Russia makes a comeback into India’s plans. All thanks to China and Covid

9 September, 2020

Putin and Modi | Twitter
File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin | Twitter

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is reaching Moscow Tuesday evening, his first trip abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic began. He will participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting of foreign ministers, where he will come face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Jaishankar is believed to be accompanied by officials from the China desk of the ministry of external affairs, whose expertise is deemed necessary to break the Ladakh deadlock that has been escalating since the Chinese intruded into Indian territory in May.

Hope reigns supreme that these talks will hammer out some sort of a formula that will allow both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping to declare victory and pull back from their positions and return the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to status quo ante.

Only last week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh returned from Moscow, where he had gone to participate in the SCO defence ministers meeting – and came face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe. But there was no movement forward in the talks on Ladakh.

This weekend, India and Russia concluded their 11th bilateral naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, called Indra Navy, performing anti-aircraft drills, firing exercises, helicopter operations and replenishment at sea.

India’s hesitation in Malabar

However, India is yet to formally invite Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercises, along with the US and Japan, even though the so-called “Quad” foreign ministers are meeting next month on Delhi’s invite.

India’s hesitation, it seems, stems from the fact that it doesn’t want to unnecessarily aggravate China, which is already in aggressive mode in Ladakh. Inviting the Australians will presumably send the message that four democracies and their inter-operable navies in the Indo-Pacific, led by the US, are ganging up against Beijing.

There’s another unspoken message here : Delhi is holding back on Malabar because it doesn’t want to antagonise the Russians, whose help it is seeking to speak to the Chinese to find a mutually acceptable “solution” to the Ladakh crisis.

So, for the time being, as the Indian and Russian navies blaze full steam ahead, Delhi’s silence on the US-led Quad speaks louder than words.

Covid opened the doors

But if clinching evidence were needed that Russia is, indeed, back on Delhi’s radar, it came about a week or so ago, when India’s ambassador to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Verma got a call from Moscow’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, asking if India was interested in the joint development of the ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine against the coronavirus.

With India’s Covid case numbers overtaking Brazil on the weekend, Verma put the Russians in touch with the Department of Biotechnology’s secretary Renu Swarup. “We are now deeply engaged with Russia on the vaccine front,” The Indian Express quoted a source as saying.

It’s not clear yet what kind of engagement is on the anvil, and whether the Russians are looking at India – along with other countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the Philippines – for Phase 3 clinical trials and/or joint development.

Remember that Oxford University and British pharma firm AstraZeneca are already in league with India’s Serum Institute for clinical trials, for which 5,000 Indians are believed to have volunteered.

Certainly, India’s large population is capable of absorbing a variety of vaccine candidates. But with Sputnik V having received the thumbs-up by none other than the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet — which corroborated the fact that it had produced no serious side-effects in the 76 people who participated in the trial, including President Vladimir Putin’s daughter — it seems to have become a serious contender overnight for India’s affections.

And friend Russia is back

The short point of this piece is that for the first time in several years, Delhi seems to be warming up to the Russians – again. Delhi needs Russia, not just because it has a credible epidemiological history and can offer a vaccine which may help India turn the corner, but because the Russians are the only big power today with cachet in Beijing, and can urge them to talk to Delhi on the Ladakh crisis.

Remember that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has strong ties with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev; Doval travelled to Moscow after Article 370 was abrogated last year and Patrushev offered support on the integration of Jammu and Kashmir into India — the first Permanent Five member of the UN Security Council to do so.

But what is fascinating in this brave new Covid world is that new foreign policy equations are being created and abandoned with gay felicity. The smell of Cold War ideology doesn’t seem to reach very far these days. Pragmatism rules.

For now, Putin over Trump

There’s no denying the Modi-Trump bromance, though, and the made-for-TV ‘Howdy, Modi!’ and ‘Namaste Trump’ carnivals, when Modi walked around the stadium and held the arm of the most powerful man in the world aloft. There’s something electric in the air when you woo back someone’s who has been disdainful of you.

The PM’s boat ride with Putin in Sochi two years ago just doesn’t compare – as for the ride from the dacha to the airport in Putin’s limousine, there was no camera to record the event, so we don’t really know what happened.

What is certain is that it has taken the Russian president 21 long years to expand Russian influence across the world – from Syria and Libya to the US, where the government has accused Moscow of trying to influence the 2016 presidential election, an admission of Russian power, even if it’s negative. Putin is probably the only world leader today who can pick up the phone and talk to Xi Jinping; as a former Communist, he likely understands Xi better than most.

And now, Delhi seems to be once again walking down the road to Moscow. Much has changed, including the road itself, and there are many lessons to be relearnt – beginning from the fact that a foreign power’s respect for you is directly proportional to your own strength.

And now, Delhi seems to be once again walking down the road to Moscow. Much has changed, including the road itself, and there are many lessons to be relearnt – beginning from the fact that a foreign power’s respect for you is directly proportional to your own strength.

So, when Jaishankar walks into the room with Wang Yi in Moscow, many uncomfortable questions will rear their head, leading with this one: Is this 1965 Tashkent all over again? And if Moscow is able to help create the conditions for a sustained India-China conversation, what happens to the burgeoning India-US relationship?

Views are personal.

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