‘Putin’s India visit will test Modi’s idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ for India’

‘Putin’s India visit will test Modi’s idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ for India’

Syed Zafar Mehdi,
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Russian President Vladmir Putin will be visiting India next week (October 4-5) to attend the 19th India-Russia summit with focus on advancing bilateral ties between the two countries. New Delhi is hoping to build on the momentum of the successful summit held in Sochi in May this year and follow up on the ambitious defence deals.

However, India will need exemptions from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) passed last year by the U.S. Congress to buy the S-400 Triumf missile defense system as well as frigates and helicopters from Russia. Under CAATSA, U.S. has imposed sanctions on some Russian companies and customers.

Kallol Bhattacherjee is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and commentator. He is the author of ‘The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War’ and ‘A Baloch Militant in Delhi’. In an interview to Tehran Times, he talks about Russian President Vladmir Putin’s upcoming visit to India and prospects of India-Russia ties in the face of U.S. sanctions.

Following are the excerpts:

  1. Russian President Vladmir Putin will be visiting India next week to attend the 19th India-Russia summit, as a follow up to the hugely successful Sochi summit earlier this year. How significant is the upcoming summit from India’s perspective?

A: President Putin’s visit will be the biggest test for the concept of “strategic autonomy” that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented in his speech at the Shangri La Dialogue earlier this year.

He had mentioned that India wants to intensify partnership with countries of interest while maintaining strategic autonomy for itself. Strategic autonomy is the old Nehruvian non-alignment policy made for India’s current set of diplomatic choices.

But in the present global scenario it remains to be seen if other partners would appreciate this Indian requirement. During the visit, India will have to display that it can continue to draw the same traditional benefits from Moscow, without jeopardizing the fledgling ties with the US where a few landmark decisions were taken in the recent past.

  1. Earlier this month, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said India attaches ‘highest importance’ to its ties with Russia. What did she exactly mean?

A:  It seems that the minister indicated at highest ‘level’ of importance. Because under the current phase, several countries that provide military and energy support to India have emerged as of utmost importance to India for the sake of its vital needs like uninterrupted energy supply for economic growth, stability at home, and defense requirement.

  1. During the upcoming summit, India is expected to follow up on acquiring five S-400 ‘Triumph’ missile systems, four Project 11356 frigates, 48 Mi-17V-5 helicopters and 200 Ka-226T helicopters from Russia. Do you think it will ruffle feathers in the power corridors of Washington?

A: On 26 September, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) of India cleared the $5.5 billion S400 missile system for signing during the visit of the Russian President. The decision indicates that New Delhi is trying to balance multiple military/diplomatic choices. Just weeks earlier, reassuring U.S. of continued importance, the ‘2+2’ meeting inked the unprecedented security and technology sharing partnership – COMCASA. COMCASA will ensure long term military hardware and technology delivery to India from the U.S.

Therefore, I do not think that despite the impact of the likely military deals during the visit by Vladimir Putin, the White House would respond with fury as there are other areas of quid pro quo where the adjustments can be made. However, we are yet to see the final moments of this drama.

  1. India will need exemptions from CAATSA to buy the S-400 Triumf missile defense system as well as frigates and helicopters. Do you think it will get exemptions? What if U.S. goes ahead with its sanctions?
  2. It was understood during the “2+2 dialogue” that the White House remains aware of India’s unique military ties with Russia and critical need for weapons. Frankly, after COMCASA, it would be irrational for the U.S. to impose sanctions on India for purchase of military hardware because a negative U.S. response would cast a shadow on the nascent COMCASA. The COMCASA is a really significant agreement between India and the U.S. that can go a long way unless something dramatic was to disrupt it. I personally feel that the Indian decision to purchase S400 is a bitter pill that the U.S. will have to swallow.
  3. India and Russia share time-tested relations but the ominous shadow of U.S. has been lurking overhead. The general opinion in India seems to suggest that stronger defense ties with Russia are in India’s larger interest. Do you agree?

A: The international system is in anarchy and it has remained thus for a very long time, so it may not be prudent to view any country as ominous from the Indian point of view, as India wishes to expand ties with all its traditional partners  like Russia, Iran, Japan, GCC, EU, ASEAN, and the U.S.

However, it is certain that India requires Russian defense items for its forces and it will remain like that for the foreseeable future.

  1. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the UNGA summit that India will have to make a ‘sovereign decision’ on Russian defence purchases. As a global power, don’t you think India needs to have an independent foreign policy to be able to take those sovereign decisions?

A: A ‘sovereign decision’ is what Mr Modi’s “strategic autonomy” is expected to deliver. But this can be achieved only by maintaining continuous and uninterrupted dialogue channels with important partner countries without allowing any misperception to cast a shadow on India’s economic, military and energy requirements. From the very beginning of its independent existence, India has tried to have an ‘independent foreign policy’ which was however influenced by the twin pillars of Indian strategic reality – quest for technology to help the massive economy, and search for energy. Like other global powers, India too has a limited set of foreign policy choices in the spectrum of ‘independent foreign policy’.

  1. The suspense over India’s oil trade with Iran continues. Indian government is yet to take a final decision on whether to cut Iranian oil imports under U.S. pressure or not. Can you tell us what’s going on in New Delhi?

A: Iran and the GCC have been to Indian energy supply what Russia is to its military sector. It will not be proper to come to a conclusion over where the India-Iran energy ties are headed because of the obvious external factors involved in this. Much also depends on the success of Iranian diplomacy with EU. A last minute breakthrough with the U.S. cannot be ruled out entirely. However, it is clear that energy ties with Tehran will undergo some adjustments at least for a while or till such time when India can find a way to pay Iran without attracting the Treasury sanctions from the U.S.

  1. The regional dynamics are changing with U.S. getting closer to India and China getting closer to Pakistan. Are these alliances permanent or temporary?

A: It’s too early to call these emerging trends as alliances. What is certain is that in the volatile international economic environment of current era, there is a lot of real time diplomacy or trouble shooting taking place. It is better not to over react to these trends and allow them the time to mature. What’s important however is to end the festering conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine to end at the earliest so that the world stabilizes.

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