Timely assertion of India’s strategic autonomy

Russian President Vladimir Putin (3rd from right) greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) at Vladivostok, September 5, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the plenary sessions of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) at Vladivostok has been a regular feature of the annual event since 2019. But this year’s address on Wednesday was invested with added significance as the PM was speaking for the first time on India-Russia relationship after Moscow’s special military operation in Ukraine began in February.  

The backdrop couldn’t have been more dramatic as Modi had Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chairman of the National People’s Congress of China Li Zhanshu listening to him on the podium in Vladivostok. 

The Russian Far East is the world’s last frontier, endowed with vast mineral resources. In the prevailing geopolitical conditions, Moscow has prioritised Asian countries for partnership. India gets a fast track both by virtue of its “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” with Russia as well as the warmth and cordiality in the personal equations between Modi and Putin. 

PM was speaking hot on the heels of the G7 decision to endorse the Biden Administration’s latest project to weaken and “erase” Russia by imposing a price cap mechanism on its oil exports. The US hopes to derail Russia’s energy cooperation with China and India, the two big-time  players in the global oil market, given the size of their economies and the staggering scale of their future energy needs. China is refusing to play ball. So should India. That makes the G7 project a non-starter. 

The power dynamic works this way: Energy security is all about a country’s economic future and world strategy. Economic strength brings influence and respect in international politics and is a vital component of a country’s strategic autonomy and its capacity to pursue independent  foreign policies. This co-relation is well understood by everyone. 

That is why, the Biden Administration inserted a dagger deep into the heart of the thriving 50-year old energy cooperation between Moscow and Western Europe. What better way to reassert the US’ transatlantic leadership that had been on the wane in the recent decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991! 

The mediocre, pusillanimous leadership in Europe didn’t resist. Looking ahead, the Europe’s subaltern role is useful for the US, which no longer has the capacity to force its will globally. 

The conflict in Ukraine is quintessentially a proxy war that the US has imposed on Russia to weaken Russia. The ploy has not worked, but in the process, paradoxically, Russia has turned it back on Europe and is courting  the non-western world for partnership. India sees seamless opportunities stemming out of this paradigm. 

Today, the Biden Administration is the single biggest impediment to peace talks between Kiev and Moscow. Two top “Russia hands” in previous US administrations who have authored books on Russia (and are well-known “hawks” on Russia) in the strategic community in North America — Fiona Hill and Angela Stent — recently penned an article in the Foreign Affairs magazine where they wrote: 

“Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed (in March) on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement. Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, when it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.” 

Indeed, the Ukrainska Pravda, citing official sources in Kiev, reported at that time that “Following the arrival of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Kyiv (on April 9), a possible meeting between Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin has become less likely… The Russian side was actually ready for the Zelenskyy-Putin meeting.” 

Johnson reportedly brought to Kiev a powerful message in two parts: first, that Putin is a war criminal who should be pressured, not negotiated with; and, second, even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, the western powers are not.

Unsurprisngly, PM’s address at the EEF on Wednesday drew attention for its “messaging” amidst the US’ attempts to isolate, weaken and “erase” Russia. The resuscitation of India’s ties with Russia has been one of the finest legacies of Modi’s foreign policy. PM made a pointed remark that “Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, we have stressed the need to take the path of diplomacy and dialogue. We support all peaceful efforts to end this conflict.” This is exactly the Russian position, too! 

The following are salients of PM’s speech: 

India’s “Act Far-East policy… has become a key pillar of the “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” of India and Russia.” 

PM recalled that he pioneered the “Act Far-East policy”. With the rupture in Russia’s ties with the West and its pivot to Asia, vast opportunities are opening up for India to tap into the Far East’s fabulous resources. Beyond a matter of trade and investments, he also envisaged that “the talent and professionalism of Indians can bring about rapid development in the Russian Far East.” 

India is keen to strengthen its partnership with Russia on Arctic issues.” 

Modi’s above remark comes only ten days after the sensational statement by the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on August 26 about Russia posing a threat in the Arctic, and his advocacy of the alliance stepping up its presence in the region to counter Russia. 

There is also immense potential for cooperation in the field of energy.” 

Ironically, PM was speaking within the week of the G7 finance ministers’ decision towards disrupting Russia’s income from oil exports! Clearly, the vacation of Western companies from Russia’s energy sector opens up huge opportunities for Indian investment in Russia’s oil and gas fields both in upstream and downstream. 

“Along with energy, India has also made significant investments in the Russian Far East in the areas of pharma and diamonds.” 

Russia mines nearly a third of the world’s diamonds, according to the US Department of Treasury. As of 2021, Russia’s natural diamond reserves were estimated to be approximately 1.1 billion carats. Russian company Alrosa is the largest diamond mining company in the world and is responsible for 90 percent of Russia’s diamond mining capacity. Of course, India is the world’s largest cutting and polishing centre for diamonds and is rated amongst the fastest growing markets in the world. India’s diamond industry, based in Mumbai and Surat, has an estimated one million-strong work force. 

Russia can become an important partner for the Indian steel industry through the supply of coking coal.” 

India has huge need for coking coal (and coking coal mining and washing technology) which is critical for the self-reliance of its steel industry. Russia’s coal reserves rank second in the world and account for about 16% of the world’s total coal reserves, which means it has about 767 years of coal left (at current consumption levels and excluding unproven reserves).

By bringing in an inter alia reference to the Ukraine conflict at the fag-end of his address, PM underscored that India’s determination to pursue the directions of the India-Russia “special comprehensive strategic partnership” is in no way hostage to the proxy war going on in Europe.

PM touched on the impact of the Ukraine conflict on global supply chains. The fact of the matter is that recent UN-brokered deal to facilitate exports of food grains from Ukraine and Russia and fertilisers from Russia have run into trouble, as the EU and the US have gone back on their promise to remove the restrictions on Russian exports. Meanwhile, it emerges that the West prioritises European needs over Africa’s. 

Putin disclosed yesterday that out of the two million tonnes of food grain that left Ukrainian ports in 87 shipments, 97% headed for Europe for consumption in the EU countries and only 3% for the starving millions in the so-called Global South! To quote Putin, 

“What I am saying is, many European countries today continue to act as colonisers, exactly as they have been doing in previous decades and centuries. Developing countries have simply been cheated yet again and continue to be cheated.” 

A purposive signalling as regards India’s strategic autonomy and the government’s determination to expand and deepen the India-Russia “special comprehensive strategic partnership” regardless of the vicissitudes of international politics was overdue.