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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

As President Vladimir Putin is set to visit India for a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is important for both countries to have a frank dialogue on foreign policy priorities, share concerns and clear misunderstandings, writes Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.

As President Vladimir Putin is set to visit India for a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is important for both countries to have a frank dialogue on foreign policy priorities, share concerns and clear misunderstandings, writes Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Dear colleagues, partners and friends!

Today, New Delhi is gearing up to receive Vladimir Putin. This visit might not have been so remarkable if not for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Since February last year, the Russian leader has clearly sought to minimise his foreign travel. Not so long ago, he refused to participate in person at the G20 summit in Rome and at the environmental summit in Glasgow. This year, as you know, Vladimir Putin did not go abroad at all, except for a June visit to Geneva, where he met with American President Joe Biden. Even in China, where the Russian leader had previously visited with enviable regularity, he was last seen in April 2019.

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the President of Russia has made an exception for India. And this conveys the importance that Moscow attaches to bilateral cooperation with the leading power of the South Asian subcontinent. Perhaps this also shows the concern that the Russian side feels about the prospects for our bilateral cooperation in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment. Vladimir Putin is probably also concerned about the many conflicts and crises that are breaking out with frightening regularity in various corners of Asia—from the India China clashes in the Himalayas and the civil confrontation in Myanmar to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and chronic instability in the long-suffering Middle East region.

Altogether, as we are well aware, Vladimir Putin has a lot to talk about with Narendra Modi. While not anticipating the course of the upcoming Russian-Indian official negotiations in any way, I will take it upon myself to give some advice to our Indian friends in the expert community on how to help the Indian leadership build relations with current Russia.

Let’s start with what you already know perfectly well: India has always been loved in Russia and is still loved. The positive attitude of the Russian society towards India is deep and stable; it does not depend much on fluctuations in the political conjuncture or, say, on the dynamics of bilateral trade. For almost three-quarters of a century of cooperation between the leaders of the two countries, there have never been any sharp disagreements on the important issues of international affairs. The Russian-Indian interaction was not overshadowed by mutual fears, distrust and suspicions, which are a common part of the relations between great powers.

Indian culture, philosophy and art have for a long time possessed an exceptionally powerful force of attraction for the Russian intelligentsia; this force of attraction has not weakened for many decades.

However, you should also know that back in Russia, India is very often perceived not as it is today, but as it was in the past—in the days of Indira Gandhi and Raj Kapoor, or even in the era of Rabindranath Tagore. ‘Indian exoticism’ in the Russian consciousness still often obscures the latest achievements of Indian science and technology, economics and innovation, which are still little known to Russians. Therefore, one of our main common tasks is a kind of rebranding of India’s image in Russia, positioning India as a country of the 21st century, as a civilisation fully aspiring to the future, even if based on the unshakable foundation of the past, as a territory of not just wonderful traditions, but also of endless opportunities.

You are much more aware than I am of how envious India is of the rapid development of Russian-Chinese relations. It is well known that Beijing is significantly ahead of New Delhi in terms of the scale of trade with Russia, the number of joint military exercises, and the number of high level meetings. Given the existence of a whole set of serious problems in India China relations, India’s concern about the prospects for the formation of a Russian Chinese military-political alliance is quite understandable.

However, you and I are well aware that Russia has never supported and will not support China in its confrontation with India. By the way, this is perfectly under stood not only in Moscow, but also in Beijing because China has never demanded that Russia drop its military-technical partnership with India. Moreover, the faster the proximity between Russia and China grows, the more importance Moscow would give to New Delhi as a natural balancer for its increasing dependence on China. It is no coincidence that in the recently adopted new National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation, India was put on par with China.

