Putin Doval meeting: In the sphere of geopolitics and foreign policy, body language has great significance. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, often maintains a poker face while meeting foreign delegates. This picture of the meeting between French President Emanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin aptly covers the environment of such meetings.
On account of the COVID pandemic and deep-seated distrust between the Russian side and the Western bloc, every meeting in and around the Russia-Ukraine war has been conducted in a hostile or cold environment. This backdrop amply underscores the importance of the one-on-one meeting between Russian President Putin and India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.
Rare one-on-one meeting with nothing-off-the-table discussion
It is rare for any Head of State to indulge in long, intense discussion with diplomats or security officials let alone President Putin. But NSA Doval’s recent visit to Moscow resulted in a diplomatic bonus for India in the form of a separate one-on-one audience with President Putin. Notably, NSA Doval was slated to attend a meeting with Putin of regional security advisers during his Moscow visit.
Reportedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin cleared the room of delegates and officials for a one-on-one meeting with NSA Doval. Both the Indian and Russian sides have maintained an eerie silence on the points discussed in the meeting.
However, media reports claim that the two met for around 55 minutes, where they discussed a range of issues of bilateral and global importance. It is further claimed that perception sharing was one of the key issues in the intense discussion. So, it becomes pertinent to decipher the backdrop of this peculiar meeting and what necessitated Mr. Putin to break the protocol and have this emergency meeting.
Geopolitics of this profound symbolism
Prior to his Moscow visit, NSA Ajit Doval had visited the US and UK, where he met his counterparts to discuss ways to increase India’s cooperation with each nation.
During that visit, NSA Ajit Doval and NSA Jack Sullivan of USA launched the high-level dialogue on the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET). Several defence experts have hailed this development as the “Next Big Thing” in bilateral cooperation between the two countries. They claim that if the ICET achieves the desired success, it will significantly reduce India’s dependence on Russian weapons.
That is why the India-Russia strategic partnership, which used to stand the test of time, has started to feel the pinch in the recent past. It has seen a little setback or stagnation, particularly in the area of defence cooperation. Consequently, Russia has been feeling a little jittery over the deepening cooperation between India and the US.
In fact, recently, the Russian side stated that its ties are strained amid the increasing partnership between India and the USA. Quite clearly, Russia is worried by the fact that the US is mollycoddling India to do away with its overdependence on Russian weaponry. The agreement on ICET is a sign of that.
Owing to these changing geopolitical dynamics, Russian President Vladimir Putin defied protocol and met with NSA Doval for an hour. President Putin doesn’t want the Russian hegemony in the Indian defence market to erode. Currently, it is witnessing the same on account of the emergence of a highly competitive race for India’s defence pie.
The “triple-thread” race to woo India
Earlier, due to the paucity of opportunities, India was forced to procure cheaper but slightly stale technology from the Soviet Union. In fact, even after the Soviet Union disintegrated, India was compelled to buy Soviet-era weapons from its residual state, the Russian Federation.
But to break away from the uncanny overdependence on its close ally, China, India is aggressively diversifying its armour and weapon systems. Evidently, France, Russia, and the US are aggressively pushing to gain a larger piece of India’s defence sector. On its part, France is sweetening the deal around Rafale fighter jets, which are 4.5-generation fighter aircraft.
Apart from the meeting between Mr. Putin and NSA Doval, Russia has taken action to nullify the US’s offer on ICET. Moscow had recently sought cooperation from India to create a fifth-generation aircraft colloquially called the Su-75 “Checkmate.”
In fact, this triple-thread defence rivalry is being witnessed in the ongoing “Aero India show.” It is the first time the US has sent its fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the F-35A, to India, and that too to take part in the Aero Show. The intention of this public display of air manoeuvres is to convince India to buy this costly but state-of-the-art aircraft.
Parallelly, Russia has also sent its two fifth-generation fighter aircraft in what is being described as a “stealth dogfight” between the fifth-generation fighter aircraft of the US and Russia. Apart from the export-focused Sukhoi-75 Light Tactical Fighter Jet Aircraft, which is being introduced in India, the other Russian stealth platform available is the Su-57E fifth-generation aircraft.
Russia pins hopes on India to broker peace in the ongoing war
The fact that India will exercise the role of Presidency of the G20 and SCO multinational groupings this year, has brought signs of optimism for Russia. Russia hopes that India, a friendly nation, will help to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine and end the war without imposing impractical conditions on the Russian side. In fact, Russia has seen the impact of India’s deep global clout in these groupings.
For example, in the recently concluded G20 meetings in Indonesia’s Bali, India played a crucial role in negotiating the G20 declaration, which was highlighted by the White House. It was thanks to the relentless efforts of India that the Western nations couldn’t impose their highly rhetorical words against Russia and its president on the G20 grouping. India forced nations to soften the tone of the final draft of the G20 declaration.
Russia understands that India is the only nation in the world that commands equal clout with both warring blocs and can bring the two on the table without putting Himalayan conditions on Russia.
5th Multilateral Meeting on the Afghan Issue
Apart from the above-mentioned issues, India and Russia have been cooperating to help the Afghan people recover from their current state of peril. Having tested all the groupings on Afghanistan, President Putin has understood the importance of Ajit Doval-led India coming up with plans for Afghanistan. It was under India’s constant nudging that successful food grain assistance was made possible for the Taliban-torn nation of Afghanistan.
During his two-day Moscow visit, NSA Doval also attended the fifth multilateral meeting of secretaries of security councils, or NSAs, as the case may be. The meeting was on the Afghanistan issue, and it was hosted by Russia.
Through his address, NSA Doval issued a clear warning to Pakistan without explicitly mentioning its name. He categorically stated that no country should be allowed to use Afghan territory to export terrorism. He also asserted that India will never abandon the people of Afghanistan in their time of need. Along with Indian and Russian delegates, the multilateral meeting was attended by representatives from Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Through these out of the way gestures, as stated above, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to iron out the gaps persisting currently in the India-Russia defence ties. But it is encouraging to see that, thanks to the Modi government’s great initiative in the defence sector, India now has bargaining power and is forcing these three countries to strike more favourable deals that were previously impossible to achieve.
Now, India has a rich option to choose from as far as the development of fifth-generation fighter aircraft is concerned. India is working on an indigenous option in the form of an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Currently, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is developing AMCA, our own fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Further, the Modi government has opened its stealth fighter jet programme to private players.
Recently, the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency sought technology and investment partners for speedy development and execution of the AMCA program. In case it takes more time than expected, India now has two nations fighting it out to make their sale. India can exploit the maximum advantage of this situation and put forth the condition of technology transfer for the 5th generation aircraft in that case.
This is why the unplanned meeting between President Putin and NSA Ajit Doval has sent many signals to India, and it currently seems to be a great win-win for India. It will be seen how the US catches up to these out-of-the-way deeds of President Putin and who among these two nations blinks first or is chosen by the Indian side.
Just like the oil trade, India will take the decision in the best interest of its armed forces and the development of a diverse defence sector that is free from the strings of geopolitics and the vested interests of the seller nation.
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