India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar was on a two-day visit to Russia earlier this week. He was in Moscow primarily to co-chair the meeting of the India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC).
After meeting with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, Jaishankar tweeted, “Just concluded comprehensive discussions with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia. Reviewed the entire gamut of our steady and time-tested relationship.”
The Indian minister reportedly said that the key goal of his visit was to “sit down with Russian foreign minister Lavrov and Deputy PM Manturov to assess how we are doing. There are challenges, that we need to address and prospects that we are exploring.”
Even as the India-Russia relationship is characterized as “steady and time-tested relationship,” it has not been in good health for a while now. Moscow’s repeated criticism of India’s Indo-Pacific policy has not won Russia many friends in New Delhi. As Moscow develops a closer and more strategic relationship with Beijing, New Delhi has felt the need to get more realistic about the strategic consequences of that partnership for India. India is still trying to stay the middle path and not take an anti-Russia stand, but it does appear that New Delhi’s patience is wearing a bit thin. That India has abstained and not voted against Russia in the United Nations is appreciated a great deal by Moscow.
On two occasions within a week, Russian President Vladimir Putin found reason to praise India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Days before Jaishankar’s visit to Russia, Putin said that Indians are “very talented people, purposeful, with such a drive for internal development will, of course, achieve outstanding results.” Talking about ties with India, he added that India and Russia have “special ties that are built on the foundation of really close allied relations for decades. We never had any outstanding issues with India, we have always supported each other and I’m positive that’s how it will remain in the future as well.”
Such statements may have been meant to be soothing to the ears of Indian leaders. Nevertheless, it’s no secret that China has become the number one national security threat for India. Russia will not be a partner in managing and countering this threat, at least in the short to medium term. Managing the consequences of China’s rise and its aggression requires a different set of strategic partners, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and France. Therefore, for India, the partnerships with its relatively newer security partners have become more consequential than its historical relationship with Russia. Moscow may have its own compulsions, but for Russia, China is its number one strategic partner. Despite the deep-seated wariness of China in some quarters, Russia finds that China may be the lesser evil in comparison to the West, and therefore has found a way to build closer strategic ties with Beijing despite some points of friction.
Modi, during his meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Samarkand in September, plainly stated that this is not an era of war and that dialogue must be pursued to find an end to the Ukraine conflict. Recalling what Modi said, Jaishankar in a press statement this week reiterated that the consequences of the Ukraine conflict are too severe in an “interdependent” global economy. He added “We are seeing growing concerns on energy and food security from the conflict that are coming on top of severe stresses created by two years of COVID.”
There have been murmurs about India playing a role in bringing the current Ukraine crisis to an end. Jaishankar’s press statement said that India “strongly advocates a return to dialogue and diplomacy. We are clearly on the side of peace, respect for international law and support for the U.N. Charter.” He went on to add that “I would say that for any initiative that de-risks the global economy and stabilizes the global order at this stage; India will be supportive.”
The economic and political fallout of the Russian invasion appear to have dominated the discussions. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement on Jaishankar’s visit claimed that India and Russia were working “for the active formation of a more just and equal polycentric world order, and proceed from the inadmissibility of promoting the imperialist diktat on the global arena.”
Jaishankar’s Moscow visit has been keenly watched, especially in the West. One of the issues of particular interest is India’s purchase of oil from Russia. Responding to a question during the press briefing, Jaishankar stated that “there is a stress on the energy markets… created by a combination of factors. But as the world’s third largest consumer of oil and gas, a consumer where the levels of income are not very high, it is our fundamental obligation to ensure that the Indian consumer has the best possible access, on the most advantageous terms, to international markets.” He continued by saying that “the India-Russia relationship has worked to our advantage. So, if it works to my advantage, I would like to keep that going.” In the past, he has called out the West’s criticism, saying that it is unfair for the West to criticize Indian purchases of oil from Russia when they themselves cannot break from their dependence on Russian oil and gas either.
As for the state of the economic ties, both ministers expressed satisfaction at the pace of growth, but Jaishankar was also quick to point out Indian concerns, saying, “We are naturally concerned about trade imbalance and have raised this with the Russian side regarding how to arrest impediments that stand in the way of Indian exports.”
Going by the Indian objective of wanting to maintain good relations with all major powers including Russia, India-Russia relations will stumble along. However, the long-term prognosis of this partnership is not clear given the state of Sino-Indian relations.