New Delhi: US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to meet in the Finnish capital Helsinki on Monday in a summit closely watched across the world including in India for its potential—as analysts have noted—to rewrite rules of global engagement.
As C. Raja Mohan, director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, put in an article in The Indian Express last week, “In a paradox, the punditry in Europe and North America is afraid of a ‘successful’ summit between Trump and Putin." In the case of India, any thaw in US-Russia relations would come as a relief, say people familiar with the development in government and analysts.
The reasons aren’t difficult to fathom. The Trump-Putin summit comes at a time of tensions with the US and its traditional allies in Europe and Asia on issues ranging from depending too much on the US for their security while not spending much towards their collective defence themselves, to playing an unfair game when it comes to trade with Washington.
It also comes amid a rise in tensions between Europe and Russia—Britain’s accusations against Russia that it is responsible for a deadly nerve agent attack on its territory and Putin’s support for the Syrian regime after years of civil war are some of the issues framing the backdrop.
The Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki follows the indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking Democrats during the November 2016 US elections that brought Trump—standing for president on a Republican ticket—to power. It also follows Russia hosting a successful FIFIA World Cup 2018—seen as a major achievement of Moscow.
India has been nervous about Russia’s increasing alienation from the West, which has propelled it closer to China, seen as India’s Asian strategic rival.
One of the key break points was Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 that drew global sanctions on Moscow. Delhi’s warming ties with Washington in the past few years, especially since the Narendra Modi government took office in 2014, had seen Moscow become increasingly wary of India’s ties with the US.
As a consequence, Russia, seen as India’s traditional friend especially during the Cold War years, was seen moving closer not only to China but also to India’s traditional rival, Pakistan. In 2016, Russia held its first-ever military exercises with Pakistan and also started selling weapons to Islamabad.
“We see any breakthrough in the Trump-Putin summit good news because it will give us much more space for diplomatic manoeuvre," said a person familiar with the developments in New Delhi. “In the past, any overture that we made to the US or to Russia was viewed with suspicion by the other," said the person on condition of anonymity. “There have also been concerns about Russia’s proximity to China and Pakistan," said a second person familiar with the matter. A case in point is Russia not seen as backing India’s position on terrorism emanating from Pakistan during a summit of BRICS leaders in India in 2016.
“Any thaw in ties between US and Russia would certainly be a welcome development for India. We have a well established defence cooperation and political relationship with Russia, and are consolidating since 2000 a new strategic partnership with US. When their relations get sharply adversarial, they watch more closely and with concern some of our cutting-edge partnerships with the other, especially in defence technologies," said Arun Singh, former Indian ambassador to the US.
“At the time of the Cold War, part of the difficulties in our relations with the US and the West in general had been caused by our decision not to join any of the antagonistic blocs," he said. “Also, distancing from the West forces Russia to engage more with China."
“A difficult relationship with the US also seems to have inclined Russia to engage with the Taliban and Pakistan in the Afghanistan context," he added, referring to Russia viewing the Islamic State as a bigger threat than the Taliban, with some suspicions that Moscow might even be arming the Taliban, seen as arrayed against the US.
Besides this, there is the potential impact on India of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) passed by the US Congress last year, which aims to punish aggression by Iran, Russia and North Korea through sanctions.
“CAATSA, if implemented in its stringent form, is likely to affect India’s arms procurement from Russia in a number of ways. First, India’s planned procurement from Russia, particularly the S-400 air defence system... will come under the immediate scanner of US authorities, as they are mandated to deter exports of key Russian defence entities," said a recent article by Laxman Behera and G. Balachandran, both fellows at the New Delhi-based government-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses think tank.
According to Singh, CAATSA does not bestow any waiver authority on the Trump administration. “A positive movement in US-Russia ties should enable the administration to create political and administrative space for flexibility in enforcement of CAATSA," said Singh.