Last weekend was Vladimir Putin’s 65th birthday. Now it’s not germane to this piece whether he cut a cake, danced or made history by drinking vodka (Putin is a teetotaller). The news genre requires a peg to hang a story on and the reference to his birthday gives us the peg to take this forward, into the realm of India and Russia.

Recall the day India and China agreed to end the standoff on the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan. A day earlier, Russia’s ambassador in Beijing Andrei Denisov said in public, that his country would not take sides in the standoff between India and China.

Denisov’s comments appeared careful and calibrated. He said: “The situation on the India-Chinese border is something we all regret. We think our Chinese and Indian friends can resolve the problem by themselves. We don’t think they need any mediators who can influence their respective positions on the issue.”

Russia is not in Beijing’s pockets, at least not yet.

There may have been some disappointment in India over that studied enunciation of neutrality after all Delhi and Moscow go back a long way. But to be fair to Russia, it’s unusual for any ambassador to be neutral about the country he is serving in. Ambassador Denisov’s remarks are all the more interesting given the pressure he may have been under from his host government, to back them up on Doklam.

The credit here goes not to Denisov but Putin. That statement was interpreted correctly in Delhi’s South Block and provided proof, if any was required, that Russia is not in Beijing’s pockets, at least not yet. Russia watchers in India say Putin has always been bullish about this country, seeing a valued diplomatic and strategic partnership.

The Modi-Putin meeting in St Petersburg four months ago saw agreement on Russia building two more nuclear power reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. At the Xiamen BRICS summit, Russia reportedly played a key role in facilitating the naming of terrorist groups in the final declaration.

The doomsayers may warn that the Delhi-Moscow bilateral is running out of steam but the ground reality doesn’t convey that impression.

The doomsayers may warn that the Delhi-Moscow bilateral is running out of steam but the ground reality doesn’t convey that impression.

India’s indigenous nuclear submarine programme has developed in large part to technology and expertise from Russia; the Akula class attack submarine Chakra is another with one more on the way; earlier there was the Brahmos cruise missile project; plans to acquire the Russian S-400 ballistic missile defence system is moving forward. Russia is well aware that for India, these projects have one enemy in mind, China.

Indian diplomats who have served in Moscow say the problems may lie in the shape Russia’s foreign policy is taking, perhaps due to organisational deficiencies. Putin’s strategic vision seems to lack sufficient back up in terms of human and diplomatic resources, so somewhere down the line things go cold.

Increasingly, the tactical and short-term approach appears to be overtaking the long-term and strategic in Russian foreign policy. Perhaps there’s a reason for this: Russia’s re-emergence in the Arab world on the back of a very successful policy in Syria. This may have even influenced some in Moscow to believe they are now America’s equal. Such thinking could be self-delusion and therefore dangerous.

Russia’s policy in Afghanistan is also strange. There’s every reason why Russia and the US can find common ground there. Both are concerned about radical Islam, drug trafficking and Pakistan’s destabilising role. There’s also no doubt that the US expenditure in men and money helps Russia and India. Yet we find the two superpowers on opposite sides with Russia rubbing shoulders with the Taliban and arming Pakistan. Again, it would seem, the short-term and tactical taking precedence over the strategic and long-term.

But international relations is always dynamic, with Putin in charge, there could be a course correction in time. At this point, it’s not clear if Putin plans to stand for another term during elections early next year. At 65 he shows no signs of slowing down or incapacity. He should be good for another 10 years, good for India too.

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