Opinion: China a worry, India needs to reset ties with President Putin

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Surya GangadharanUpdated: May 09, 2018, 11:47 AM IST

Vladimir Putin. Photograph:(Reuters)

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Russia's ties to China are rousing concerns in South Block that Moscow may end up as Beijing's rather shabby cousin

If there were any doubts about Vladimir Putin's physical fitness, these would have been dispelled as television images recorded him walking through seemingly endless corridors in the Kremlin, for his inauguration on Monday as President of Russia for the fourth time.  
The Western media snidely labelled the ceremony a coronation, noting the manner of his election, that he never stepped outside the Kremlin grounds unlike earlier, pointing to the absence of foreign VIPs. Doubtless, Putin can live with that.  
India would have been represented at the level of Ambassador Pankaj Saran at least, if not at the political level.  Although much water has flown down the Moscow River and the Yamuna, there is recognition in either country of the diplomatic and political capital they have invested in each other.
Putin is well aware of this, but he is perhaps the last generation of Russian leaders who are committed to the India relationship. Putin, says Nandan Unnikrishnan of the Observer Research Foundation, genuinely likes India and sees potential benefit for his own country in India's growth story.  Alas, that growth story faltered somewhere down the line and even as it shows signs of reviving, Russia stumbled on the obstacle course of geopolitics.
Before we examine that, let's look at some indicators of the India-Russia relationship in the Putin era:

  • Bilateral trade is an abysmal $11 bn 
  • Russia's share in India's arms purchases has fallen from 79% to 62% in the last five years
  • While Russia still tops the arms table for India, the US and Israel have moved into second and third spots and could rise further
  • Russia's ties to China are rousing concerns in South Block that Moscow may end up as Beijing's rather shabby cousin
  • Russia's ties with Pakistan are also growing
  • Russia is supplying frontline weaponry to China, which could end up passing on some to its 'Iron Brother' Pakistan

Russia insists there's no problem, there's no conflict, India would like to believe but China and Pakistan represent realities that are impossible for South Block to ignore. Yes, Putin has authorised the sale of the S-400 missile defence system to India, also the lease of another nuclear-powered submarine knowing full well that they are for use against China.  But he's also selling Su-35 fighter jets to China which are the equivalent of India's Su-30MKI.
Then there's Afghanistan where Russia, China and Pakistan appear on the same side of the fence.  Russia insists it wants to cover its flanks from radical Islam and therefore the need to open contacts with the Taliban.  Fair enough.  But the doubts don't go away.  Doubts too in Moscow about India's chin wagging with the Americans and where it's going.
So when the two sides meet there's lots to talk about. Geopolitics, as I mentioned earlier, maybe partly to blame. Russia's re-emergence as a pole in the Arab world has discomfited America. Earlier Russia's annexation of Crimea and its role in Ukraine have added to bad blood. US sanctions are biting and Russia finds itself being driven closer to China.
India has to tread carefully through this minefield. South Block finds strategic value in the Russian connection but this is Putin's last tenure and succession issues will increasingly preoccupy him. A generational change is on the Russian horizon which means uncertainty. India will watch but is not going to wait for the new man in Moscow. It will maintain its course trusting the Russian connection will fall into place.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)