Jaishankar lands in Moscow, talks to focus on bilateral issues

The External Affairs Minister is expected to discuss continuing problems over rupee-rouble payment mechanism amid a surge in import of Russian oil and delays in supplies of defence equipment

December 25, 2023 10:33 pm | Updated 10:34 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Moscow, on December 25, 2023. Twitter/@DrSJaishankar

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Moscow, on December 25, 2023. Twitter/@DrSJaishankar

Striking a nostalgic note on India-Russia ties, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar shared memories of a visit to Moscow during his childhood, at the beginning of his five-day visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg on Monday for bilateral talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Trade Minister Denis Manturov. 

Shortly after landing in Moscow, Mr. Jaishankar visited the Kremlin, posting an entry pass in his name from a 1962 commemoration for the first Russian cosmonauts in space at the Red Square, where he visited as a seven-year-old boy,  along with a current picture of himself at the Red Square amidst sub-zero temperatures, entitling it “How it started”, and “How it is going”. 


Mr. Jaishankar’s personal note during his visit to Moscow is significant given that his language during his training for the Indian Foreign Service, during his earlier career as a diplomat was Russian, and his first posting was at the Indian Embassy in Moscow in 1978. 

Mr. Jaishankar is believed to have visited Moscow in 1962, along with his father, renowned strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam, who was in the Indian Administrative Service in the Ministry of Defence at the time. The commemoration, that took place at the height of the Cold War, when Russians had beaten the U.S. in sending humans into space, honoured cosmonauts A.G. Nikolaev and P.R. Popovich who travelled on satellites of the Vostok spacecraft.

Thorny bilateral issues

While the social media post set the stage for warm conversations, Mr. Jaishankar’s visit, from December 25-29 is expected to see discussions over a number of thorny bilateral issues, including continuing problems over the rupee-rouble payment mechanism amid a surge in the import of Russian oil and bilateral trade and delays in supplies of defence equipment. Mr. Jaishankar’s Russia travel comes in lieu of the annual summit due to be held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, an unbroken tradition from the year 2000 till 2021, which the two sides have now skipped for the second year in a row, ostensibly due to the Ukraine conflict. However, both Mr. Putin and Mr. Modi have made several trips abroad during the year to other countries, making the omission of the annual summit significant. Another possible meeting, due to be held at the SCO summit in Delhi in July this year was put off after New Delhi decided to convert it into a virtual summit. Ahead of the visit, the Ministry of External Affairs said Mr. Jaishankar would hold discussions on all bilateral, multilateral and international issues and also focus on cultural and people-to-people ties.

“The full-format negotiations between the heads of Russian and Indian Foreign Affairs Ministries are scheduled on December 27,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Monday, indicating the Lavrov-Jaishankar meeting on Wednesday, which would be followed by a joint press conference by the Foreign Ministers.

The meeting between the Ministers on Wednesday will cap a year of several meetings as Mr. Lavrov travelled to India for the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in March, SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in May and then represented Mr. Putin at the G-20 Summit in Delhi in September this year. Mr. Jaishankar last visited Moscow in November 2022 to prepare for Mr. Modi’s visit there for the annual summit, which was then put off. Speaking to the media during his visit to Delhi for the G-20 summit, Mr. Lavrov had conceded that issues over the payment mechanism between India and Russia, being devised to circumvent U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war, had not yet been resolved. This has meant delayed payments, as well as the need for India to use third-country currencies, including the UAE dirham and Chinese yuan to pay for Indian imports from Russia that have grown a massive 368% year on year from 2022 to 2023, mainly due to an increase in import of Russian oil, leading to a major trade deficit. In addition, Russia’s supply of the fourth and fifth regiment of the S-400 Triumf Air Defence Systems, have been delayed and are now expected in 2024.

Apart from bilateral issues, Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Lavrov are expected to discuss the conflicts in Ukraine, as well as Israel’s continued bombardment of Gaza. While Russia has been openly critical of Israel’s actions, and in particular, the U.S.’s support to Israel over the bombing of civilians, with 20,000 now dead, India’s stand has been less strident. India abstained in one vote at the UNGA in October that was critical of Israel, before joining a majority of the international community in UNGA votes calling for a ceasefire this month. India’s decision to not join the U.S.-led naval operation against Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, named “Operation Prosperity Guardian” so far is also likely to find favour in Moscow.

Speaking in the Russian Parliament on December 13, Mr. Lavrov had said “relations of special and privileged strategic partnership with India are progressively advancing,” and that India was among countries of the Global South along with China that Russia had most “focussed” on. Mr. Putin had also praised Prime Minister Modi at a recent public event for refusing to be “frightened, intimidated or forced to take any actions, steps, decisions that would be at variance with the national interests of India and the Indian people.”

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