Sochi informal summit: India, Russia in one mind about global uncertainty

Informality and geopolitics would seem to make for strange bedfellows. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second ‘informal summit’, this time with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, it seems evident that this innovation will be part of India’s diplomatic repertoire for some time to come.

There is no overriding reason for Mr Modi to have made the long trek to Russia. Unlike relations with China, those between New Delhi and Moscow have few sources of real friction. The bilateral ties may no longer have the halo they once had, but they remain one between friends. Mr Modi notably made no reference to the Soviet era, rightly treating Mr Putin as the pioneer of a new India relationship. But it is also a relationship in which the ties that bind require constant attention and should not be taken for granted. Russia’s flirtations with Pakistan, positive views of the Taliban and increasing alignment with China have not gone unnoticed. Nor has the lack of private sector trade and investment and minimal people-to-people s.

India has been unenthusiastic about the West’s isolation of Russia because it believes this has driven Moscow in to the arms of Beijing, making a mockery of multipolarity in Asia. Mr Putin may be guilty of a number of political sins, but there is far greater peril in an unbalanced global order. There is also the more practical issue that India remains dependent on Russia for the bulk of its arms, a hefty chunk of its oil and gas, and finds Moscow’s vote useful in a plethora of global institutions.

New Delhi has deliberately bought arms and hydrocarbons to keep Moscow from feeling isolated. That Mr Putin used the term “Indo-Pacific”, despite Chinese displeasure at the expression, is evidence that India’s wooing has not been without effect. Mr Modi recognises that in a one-man polity, personal ties are important to keep relations on an even keel. The global environment is now so volatile — and only partly because of the capriciousness of United States President Donald Trump. Mr Modi believes traditional bureaucracy works too slowly to keep up with the times. Unilateral US trade action, unacceptable sanctions over third country arms purchases and so on are only part of what bothers all governments whose interests are greater than their ability to control events.

The India-Russia relationship is destined to be a shadow of what existed during the Soviet days. However, middle powers increasingly need to find the means to work together as the two strongest nations, in two different ways, seek to wipe out the rules of the game.