Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Putin is flexible and pragmatic but harshly unwavering on Russian interests. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Siddiqui
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Putin is flexible and pragmatic but harshly unwavering on Russian interests. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Siddiqui

Moscow has disclosed that India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is expected to be in the Russian capital this week to discuss security and anti-terrorism issues. The disclosure was made at the level of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, indicating the high importance Moscow attaches to the forthcoming consultations.

Morgulov highlighted that Doval would meet Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who is known to be a long-standing aide to President Vladimir Putin, and a top Kremlin politician at the policy making level.

Like Patrushev, Doval also plays a pivotal role in India’s foreign and security policy establishment. He reports directly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Doval too has had a brilliant professional career spanning decades exclusively devoted to intelligence and national security.

Importantly, he is the key point person for Russia in the Indian government, having dealt with the Russian intelligence over decades, enjoying deep connections with functionaries and agencies in Moscow.

The Russians think highly of Doval as a staunch believer in the raison d’etre and resilience of India’s time-tested relations with Russia and as a diplomat who is unique in his understanding of the centrality of Moscow’s partnership to India’s regional and global strategies.

Suffice it to say, Doval’s consultations in Moscow assume much significance. Doval had travelled to New York last month to meet the National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn.

By the way, this is the first time, by a happy coincidence, that the US, Russia and India would have ace intelligence hands holding the position of national security advisor – in fact, for the very first time for both India and the US.

For a start, it can be said that the Modi government is making its first substantive move in anticipation of the likely regional security policies under US President Donald Trump.

To be sure, Patrushev will share with Doval the salience of Putin’s telephonic conversation with Trump on Saturday where the most productive outcome appears to be the two leaders’ agreement on “establishing real coordination of actions” aimed at defeating the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups.

After the call with Putin on Saturday, Trump signed an executive order requiring his Joint Chiefs of Staff to come up with a plan in the next 30 days to defeat the IS. Clearly, Trump is walking past the heavy boulders put across his path in the recent weeks by political adversaries and is kick-starting operational-level cooperation with Russia.

The White House in a statement said “The positive call (with Putin) was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”

From the Indian perspective, of course, the anticipated improvement in US-Russia relations in the period ahead will come as a hugely welcome development.

Unlike the case with some of the US’ European allies (such as Britain or Germany) who would caution Trump against moving forward with Putin, India’s interests would lie more with Japan or Italy for whom too an overall easing of tensions between Washington and Moscow could help create a more optimal setting to rev up their respective cooperation with Russia.

Of course, no one in Delhi expects Moscow to soft pedal on strategic partnership and cooperation with China or would estimate a Russian-American conversation to pressure China.

On the contrary, India will regard as positive development any coordinated US-Russia approach to regional security in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

One of Doval’s objectives will be to make assessments in this regard and to explore how to calibrate Indian policies in such a dramatically changing regional security milieu.

Enter Pakistan. Doval cannot but be discussing the recent ‘thaw’ in relations between Russia and Pakistan. Given the mutual trust in India-Russia relations, Doval is fully informed about the rationale and objectives behind the Russian moves to warm up ties with Pakistan.

The Indian diplomacy’s ingenuity lies in being able to tap into the improving Russian-Pakistan ties and in making use of Moscow’s capacity to influence Pakistani policies to strengthen India’s regional security interests.

But there is still a formidable challenge in taking a leap of faith involving adversarial relationships, which is also complicated by a variety of factors and is constantly disrupted by interest groups (in both India and Pakistan).

The entrenched zero-sum mindset prevailing both in India and Pakistan stymie creative thinking. It will be interesting to see how Doval who has a panache for ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking navigates his way forward.

In India-Pakistan relations, clutching at straws becomes useful if only to retain hope, but the fact of the matter is that Pakistan recently released an Indian soldier who had inadvertently strayed across the border. Again, the violence in the Kashmir valley has abated.

Equally, in the rambunctious campaign for the crucial state assembly elections due in coming days and weeks in the leviathan state of Uttar Pradesh (where Muslims account for 20 percent of a population of 200 million), Pakistan ties have not figured.

All these little nameless happenings become important if only because India and Pakistan are tiptoeing toward full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which may be formalized at the grouping’s summit in Astana in June.

Meanwhile, Russia is positioning itself as the master of ceremonies in regional security. The Russian diplomacy has worked hard to develop multi-vector relationships with all regional states and the Kremlin now is set to reopen the moribund dialogue with the White House.

In sum, it is possible to put in perspective the startling statement by a top foreign ministry official in Moscow last week underscoring the importance of continued American engagement in Afghanistan – and framing the imperative need of open-ended US troop deployment in almost existential terms.

Delhi is indeed conscious of the potential for a transformative period looming ahead in regional security. Putin recently extended an invitation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Russia in summer.

Doval’s consultations in Moscow will contribute toward a consolidation of the India-Russia strategic partnership at the highest level.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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