Moscow plays down Beijing, pledges deeper Delhi ties: S-400 to Afghanistan

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In a bid to iron out divergences and build on the common “resilient” ground ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit later this year, Indian and Russian Foreign Ministers Tuesday sought to address each other’s concerns on a wide range of issues — from defence supplies to the S-400 air defence system, India’s role in Afghanistan and Taliban’s involvement in power-sharing to cooperation on Covid vaccines and Delhi’s participation in the Quad grouping.

Less than a month after the first ever Quad leaders’ virtual summit, visiting Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov Tuesday, with External Affairs minister S Jaishankar by his side, sought to downplay the growing ties with Beijing saying Russia-China relations are at their “highest ever,” but these aren’t aimed at a “military alliance.” He took a swipe at the Quad grouping and referred to it as an “Asian NATO” — a term, incidentally, used by Beijing.

Incidentally, Moscow played the meeting ground for Indian and Chinese ministers last year amid the ongoing border standoff.

However, both sides underlined the convergences — deepening defence and energy cooperation; longstanding partnership in space and nuclear sectors; economic opportunities in the Russian Far East and leveraging the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign; connectivity through the International North-South Transport and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern maritime corridors.

Jaishankar called the cooperation “energetic and forward looking” while Lavrov said bilateral ties were “valuable, mutually respectful,” and not “subjected to political fluctuations”.

“We both agree that this attests to the maturity and remarkable resilience of our relations,” Russian minister said.

Explained

Russia’s tightrope walk

India has been cautious in dealing with Russia over the past year given its dependence on Moscow for defence supplies. Moscow’s proximity to Beijing is being watched in Delhi. Russia also has misgivings about Quad diplomacy. Lavrov’s visit is part of the diplomatic tightrope both sides are walking as he heads to Islamabad from Delhi.

The contentious issue of the sale of the S-400 air defence system figured in the discussions. While India is keen on buying it, Washington has repeatedly expressed reservations – the Trump administration did not invoke sanctions on Indian entities and the Biden administration is yet to take a call.

Responding to a question on US pressure on India buying the S-400, “The USA says this overtly…but we also know the response of India. We did not discuss these statements from the USA. Instead, we confirmed that we are going to deepen our military cooperation…discussed the prospect of additional manufacturing of Russian military equipment in India within the concept of Made in India…I didn’t feel any fluctuations or changes from our Indian partners and friends.”

Jaishankar echoed this: “We didn’t get into any specific discussions. That is a responsibility of a different body which is led by our Defence ministers, which is due to meet at the end of the year.”

However, the divergences, too, came through quite clearly.

Lavrov, answering questions after a bilateral meeting with Jaishankar, stuck to the formulation of “Asia Pacific” while his Indian counterpart referred to “Indo-Pacific”. Jaishankar indicated as much – when he said that the “larger backdrop of global political changes provided the context.”

Lavrov, responding to a question on a possible military alliance between Moscow and Beijing, said: “…In the course of the Russia-China Summit, we said our relations are at the highest in the history. But these relations do not pursue a goal of establishing a military alliance. By the way, we have had speculations about pro-military alliances not only regarding Russia-China relations, we also heard about such alliances, allegedly being promoted as such as Middle East NATO, and we also heard about Asian NATO. Today, we exchanged views on these, and Indian friends have the same position and we believe that this is counterproductive, we are interested in inclusive cooperation, that is for something, not against somebody.”

This is not the first time that Lavrov has expressed his apprehension about the Quad, but his reference to Asian NATO is a construct used by Beijing. Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi has called Quad the “Indo-Pacific NATO” in the past.

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