Unravelling informal diplomacy: Why Modi & Putin are meeting in Sochi?

Resetting relations with major power centres is the new buzzword in Indian diplomacy. Nearly three weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first informal summit meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, the Indian leader now heads to Sochi to re-engage the Russian president in the picturesque setting of the Russian resort town.
The two leaders have met more than half a dozen times in the last four years, but this will be the first informal summit meeting between PM Modi and President Vladimir Putin. The idea behind an informal summit is to move beyond stuffy protocols and allow the top leaders to hold free-flowing candid discussions on tricky issues which requires deft handling at the very top.

Behind the Sochi summit
Having an informal summit with Russia, a tried and trusted friend of India, indicates that all is not well between the two long-standing strategic differences. The day-long informal summit between Modi and Putin on May 21 will be watched closely in the region as it comes amid festering subterranean tensions and misperceptions between India and Russia on a host of issues, including the perceived drift of New Delhi towards Washington and Moscow’s outreach to Islamabad. The timing of the visit is also significant as it is taking place days after the US unilaterally moved out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposed fresh sanctions on Russia on account of its alleged destablising role in Syria.
The informal meeting at Sochi “will be an important occasion for the two leaders to exchange views on international matters in a broad and long-term perspective with the objective of further strengthening our special and privileged strategic partnership,” India’s External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.
The Modi-Putin meeting has been packaged as an informal summit, but it’s going to be more than captivating photo-ops like it happened in Wuhan with the two leaders gazing at sculptures and sipping tea during a boat ride. The Modi-Xi informal summit in Wuhan was a success as it has paved the way for improving the overall relationship, without papering over the really contentious issues. Indian diplomats say that it’s difficult to predict what the two leaders will discuss but given the recent history one can safely outline some key issues which will figure in the so-called heart-to-heart chat between PM Modi and President Putin.
In the shadow of Iran sanctions
The US sanctions on Iran and Russia and its impact on India’s purchase of high-end defence systems from Russia will figure prominently in discussions, well-placed sources said. India is apprehensive that the US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanction Act (CAATSA), which was signed by US President Donald Trump in August 2017 and came into effect in January 2018, will impact the S400 missile deal with Russia. Another concern for India relates to payment difficulties for Iranian crude in the wake of the US sanctions, following the US’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action (JSPOA). The impact of Trump’s unilateral decision to renege on JSPOA will form the backdrop of the larger discussion on the situation in the Middle East, which has huge economic and energy ramifications for India.

India-US connect & Russia
From Russia’s point of view, President Putin is expected to seek PM Modi’s assessment of his view on India’s growing defence relationship with the US, which has impacted Russia’s long-standing dominance of the Indian arms market. India’s expanding relationship with the US has been a matter of concern with Russia’s political-diplomatic establishment for quite some time now. India has repeatedly conveyed to Moscow that New Delhi’s ties with Washington and Moscow are mutually exclusive and can’t be reduced to zero sum games.
PM Modi, on his part, is expected to seek clarification from his Russian host about the scope of Moscow’s outreach to Islamabad and reiterate its concerns about the possible diversion of Russian-supplied arms by Pakistan for anti-India activities.

These issues have been around for some time and have the potential to cast a shadow over the special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia. The first informal summit between PM Modi and President Putin is just the right opportunity to clear the air and restore the centrality of India-Russian relations, underpinned by trust and friendship, in a rapidly shifting world order. This informal meeting will be followed by a meeting between the two leaders on the margins of the BRICS summit in South Africa in July and pave the way for the annual India-Russia summit in October 2018.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.