Opinion: Russia knows that China is a threat to it too, that is why it is moving cautiously, understand India's strategy too

Ananya Shroff
6 Min Read

Author: Indrani Bagchi
If one wants to understand the difference between a multipolar world and a bipolar world, India-Russia relations are an example of this. A Twitter expert had given an example of this. Modi's task of coming to Russia for a bilateral summit with Putin after five years was not easy at all. It became even more difficult when the scenes of Modi-Putin 'hug' became famous when the pictures of the inhumane missile attack by Russia on a children's hospital in Ukraine were in the headlines. Sick and injured children were killed in the attack. Children are the most affected by the horrors of war and here their hospital was attacked. Modi condemned Russia's attack on the Ukrainian hospital before a private conversation with Putin. He said, 'When innocent children are killed, when we see innocent children dying, it is heartbreaking.'

Modi agreed to the summit within a week, while the NATO summit in Washington dominated the front pages of newspapers. This was a big diplomatic bonus for Putin. Putin managed to send the message that Russia is not 'isolated', and his diplomatic efforts in the 'non-Western' world have been largely successful. Pocketing the diplomatic gift given by Modi, Putin said, “We have a particularly privileged strategic partnership.” Modi reiterated his now famous stance that this is not an 'era' of war. Calling for dialogue to end the war, Modi said, “Solutions will not be found on the battlefield. Solutions and peace talks do not succeed amid bombs, guns and bullets.” This could have been a dig at Putin's indiscriminate bombing of Ukraine. Conversely, it could also have been a silent reminder to NATO that simply arming Ukraine will not really work.

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India recently attended the peace summit at the senior officials level in Switzerland but refrained from signing the communiqué. And rightly so. In Switzerland, India made a clear call for Russia to come to the negotiating table. That may happen, especially if Donald Trump returns to the White House in November. India thought it would negotiate with Putin on its own terms. Modi also met Ukrainian President Zelensky a few days after being sworn in for the third time and renewed ties with the G7. So, India has not missed a beat in terms of balancing.

India's 'Ukraine dilemma' will begin in 2022. It can be best understood as 3 F's and C's. These are fuel, food, fertiliser and China. India has overcome the energy crisis, with Russia topping the charts as an oil supplier.

But China has emerged as a challenge for India. Interestingly, it has emerged as a challenge for Russia as well. It is not as if Beijing was celebrating when Putin hugged Kim Jong Un last month. So, Russia is making its own moves and India is a big part of its game. India last month snubbed the China-dominated SCO. It wants to prevent BRICS from becoming a Chinese colony and therefore wants to help Russia in the next summit in October. At a strategic level, Russia is fully aware that India is its best bet against China.

India's current dilemma on Ukraine is this – it wants to stop the war, and wants a fair peace settlement. According to Indian strategists, Russia may not lose this war, but it must be brought to peace talks. Can India do that? Modi and Putin discussed Ukraine 'openly'. Meanwhile, NATO is pledging to increase arms production to keep Ukraine armed. Peace has not been achieved, but India is prioritising its 'interests' with limited success. It is getting full support domestically too.

The old belief is that New Delhi keeps Moscow close to prevent Russia-China relations from becoming 'borderless'. India wants to diversify its investments in Russia, finding ways to bring its oil revenues back to Russia without sanctions.

India is doubling down on its investments in Russia's energy sector, particularly in the Far East. This is important because Russia fears it will lose land to China's ever-increasing migration and encroachment. Russia has also rebuilt its military-industrial complex, and put its industries to work fuelling a war economy.

The Ukraine war is also a lesson. It is teaching India and many countries in the Global South that the pursuit of high-tech weapons must be accompanied by mass production of medium-tech weapons. Russia is still manufacturing them and supplying them to many countries in the non-Western world. For India, which is trying to build a domestic defence industry, Russia remains accessible in terms of technology and production.

Nuclear energy has re-entered the bilateral agenda with Russia as part of India's energy transition plans. Russian cooperation and knowledge sharing is not as good as what we have seen at Koodankulam. But it is the only option currently available. India is pursuing it.

This summit may be entirely bilateral, but as long as the Ukraine issue is not resolved, it will always remain uncomfortable. Uneasiness is a key feature of the multipolar world.

(The author is CEO, Anant Centre. Views expressed in the article are personal.)

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