Invited to Russia to be the chief guest at the fifth Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country on 4-5 September. Prime Minister Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin also held the 20th India-Russia annual bilateral summit during the visit, and as many as 25 pacts were signed between the two countries in fields ranging from connectivity, oil and gas, nuclear energy, deep-sea exploration, space, defense, trade, investments, industrial cooperation, education and culture. By all accounts, Modi's visit was fairly productive.
The warmth that was put on public display by Modi and Putin, both similarly viewed as strong and decisive leaders in their respective countries, and the public articulation of the long and close personal ties and the similar worldviews that they shared, added to the ambience of their interactions during the visit. Beyond the bonhomie, the hugs, the one-on-one dinners, and the mutual admiration, serious messages were conveyed by both sides, with their implications not only limited to the bilateral relationship but equally to other geostrategic issues and aspects.
On the bilateral front, the time-tested and close friendship first between India and the erstwhile Soviet Union, and then with its successor State, Russia, had in the fast-changing international order and alignments that have characterized this decade, showed signs of drift and mellowing. The "special and privileged strategic partnership" announced by the two countries at the start of this decade in 2010 had, by the middle of the decade, threatened to degenerate into a largely defense sector buyer-seller relationship, shorn of much of its specialness and privilege. India's growing proximity to the United States (US) overlapped with the heightened strain in Russia's relations with the US and its western allies after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the subsequent allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. An embattled and isolated Russia's virtual assumption of the junior partner's role in its relationship with China, and worse still, its reversal of a decades-old policy of keeping Pakistan at arm's length in general, and not supplying it defense equipment that could potentially be used against its "special and privileged strategic partner" and largest weapon's importer, India, in particular, rankled India.
Both India and Russia were grappling to fine-tune their own roles in a changing world, and they eventually had to contend with the critical question of where their historically vibrant and strong bilateral relationship stood amidst the turbulence. An important milestone in this context was an informal summit that Modi and Putin had in May 2018, just four months before the annual bilateral summit that was scheduled to be held in October 2018 anyway. This informal summit redirected focus back to the need to reorient, modernize and galvanize the bilateral relationship, and subsequent developments have borne out the fact that the relationship is back on track. There have been close to 50 ministerial level visits between the two countries since then. There appears to be a clear desire to expand the relationship into new areas of mutually beneficial engagement beyond the traditional military-technical cooperation. As the joint statement issued on 5 September during Putin's visit put it, "Russian-Indian relations successfully sustained the turbulence of the modern world and neither depend nor will ever depend on external influence".
India has been able to convince Russia that its engagement with the US was not going to detract from India-Russia relations, most notably by standing up to US threats that India's purchase of the S-400 Triumph Air Defence Missile System from Russia would attract sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). India decided to go ahead with the purchase the US threats notwithstanding. Russia on its part allayed Indian apprehensions vis-à-vis Russia's newfound friendship with Pakistan by being at the forefront in supporting India's 5 August decisions to defang Article 370 of its Constitution that accorded special status and autonomy to Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, and to bifurcate it into two union territories. Russia contended that "India's decision (on Jammu and Kashmir) is a sovereign decision which is as per its Constitution" and that "Moscow follows a policy of non-interference in domestic affairs of countries". Russia's Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev on 28 August stressed that Moscow's position on dilution of Article 370 was "almost 100 per cent identical to India's", adding that "We want the two countries to resolve issues though dialogue in keeping with Simla Agreement and Lahore Declaration". Kudashev's deputy Roman Babushkin, when asked if Russia was concerned over reports in the international media about the lockdown in the Kashmir Valley, responded that "We perceive it as a domestic situation. It's up to the Indian government to make the situation calm, peaceful and developing for the sake of the people".
Modi's visit to Vladivostok in Russia's Far East Region, the first by an Indian Prime Minister, took place in the backdrop of these developments in bilateral relations, and was, in Modi's words, aimed at giving "a new direction, new energy and new speed" to relations between the two countries. The EEF is a forum that since 2015 has been trying to push for the development of business and investment opportunities in the Far East Region, which lies in the Asian part of Russia and is less developed than the country's European regions. As part of his 'Pivot to Asia' strategy, Putin has invited foreign countries to invest in this region. At least 17 countries have already done so.
Russia's invitation to Modi to be the chief guest at the EEF underscored the role that Russia envisages for India in this region. At the delegation-level talks, Modi described the invitation as a matter of great respect and "a historical occasion to give a new dimension to the support between the two countries". From India's perspective, the natural resources-rich Far East Region has the potential to strengthen the India-Russia economic partnership in areas like energy, tourism, agriculture, diamond mining and alternative energy. The region is rich in oil, natural gas, timber, gold and diamond, among other resources and India requires all of them. In recognition of this, India's Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal has just last month led a large delegation comprising Chief Ministers of Indian States and representatives of 140 companies to Vladivostok.
One of the important complementarities for India and Russia is the sparse population in the Far East Region and the ready availability of skilled manpower in India. A lack of manpower is one of the main problems faced by the Far East and Indian professionals like doctors, engineers and teachers, as well as those involved in sectors like agriculture and construction, can help in the region's development. A statement titled "Reaching New Heights of Cooperation through Trust and Partnership" signed by Modi and Putin on the outcomes of their talks in Vladivostok on the sidelines of the EEF identified this by stating that "The Russian side welcomed India's intention to expand its economic and investment presence in the Far Eastern region and Siberia. The parties are interested in developing cooperation in attracting skilled workers from India to the Far East on a periodic basis".
In a telling reversal of roles, Modi on 5 September announced a $1 billion line of credit for the development of the Far East Region. Till a few decades ago, India was a frequent recipient of similar Soviet assistance. Modi said, "For the development of Far East, India will give line of credit worth $ 1 billion. This is a completely unprecedented measure when we provide such a special credit line to another country. My government has actively engaged East Asia as part of its 'Act East' policy. I firmly believe that today's announcement will add a new dimension to the economic diplomacy of the two countries". He added that Indian businessmen who had accompanied him on the visit had signed 50 agreements with counterparts in Russia's Far East in a variety of sectors from energy, mining and woodworking to healthcare and education. "We expect that, as a result, we can provide investments amounting to $5 billion", he said.
In addition to "economic diplomacy", there is a subtle but weighty strategic aspect to Russia's encouragement of Indian investments in the Far East Region. The region has thus far experienced Chinese domination, much to the chagrin of the local population as well as the government in Moscow. China has also been aggressively pushing its military presence in its own areas bordering the Far East Region. There is also a lurking fear in Russia of an eventual Chinese take-over of the Far East Region.
India, as a trusted long-time friend of Russia that also has a rapidly growing economy, fits in well into the Russian government's projection of a viable alternative/counterweight to China in the Far East. And it suits India eminently to oblige.