Modi-Putin meeting in Sochi on May 21: Why India-Russia relations have stagnated
International relations have become a grey subject since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as uni-multipolarity and later multipolarity dawned after the 2001 terror attacks in the US. Unlike in the Cold War era when identifying power blocs and their members and the politics was a far more easier job, the dynamics of world politics today is much different and nothing realises it more than the relation between India and Russia.
What's the state of India-Russia relations at present?
In the run-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Sochi for an informal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who started his fourth term in office a few days ago, a lot is being said and written about how New Delhi and Moscow should approach the occasion. There is a clear confusion among observers who, even after defining India-Russia relations as historical, fumble to analyse their current state of affairs.
Are India and Russia still close to each other as they were during the Cold War or even before that? Or have they become almost like enemies, cozying up to each other's rivals on the world stage?
India-Russia relations have remained anachronistic
The point is: nations can little afford to become only great friends or serious enemies in international relations, especially in today's circumstances where interests clash at the blink of an eye. India has traditionally been dependent on Soviet Union/Russia for military hardware and political backing but as time passes, there have been big changes in India's needs which make Russia not the biggest friend to look up to as it was during the Cold War era when India had to tackle a formidable US-Pakistan-China axis.
It is not that India still doesn't get military aid from Russia but there are other considerations that New Delhi has to keep in mind today.
For instance, Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited Moscow in April to finalise New Delhi's procurement of five S-400 Triumf air defence systems but it would risk challenging the sanctions that the US, a country which is much closer to India today than in the past, has imposed on Russia.
Again, India reportedly withdrew from an ambitious joint defence programme with Russia which is about co-development and production of the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, also in April. It was reported that India decided to pull out of the 11-year programme because of disagreements over expenses, technology transfer and the aircraft's technological capacities. This incident says how much voice India has gained today, owing to its growing economic stature and will not blindly accept anything that doesn't serve its interests.
Not blind faith but balance in the buzzword in today's foreign policy
In these circumstances, balance is the keyword. Since this is a world where cooperation is more important than making confronting camps and blocs, India has more responsibility now to maintain decent ties with both Moscow and Washington, which is a far more challenging task than it was during the Cold War era.
Russia has gone closer to China, Pak? Yet, it doesn't mean India is at risk
Yet, it may still seem worrisome for some India supporters that Russia has inched closer to China and Pakistan - countries that are not known to be India-friendly - although US President Donald Trump has not shown too much intent in staying close to India like his predecessor Barack Obama.
The fact is these new strategic arrangements do not necessarily mean Cold War 2.0 has started with the opposing sides of the original struggle having changed camps.
Russia has come closer to China and Pakistan more because of strategic reasons to unite against common threats like the United States or the terror outfits. It doesn't mean that they have set up a common ideological bloc and have issues to worry about each other as well.
So, one need not complicate India's relations with Russia in today's times by judging whether they are enemies or friends.
Moscow isn't really concerned about India's growing ties with the US but with its own ways to tackle the West over issues like Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Nato, etc. It is also equally bothered about looking after its own economy which is not in the great health, especially in the wake of falling oil prices and sanctions imposed by the West.
Economic woes and suspicion towards China makes India relevant for Russia
Yes, China is a bigger economy who Russia can look up to to offset its economic woes but Moscow also harbours a suspicion about Beijing as the latter's global ambitions have also pushed it toward gaining influence in Central Asia, a region which Russia sees as its own backyard.
This makes India a key option for Russia to look forward to. Given its growing economic stature, India can pay back Russia's age-old favour through granting access to its huge market. The entry of India in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation can help Russia balance its game vis-à-vis China.
In this perspective, India has a significance for both the US and Russia as both Washington and Moscow look to counter Beijing's insatiable hunger on the world stage with a promising economic power.
So, unlike the simple military hardware demand-supply relationship of the past, these times require India and Russia to cooperate on diverse issues more extensively. One suspects the age-old relationship between India and Russia has remained too simplistic and not being prepared to accommodate the demands of the changing era.
For India, a change in Russia's approach is important
For India, too, a change in Russia's approach towards it is key. As a Moscow Times article said in December 2014, Russia no longer afforded to see as a developing country of the 1960s requiring Moscow's help but a major economy.
"The friendly, but somewhat unequal, relationship of the Soviet era needs to be replaced by a more serious, more businesslike and yet very friendly partnership relationship," the piece said.
The problem with Putin's Russia is that it is less significant an economic power and more about political, military and strategic confrontation with the West with which India has a decent relationship. Moscow should have done on it adequately by now, since Putin has served at its helm for a long time, but unfortunately it hasn't succeeded to grow as an attractive economic destination for Indian businessmen to make a beeline.
New Delhi can't really be blamed if India's once flourishing relationship with Russia doesn't seem shiny enough. The relationship has neither worsened nor improved but has only stagnated.