India-Russia ties are an extension of the Indo-Soviet bonhomie that lasted several decades, nurtured by successive leaders of both countries. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Russia did not weaken the ties. The changes were more in India’s relationship with the United States. So much so, there is debate nowadays whether India leans more towards the United States or tilts the extra bit towards Russia?

Media reports ahead of the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit spoke of the “historical significance” of the Modi-Putin meeting and why Putin made the India halt on his way to a meeting with US President Joe Biden. Indian so-called “geo-strategists” could not stop talking of the importance of Putin taking time to meet Modi before he met President Joe Biden.

To them, it spoke of Modi’s standing in the world. But to be fair to Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the Russian President did not make the India stopover on his way to meet Biden because he had to hug Modi and draw strength from him to take on Biden. Putin touched down in New Delhi because there were a stack of agreements to sign—and there was the S-400 and the AK-203.

And the optics also spoke. At the end of their one-on-one, when Putin bid goodbye and drove away, Modi couldn’t take his wistful eyes off the limousine. The world knows Modi values his meetings with world leaders. It would do well, however, if Modi acknowledged the contributions of successive Congress governments in cementing India-Russia ties, beginning with when there was the Soviet Union, and then Russia—beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru, then Lal Bahadur Shastri and, then, Indira Gandhi.

In the ‘Great Game’ played by the world’s great powers, both Modi and India are late entrants, though it will a fair bet to say that India has “arrived” and part of the credit goes to Modi. Then again, Narendra Modi’s ascendancy on the world stage is an adjunct to Chinese President Xi Jinping setting his eyes on taking China to the role of sole superpower. History will remember Modi as a contemporary of ‘Xi the Great’, not the other way round. Which brings us to the Modi-Putin meeting. There are always positive vibes whenever India and Russia talk. The vibes go back to the Soviet era. Even when India was non-aligned, India was a friend of the Russians. The US had chosen its ally in the subcontinent, Pakistan.

Today it’s a different world, with a declining United States and a rising China. Putin’s Russia hovers dark and deadly. The Americans can’t place Russia with any degree of surety. China, however, believes it’s got Russia’s number, so to speak. But, of the three, Russia is the only one which thinks and understands “multipolar.” As far as India is concerned, Russia has always played fair. It is important it stays that way.

Russia also leaves China to its devices so long as China does not step on Russia’s toes. But to India’s chagrin, Russia riled India by staying aloof when India and China had their tantrums—whether it was Doklam or Galwan. Of late, Russia is also excruciatingly pro-Pakistan.

Which leaves India—the “emerging power”—angling to be counted. India is like the salmon, swimming against the flow. And China has got a head start! Then again, India is in China’s neighbourhood and India is big and second only to China in population. India makes China nervous.

Doklam and Galwan—and Arunachal Pradesh, China won’t leave India alone. And then when India and the US get together, China complains that the West is trying to turn “friendly Asian neighbours” into deadly foes. There is a 50:50 chance that the China-United States rivalry will drive India into the vortex of a war-like situation.

Also, with apologies to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, India is far from being an “emerging superpower.” India’s location on the map may give India a certain placing in the ‘Great Game’ being played in Afghanistan, but India cannot afford to take risks. The bottom-line: The United States cannot be believed, China cannot be trusted—and Pakistan, in the peripheral vision, will, given the chance, stab.

Only Russia, erstwhile Soviet Union—friend and ally for decades—looks trustworthy. India and Russia the other day signed a 10-year security pact. India will soon get delivery of the S-400 systems—US sanctions be damned. And joint production of AK-203 rifles will begin soon in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.

India’s ties with Russia have always been highlighted because of military hardware—fighter aircraft, naval ships, submarines and the aircraft carrier. India and Russia have agreements on various areas of convergence—from science & technology to space exploration. It is a “special strategic relationship” and it required both Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin one-on-one.

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