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

Three weeks after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “informal meeting” with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in the resort city of Wuhan that used to be Mao Tse-tung’s summer retreat, he is heading for a similar encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea beach resort of Sochi made famous by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who had his favorite dacha built in that city.

But the Wuhan and Sochi meetings have little in common. The specter of another standoff with China in the Himalayas prompted Modi to seek the informal meeting with Xi. What is the leitmotif of the forthcoming gathering in Sochi?

The chatty remarks by government officials betray a certain strain to rationalize the event. One government “source” brazenly told the media that Modi hopes to create a new template in India’s diplomacy through such informal meets with foreign leaders, as against formal meetings with structured agenda, which he apparently considers “insubstantial for the broad conversations” he desires.

What is absolutely certain is that Modi, who unfailingly keeps an eye on his domestic audience, is assured of media limelight against the ravishingly beautiful backdrop of the Caucasian Biosphere Reserve, which is a World Heritage Site, at a time when his charisma is fading among Indians.

The point is, even without the forthcoming Sochi meet, Modi gets ample opportunities to converse with Putin. They will meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in China next month, the BRICS Summit in South Africa in July and the G-20 summit in Argentina in November — and, of course, at the annual bilateral Russian-Indian summit in October in Delhi.

Indian officials are giving the meeting some spin, claiming Modi hopes to have an “exchange of views” on international issues including the impact of the US sanctions against Russia on Delhi’s ties with Moscow.  One source told the media, “We are not going to allow our defense requirements to be dictated by any other country. Whatever is in India’s interests in terms of procuring equipment for national security is what will determine how we act with various countries.”

A Russia-India-China alignment? No way

But the source also pointed out that India-Russia bilateral issues as such will form the agenda at the October summit in Delhi. The Russian commentators also tend to harp on the “big picture.” They bracket Wuhan and Sochi as two of a kind signalling, a profound process of Russia, India and China teaming up to counter the US’ “assertive” foreign policies against the backdrop of a historic realignment under way in global politics.

Now, that is a stretch. Modi is by no means a grand strategist playing on the global chessboard. Secondly, the Indian foreign-policy compass, which was set by his predecessor Manmohan Singh, who was a strong votary of the Washington Consensus, cannot be easily reset. There is a “bipartisan consensus” among Indian elites, including among Hindu nationalist groups mentoring Modi’s government that India’s tryst with destiny lies with America. While frictions may arise, the die is cast basically and that journey has well begun.

The mainstream thinking in Delhi is that the Trump administration is an aberration, which requires India to hunker down, awaiting the return of happy times. While Russian analysts excitedly ponder over a Russian-Indian-Chinese strategic congruence propelling the BRICS and SCO to storm the citadels of the international political and economic system dominated by the West, Indian strategists remain quiet.

Thus, India is unlikely to team up with the Astana process on Syria. India took an ambivalent stance at the Organization for the Protection against Chemical Weapons in Vienna over the Skripal spy case and a less-than-categorical stance apropos US-led missile strike on Syria in April. Moscow analysts took note. Delhi won’t even criticize President Trump on his decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal.

The bottom line is that the Sochi meet is taking place under the shadow of a growing Russian disenchantment with India’s “Chanakyan” foreign policy, where subterfuge prevails over principles or ideology. Contrary to Russian expectations, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman refrained from clinching a $6-billion deal on the S-400 Triumf missile defense system during her visit to Moscow in April.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Russia’s share of Delhi’s weapons imports has sharply declined over the years, from 79% in the 2008-12 period to 62% in the 2012-17 period. And this is at a time when India looms large as the world’s number one buyer of weaponry and US exports are booming.

Bilateral deals have hit headwinds

Putin has a focused, result-oriented, practical, unemotional mind when it comes to Russia’s relations with foreign countries. The S-400 missile deal or Russia’s energy cooperation with India (which has also run into headwinds following US sanctions against Russia and Iran) will not go unnoticed.

Putin is highly experienced in the complex world of diplomacy and is clear-headed about the essential relationship between his domestic programs and Russia’s national security and the co-relation of forces internationally. He is flexible and pragmatic but unwavering on Russia’s interests. He understands perfectly well that the US diplomacy toward India has lately shifted gear to a new aggressive phase of overtly interfering with Russian-Indian relations. The gloves are off with the cascading US-Russian tensions. Washington specifically targets the two key templates of Russian-Indian cooperation – defense and energy, as American companies have deep business interests in the burgeoning Indian market.

Suffice to say, the sort of barstool conversation spanning everything under the sun between the Arctic and Syria that can be expected in Sochi this month and next between Putin and Germany’s Angela Merkel or France’s Emmanuel Macron or Japan’s Shinzo Abe, is unlikely to happen on Monday. Modi is quintessentially a parochial politician with a nationalist outlook who became an incipient world statesman by chance.

The outcome of the Sochi meeting will be measured in terms of Modi’s success in mollifying the sense of hurt in the Russian mind and in mending a “time-tested” relationship that is in disrepair.

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