Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of the 11th BRICS Summit in Brasilia, Brazil, on November 13, 2019. India has been reluctant to condemn Russia outright for its invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Metzel

Media have been abuzz with speculations about Russian President Vladimir Putin making efforts to broker peace between India and China, to bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping face-to-face to explore a breakthrough in the prolonged and painful stalemate in their border negotiations.

It all began last week with Russia’s TASS news reporting that presidential aide Yury Ushakov said that in their December 15 video call, while Putin not only briefed Xi about his December 6 visit to New Delhi, the two leaders agreed “to endeavor to hold the next summit within the RIC [Russia-India-China] framework in the near future.”

In spite of pointed questions to that effect, neither the Chinese nor Indian spokesmen have confirmed or denied these reports.

Meanwhile, the more than 20 months of border tensions between India and China have entered a stage of a mutually painful stalemate. These border tensions have not just brought their inter-ministry talks and more that a dozen core commanders’ meetings to naught but put an unceremonious end to their much-hyped annual informal Modi-Xi summits.

These summits were once credited for being their most innovative initiative and for having cast a reset in their bilateral relations; showing impressive outcomes and out-of-the-box initiatives. Their 2+1 model of developmental partnership in launching third-country projects was seen as a potent antidote to India distancing itself form Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Their first informal summit of April 2018, for instance, was held less than eight months after the 73-day Doklam military standoff, and the second informal summit of October 2019 barely two months after India’s reorganization of Jammu & Kashmir, which saw China not only condemn India but take the matter to UN Security Council and General Assembly – the latter barely two weeks before this Xi-Modi summit.

But the June 2019 Galwan incident was to evaporate all their “Wuhan spirit” or “Chennai connect” formulations. 

And now, as India and China enter their second winter of sustaining heavy high-altitude forward deployments in the western Himalayas, what explains President Putin, in the midst of a crisis of his own in neighboring Ukraine, making concerted efforts to bring Modi and Xi back together?

First of all, Putin sees himself getting increasingly bogged down in the Ukraine quagmire, having united the whole of the West – as seen in the warnings issued by recent Group of Seven and North Atlantic Treaty Organization summits – in an effort to exorcise Putin of his zeal to revive the czarist or Soviet models of adoptive authoritarianism at home and in the near abroad.

From his 2014 annexation of Crimea to his United Russia Party’s recent winning an absolute majority in parliamentary elections, projecting personal power has seen Putin challenge the West and the rest. But in the face of these rising tensions, Putin sees China and India as his most reliable partners that have stood by him in most of his adventures. He surely must hold them together.

Second, Putin understands that Russia has deep stakes in keeping India and China close, and these go way beyond his personal predispositions. It is not too difficult to discern how Russia’s global standing – and especially its need for urgent economic resilience – remains undergirded by its friendship with India and China.

Both these countries have remained primary destinations for Russia’s defense exports. Both have also gradually emerged as major investors in Russian energy resources and in several other multi-sectoral joint research and development projects.

From the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, premier Yevgeny Primakov’s proposal of a Russia-India-China strategic trilateral has sustained this trio together. Indeed, their RIC Strategic Triangle has not just stayed on course but, to the discomfiture of the US and its friends and allies, have often held out contrarian visions and strategies on most challenging regional and global matters.

Third, Putin has the backing of Moscow’s impressive track record in facilitating talks of this nature in this region. One can begin from the Soviet role in terminating the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war by brokering the Tashkent Agreement, or its support for India in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war and liberation of Bangladesh.

However, Moscow has had serious difficulties whenever it comes to brokering between India and China, where it has often sought refuge in playing with the semantics of “friends versus brothers.” In recent times, however, Moscow has also learned to play an indirect role between India and China. The same has been the case in recent border tensions that alludes to Russia having improvised its technique to suit these complex India-China equations.

For instance, in the run-up to the 2020 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit under the Russian presidency, Moscow that September facilitated back-to-back bilateral meetings between Indian and Chinese defense and foreign ministers with good results, leading to the foreign ministers announcing a very optimistic joint press statement.

But these positive sentiments were not able to make any impact on the ground. After a brief initial spell of forward movement in their agreed military disengagement, India-China border negotiations have been deadlocked for the last 15 months and more.

In October, China adopted a fresh Land Border Law that will be effective from January 1, 2022. It stipulates China building hundreds of model villages in its frontier areas with the aim of facilitating its long-term forward military deployments. India has also been likewise engaged in making preparations for this long haul of mutual exhaustion strategies, which are bound to drain both sides of their men, money and morale.

Finally, Putin has to be worried about these continuing border tensions having pushed  India closer to Russia’s arch-rival, the United States. India and the US have not just signed dozens of agreements including three foundational agreements – which allow the former to share all of its advanced military technologies with the latter – but has placed orders worth more than US$20 billion for various defense procurements.

Indo-US bilateral trade stands at more than 12 times that of India and Russia, so much so that the overconfident US warns India to stop purchasing defense equipment from Russia or face several sanctions. Clearly Putin’s KGB instincts cannot allow matters to go unattended forever.

On the eve of Putin’s India visit, therefore, November 27 saw Russia, India and China initiate their trilateral foreign ministers virtual meeting ostensibly focused on reviving an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process. The communiqué issued at the end of these online talks reiterated their shared commitment to encourage the Taliban to form of a truly inclusive government.

But marking the strength of their unique triangle, this 35-paragraph statement also underlined the fine variance in their engagement of the Taliban compared with that of the US and its friends and allies that have continued to stress sustaining severe sanctions.

This was followed by Putin’s whirlwind six-hour visit to New Delhi and intense five-hour talks – followed by his hour-plus video call with President Xi that have triggered speculation of a trilateral RIC summit – could well see this summit becoming the first major international event of 2022.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.