Modi & Putin’s Telephonic Conversation: Cosmetic Diplomacy or More? 

modi and putin

How much importance should really be given to telephonic conversation held between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 30? Should it be viewed primarily in context of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Virtual Summit hosted by India (July 4), the present head of this regional organization? Certainly, the SCO was referred to in Putin-Modi talks, but was not the only issue they discussed. Given that this diplomatic exercise was engaged in a few days after US President Joe Biden rolled out “red carpet” for Modi, who was there as the state guest, prospects of this telephonic conversation being ignored by Washington may be dismissed. Undoubtedly, Russia kept a close eye on Modi’s US visit. It is possible, certain diplomatic parameters led Indian as well as western media accord brief coverage to Putin-Modi talks. Nevertheless, diplomatic significance of the same cannot be ignored, bilaterally, multi-laterally as well as unilaterally – particularly from Russia’s angle.

Diplomatically, the talks were probably viewed important by Putin to let the world, particularly the West know that Russia and India retain their “friendly” ties. Considering the “problems,” Putin has to combat with and that of late he is busy in trying to present a positive image of all being “fine” on his front, this telephone-conversation was probably a part of this exercise.

It is worth noting, in comparison to a brief press note (85 words) from Indian Prime Minister’s Office about the telephone-talk, the statement from Kremlin, office of Russian President in Moscow, a copy of which was released by Russian Embassy in New Delhi, was little more detailed (219 words). This may be taken as a mild indicator of diplomatic priorities binding Russia as well as India. Certainly, they maintain strong ties and will continue to do so, with both their press releases asserting their aim “to strengthen the special and privileged strategic partnership” between them.

The Indian press release briefly refers to leaders reviewing progress in bilateral cooperation and exchanging views on regional as well as global issues of mutual interest. In addition, it states that Putin informed Modi about developments in Russia and latter reiterated his call for dialogue and diplomacy as they discussed the situation in Ukraine.

The wording of Russian press note lays greater emphasis on their mutual ties and India’s “support” for Russia. It specifically states that telephonic conversation was held at the “initiative” of India. Referring to events of June 24 (the day marked by “mutiny” in Russia), Modi “expressed understanding and support” for Russian leadership’s “decisive actions” for ensuring “law and order,” “stability in the country” and “security” of citizens, according to the Russian note.  It also refers to discussion of Putin and Modi on “topical issues of bilateral cooperation” which includes their emphasis on “importance” of “implementation of major joint projects in various areas” and their “satisfaction” at “substantial growth in trade” in 2022 and first quarter of 2023.

There is probably nothing astonishing about Russian release referring to Modi informing Putin about his “international contacts, including ones during his recent visit to Washington.” Regarding his “assessment” of Ukraine-issue, Putin “stressed Kiev’s utter refusal to undertake political and diplomatic steps to resolve the conflict,” according to the Russian press release. It also refers to “particular attention” the two leaders “paid” to SCO and the G20 as well as BRICS.

India holds presidency of SCO and G20. South Africa will host BRICS Summit in August and that of G20 will be held in New Delhi in September.

With respect to SCO, in view of its Virtual Summit being hosted by India for the first time, since it became its member in 2017, prior to it taking place, telephonic conversation between Modi and Putin may be viewed as diplomatically necessary. Nevertheless, its significance cannot be confined to just the SCO Summit. Diplomatically, at least as the Russia press release suggests, Putin’s concern for asserting “strength” of diplomatic ties between Russia and India cannot be sidelined. He may not have made this move if United States had not displayed diplomatic warmth for India, during Modi’s state visit.

India probably expects Modi-Putin talks to be taken note of by China, particularly in context of their emphasis to “strengthen” their “special and privileged strategic partnership.” Against backdrop of tension between India and China, speculations about Modi-Putin talks sending a strong diplomatic signal, described in certain sections as “blunt,” to Beijing cannot be dismissed. At the same time, it would be going overboard to assume that this was an intention of Russia.

Diplomatic strategy apparently necessitated the telephone talks for both countries, Russia as well as India but with a difference. Stress laid by Russia on it having India’s “support” and so forth is just an indicator of the two countries’ strong ties not having been affected by growing proximity between Washington and New Delhi. From this angle, talks were essential for India to delicately balance its relationship with Washington as well as Moscow. Diplomatically and strategically, prospects of Russia risking its ties with either China or India may at present be dismissed. But yes, an aim of Putin was asserting Russia’s ties with India, and let Russia’s rivals understand this, even if telephone-talks are rated as simply a show of cosmetic diplomacy!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).

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