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Opinion: Russia and India edge closer as Putin turns east

, December 11, 2014, 0 Comments

modi putin india russia-MarketExpress-inRussian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India underlines his apparent determination to lessen the impact of Western sanctions over Ukraine by deepening ties with Asian countries, writes DW’s Grahame Lucas.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has nailed his colors firmly to the mast. He intends to drag India into the 21st century through an expansion of business ties with foreign partners, encouraging inbound investment and a radical program of modernization at home. He will be judged at the next election by a generation of young Indians in search of work and a country looking for a substantial rise in living standards across the board as well as an influential political role internationally, especially in Asia. He cannot afford to fail. Pragmatism is the order of the day.

At the same time, President Putin is seeking to restore his country’s former prowess on the international stage. He also faces a huge challenge at home. The West has responded to his illegal seizure of the Crimean peninsula and his attempts to stoke rebellion in Ukraine’s Russian speaking eastern provinces with sanctions which are now hitting home hard.

The Russian currency has crashed, business is on a downswing and energy revenues, one of the country’s most important sources of income, have plummeted with the fall of oil prices on world markets. Since Putin’s nationalist constituency will not allow him to back down, he must look elsewhere for partners and allies. Hence his recent attempts to improve ties first with China, and now with India.

The signs from the New Delhi summit are that the two countries share mutual interests in this regard. Narendra Modi was shunned by the West for many years because of his alleged role in a religiously motivated massacre in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Moreover, Hindu-nationalist Modi distrusts the West’s domination of international organizations and the international media. He is said to reject the spread of Western culture throughout the world.

63-year-old Modi remembers well the distance India put between itself and the US and its allies during the Cold War because of Washington’s close ties with India’s arch enemy Pakistan. During this period, India – where there was considerable sympathy for the socialist goals of the Soviet Union – established close ties with Moscow. Considerable purchases of Soviet military hardware followed.

While ties between India and Russia weakened for some years owing to Moscow’s increased interest in India’s arch-rival Pakistan, rebuilding relations with Russia at this point in time dovetails perfectly with Modi’s desire to get the most out of all of New Delhi’s international relationships for the benefit of his domestic reform agenda with, of course, the exception of its nuclear armed neighbor, Pakistan.

Putin also knows what it is like to be shunned by the West. The two leaders have already met twice for one-on-one meetings both at the BRICS summit in Brazil and the G20 in Australia. According to Indian sources, the chemistry between the two leaders is good. All the signs are that they understand each other’s respective visions and the need for lasting, mutually beneficial economic ties without political strings attached.

The common ground is easily defined. India has a nearly insatiable demand for energy. Since little has come of India’s nuclear deal with the US, Putin has now seized his opportunity. Russia will build 12 nuclear reactors over 20 years in southern India. Modi needs oil, gas and coal as well. It is an ideal opportunity for Russia to supply India with low priced liquefied natural gas, especially after the end of the South Stream pipeline to the EU.

Russia will also invest in India’s infrastructure and increase diamond sales. Military cooperation is expected to focus on the development of a new fighter jet and a transport aircraft. So much for Washington’s warning to Modi that he should resist an expansion of trade with Russia at this time. From Modi’s perspective, the present level of bilateral trade with Moscow totaling a mere ten billion USD annually is only a fraction of trade volumes between Russian and China, and the Indian PM needs more trade to achieve his goals.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the Modi-Putin summit may shape ties between the two countries for the next decade. Improved relations between the two sides offer Putin an alternative to reliance on markets in the West. Modi, a pragmatist in need, will however get what he can in economic terms from both the West and Russia. It is therefore not surprising that India has vehemently rejected US and EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

In return, Putin continues to underline his support for India’s claims to disputed Kashmir. None of this bodes particularly well for US President Barack Obama’s visit to India next month. The West needs to sit up and take notice. A reinvigorated relationship between New Delhi and Moscow, an alliance of the needy, may have a greater impact on the so-called “Asian century” than many had thought possible just a few months ago.