Modi-Putin meet: As global ties are being disrupted, a vital moment to shore up an old relationship

Modi-Putin meet: As global ties are being disrupted, a vital moment to shore up an old relationship

Reportage from Sochi, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday has been sparse. This is, of course, by design. Modi has been innovative if not anything else in his foreign forays. He has patented the use of official visits abroad to drum up support for his agenda at home.
Now Modi has come up with a new feature: informal summits to reach out to key foreign leaders. Like his meeting in Wuhan with China’s President Xi Jinping in April, his meeting with Putin was “agenda-less”. Unlike Wuhan, which was spread over two days and featured delegation-level talks, the Sochi meeting was held over nine hours, and remained an interpersonal interaction between the two leaders.
The Indian statement on Sochi spoke of the special and privileged strategic partnership between the two countries, the words “special and privileged” signifying its uniqueness as a category among scores of strategic partnerships. A suggestive point was made about the importance of “building a multi-polar order” and the significance of the long-term partnership between the two countries “in the military, security and nuclear energy fields”.
Some nuances can also be captured from the opening remarks made in Sochi, according to news reports. Modi thanked Putin for helping India get a permanent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In turn, Putin noted that “our defence ministries maintain very close contacts and cooperation. It speaks about a very high strategic level of our partnership”.
Modi made sure to make the point that India is in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an outfit championed by China, courtesy the Russians. For his part, Putin seemed to remind Modi of the important business they had on the defence front, at a time Russia’s share of the Indian arms market was declining.
The Russian view, revealed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the meeting, said that the two sides focused on economic cooperation. This is a major area of weakness between the two countries whose relationship is dangerously dependent on the arms and energy trade. The decision to institute a Strategic Economic Dialogue between India’s NITI Ayog and the Russian Ministry of Economic Development is a welcome step in this direction.
Lavrov claimed that the two sides were against a bloc architecture for security in the Asia-Pacific. Bloc here means a grouping like the Quadrilateral – consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the US – which China and Russia are not part of.
It is unlikely that India would have criticised a group of which it is a member. Though, New Delh, a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, would hardly support any group that excludes its partners in that grouping either.Action on substantive issues, both economic and military, could come up in the formal annual bilateral summit between India and Russia in October. This could include discussions on a free trade zone between the Eurasian Economic Union and India, further movement in the International North South Transportation Corridor (to move freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia), and further cooperation in the energy sector. This area has been boosted by the reworking of the Liquefied Natural Gas supply agreement with Gazprom and the purchase of Essar oil by the Russian giant Rosneft. As for the military side, the major issues relate to the purchase of the S-400 air defence system and the Russian proposal for the manufacture of Ka-226T utility helicopters for the military.