relevant to each other’s strategic perspective.
The Western sanctions intended to weaken Russia have pushed Moscow closer to Beijing, thereby hasteningthe process of bi-polarity between the US and China at the global level. Prospects of emergence of a bipolar world order do not augur well for India and Russia's vision of a multi-polar world. This is the context of PM Modi's upcoming Moscow visit that will not only address some concerned voices in Russia but also give a future direction to ties that seem to be struggling due to current geopolitical flux.

Bilateral Boost

The optics for Modi-Putin summit has shaped well in the bilateral context. Russia had dispatched two trains of coal supplies to India through the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) in June end 2024. This route is shorter and cheaper than the Suez Canal route for India to connect to Russian market.
In South Asia, a joint venture between India and Russia will run China constructed Mattala airport soon in Sri Lanka. In their respective neighbourhoods, India and Russia are not threats to one another where they support mutual engagement.
The two countries are also likely to sign the long-delayed Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS) that would further deepen naval cooperation and include new frontiers like the Arctic. India has military logistics agreements with its Quad partners like the US, Japan and Australia, apart from other strategic partners like France, Singapore and South Korea. India has been ensuring a 'political parity' in its ties with Quad countries and Russia, having established 2+2 dialogue mechanism with both the sides. RELOS follows the same trend.
The two leaders will also discuss India-Russia cooperation in Russia's Far East, an area that is the exclusive focus of India's Act Far East policy announced by PM Modi in 2019. Some further development is expected in terms of mobility and migration between India and Russia, as Indian manpower could help to develop this demography-deficient region.

Bottlenecks and Ukraine

India-Russia trade has seen a tremendous jump, from USD 13 billion in 2021-22 to an all time high of USD 65.70 billion in 2023-24. By this year end, India and Russia are likely to implement mutual visa-free travel that would give a boost to tourism and people to people connectivity. India is likely to announce opening of two more consulates in Russia during PM Modi's visit, an indication that economic and cultural ties will receive substantial importance by both the sides in the future.
Major bottleneck in trade – a sustainable payment mechanism will prominently figure in Modi-Putin summit.
The recent Russian military pact with North Korea carries some indirect security implications for India. There has been a history of serious military cooperation between North Korea and Pakistan. PM Modi is likely to convey to President Putin that Russian military cooperation with North Korea should not benefit Pakistan's military.
This would be PM Modi's 1st summit with President Putin ever since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began in 2022, an opportunity for him to understand Russia's endgame in Ukraine. PM Modi had recently met Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Italy last month. India may not be working overtime to end the Russian-Ukraine conflict, however, India’s nuanced position on the matter and constant contact with Russian and Ukrainian leadership does not rule out India’s potential role in this regard in the near future.
One of the hallmarks of PM Modi's foreign policy has been to deepen strategic ties with the US in the Indo-Pacific and to broad base India's relationship with Russia in Eurasia. For India, security concerns in Eurasia have an Indo-Pacific dimension and vice-versa. Hence, New Delhi would pursue its own national interest while straddling ties between the US and Russia without having a military alliance with either of them. That is a key message coming out of PM Modi’s upcoming Russia visit.
Dr. Raj Kumar Sharma is a Senior Research Fellow at NatStrat, a New Delhi based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the opinion of Sputnik.
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