It is also obvious that Russia, unlike some other countries, is in no way interested in aggravating strained relations between Beijing and New Delhi and is in no way benefitting from a military confrontation between its two main partners in Asia. On the contrary, Moscow is ready to use all the mechanisms at its disposal, including BRICS, SCO and the trilateral format of the RIC, in order to facilitate if not a resolution, but at least mitigation of the Indian-Chinese dichotomies. I feel the Indian expert community could have put more effort into explaining a simple truth to the Indian society: it would hardly be reasonable to challenge Moscow to choose between New Delhi and Beijing—Russia’s foreign policy approaches to China and India do not contrast, but naturally complement each other.

From time to time, there is an acute irritation in India’s intellectual and especially journalistic circles regarding the emerging Russia-Pakistan relations. We have to sometimes even hear that Moscow has allegedly taken a position of some kind of ‘equidistance’ towards New Delhi and Islamabad in recent years. Or that Russian diplomacy is, allegedly, skilfully and cynically playing the ‘Pakistani card’ to get some concessions from its Indian partners.

However, genuine experts on Indian Russian relations have to be clear that such ideas have no valid grounds. Relations with Pakistan are important for Russia, but they are largely situational. Today, the significance of Pakistan is increasing not just for Moscow, and that is due to the change of power in Afghanistan and the influence that Islamabad has on the Taliban movement. Turning a blind eye to this new reality, from Moscow’s point of view, would be a political error.

But an attempt to equalise India and Pakistan in the system of their foreign policy priorities would be an even bigger mistake for Russian diplomacy. And not only because India is much bigger, richer and more influential than Pakistan. But also for the fact that relations between Moscow and New Delhi are not tactical or situational, but represent a special privileged strategic partnership that has evolved over more than seven decades of Indian independence. Perhaps, in some cases, Moscow underestimated the sensitivity of the Pakistan issue for New Delhi, and we should have a frank and thorough conversation about such cases. But such an underestimation or misunderstanding should not be considered an indicator of Moscow’s readiness to revise Russia’s strategic priorities in Asia.

There is another important issue to which I would like to draw your attention. Moscow and New Delhi clearly have different views on the now fashionable concept of the Indo-Pacific. In Russia, the concept is seen as a result of American masterminding aimed primarily against Beijing and also against Moscow. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, India, Australia and Japan (Quad) is seen by Russia in approximately the same light, and it is sometimes even perceived as taking the contours of a new Asian analogue of NATO. In India, for its part, it is rightly noted that in fact, the concept of Indo-Pacific was invented not in Washington, but in Tokyo and in New Delhi and that for India, the concept of combining two oceans into a single maritime region serves as a basis for expanding its presence and influence east of the Strait of Malacca.

Indian experts also argue that under no circumstances will Quad become a military political alliance, since India values its independence in its foreign policy greatly and is not ready to adapt to the foreign policy priorities of another country, even those of the United States.

This discrepancy just means that we, at the Track Two diplomacy level, should make additional efforts to dispel the doubts of Russian leaders about Indo-Pacific and Quad. Moreover, under certain circumstances, India could help Russia acclimatise to the Indian Ocean waters. And although Russia-US relations, much like India-China ones, follow their own logic and have their own dynamics, India could contribute to a more productive dialogue between Moscow and Washington—just as Russia could facilitate, in someway, in the dialogue between New Delhi and Beijing. Probably, all these issues could become the subject of expert discussion between our countries in the very near future.

To conclude this somewhat prolonged message, I will allow myself a trivial statement: we need to communicate more. Not in the format of ‘mutual admiration’ familiar to most Russian-Indian conferences and seminars, but in the format of a sober, frank dialogue which may not always be easy. It is not less important for an expert conversation to point out disagreements and divergences of interests between the two countries than to articulate common positions and overlapping interests. Focusing on the challenges of the future is no less valuable for our communication than attention to the achievements of the past. It is equally important for the Russian and Indian expert communities to have creativity and the ability to think globally as well as maintain a high level of country studies.

Only if these aspects are combined holistically will the Russian-Indian expert dialogue become significant support for Track One diplomacy.

With unwavering respect and best wishes for success,

Andrey Kortunov.

First published in the Russia Digest.

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