[Burning Issue] India-Russia Relations

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Russia’s war on Ukraine has decisively shaped international opinion. Indian foreign policy is also going to be affected in a profound manner.

India-Russia Relation – Background

  • India and Russia have enjoyed good relations since 1947 wherein Russia helped India in attaining its goal of economic self-sufficiency through investment in areas of heavy machine-building, mining, energy production and steel plants.
  • India and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in August 1971 which was the manifestation of the shared goals of the two nations as well as a blueprint for the strengthening of regional and global peace and security.
  • After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, India and Russia entered into a new Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in January 1993 and a bilateral Military-Technical Cooperation agreement in 1994.
  • In 2000 both countries established a Strategic Partnership. In 2010, the Strategic Partnership was elevated to the level of a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership”.

Bilateral Relations and Areas of Cooperation

(1) Political Relations

  • The Annual Summit meeting between the Prime Minister of India and the President of the Russian Federation is the highest institutionalized dialogue mechanism in the strategic partnership between India and Russia. 1
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin held their first informal Summit in the city of Sochi in the Russian Federation on May 21, 2018
  • Russia recently awarded PM Narendra Modi Russia’s highest state decoration – The order of St Andrew the Apostle.
  • Two Inter-Governmental Commissions – one on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC), and another on Military-Technical Cooperation (IRIGC- MTC), meet annually.

(2) Economic Relations

  • Bilateral trade between both countries is concentrated in key value-chain sectors.
  • These sectors include highly diversified segments such as machinery, electronics, aerospace, automobile, commercial shipping, chemicals, pharmaceuticals etc.
  • The two countries intend to increase bilateral investment to US$50 billion and bilateral trade to US$30 billion by 2025.
  • In 2019, total bilateral trade between the two countries from January-September, 2019 stood at USD 7.55 billion.
  • Top imports: Mineral fuels, mineral oils and products, pearls, precious or semi-precious stones, precious metals, nuclear reactors, boilers, machinery and mechanical appliances, electrical machinery, fertilizers, etc.
  • Top Exports: Pharmaceutical products,        electrical machinery and equipment, organic chemicals, vehicles other than railway or tramway rolling stock, etc.

(3) Defence partnership 

  • India-Russia military-technical cooperation has evolved from a buyer-seller framework to one involving joint research, development and production of advanced defense technologies and systems.
  • The first-ever Tri-Services exercise –‘INDRA 2017’ took place in Vladivostok from October 19 to 29, 2017.
  • It has provided significant enhancement to India’s indigenous defense manufacturing.
  • Some of the major defense collaboration programs are: the BrahMos Cruise Missile program, Sukhoi Su-30 and Tactical Transport Aircraft.

(4) Energy Security 

  • In the Energy sector, Russia has built nuclear reactors in India (Kudankulam reactors), adopted a strategic vision in nuclear energy, and offered oil, gas and investment opportunities in the fuel sector of Russia e.g., Sakhalin I, etc.
  • India and Russia secure the potential of designing a nuclear reactor specifically for developing countries, which is a promising area of cooperation.
  • India’s nuclear power generation capacity of 6,780 MW may increase to 22,480 MW by 2031, contributing to the country’s efforts to turn to green energy.
  • Cooperation between the two countries in energy transformation can be seen from the joint venture between India’s Reliance Industries Ltd. and Russia’s Sibur, the country’s largest petrochemicals producer.
  • Both sides are considering the possibilities of building a hydrocarbon pipeline system, connecting the Russian Federation with India.

(5) Space technology 

  • India and Russia have a four-decade strong relationship in the field of space.
  • The former Soviet Union launched India’s first two satellites, Aryabhata and Bhaskar.
  • Russia has provided India with Cryogenic technology to build heavy rockets. Historically, there has been a long history of cooperation between the Soviet Union and India in space.
  • In Nov 2007, the two countries have signed an agreement on joint lunar exploration.
  • Chandrayaan-2 was a joint lunar exploration mission proposed by the ISRO and the Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA).
  • Both are collaborating for the scheduled Gaganyaan Mission.

(6) Global Partnership 

  • Russia has supported India’s bid for a permanent seat in UNSC.
  • It has been favoring Indian entry to the Nuclear Supplier Group.
  • Both countries coordinate each other over various forums including BRICS, SCO, G20, etc.

(7) Cultural Cooperation 

  • From people-to-people contacts (through programs like ‘Namaste Russia’) to sharing educational brilliance of both the countries through institutes like Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre, both the countries have had good cultural links
  • There is a strong interest among Russian people in Indian dance, music, yoga and Ayurveda
  • As Russia and India both desire a multi-polar world, they are equally important for each other in fulfilling each other’s national interests. However, due to the changing geopolitical scenario, the relationship between both countries is not as good as it used to be in the cold war era.

Recent trends in bilateral ties

  • Despite the best efforts divergences are growing in this bilateral relationship as the underlying structural changes in the international environment are pulling the two nations apart.
  • Even in the past, the duo have tried to ground their bilateral relations in the wider realities of changing the global balance of power.
  • Now with the US upending the rules of global governance, there is renewed concern that their foreign policies need greater coordination if only to preserve their equities in the global order.
  • India, of course, has a long-standing relationship with Russia but that is undergoing a shift in light of rapidly evolving geopolitical realities.

Bilateral divergence

  • While the top leadership of the two nations have continued to engage with each other, divergences have been cropping up with disturbing regularity.
  • For India, what should be concerning is Russia’s increasing tilt towards Pakistan as it seeks to curry favor with China.
  • Moscow had historically supported New Delhi at the United Nations Security Council by repeatedly vetoing resolutions on the Kashmir issue.

(1) Military-defence Complex

  • Russia is the dominant supplier of arms to India, with the historic military and defence ties between the two countries continuing to serve as one of the cornerstones of the India-Russia relationship.
  • Strains are becoming apparent as India moves further along the path of military indigenization and import diversification.
  • India’s procurement from the US and France has also been seen as a heated divergence between the two.
  • This was a result of the unreliability of Russian supplies, as manifested in late arrivals, defective parts, and perennial conflicts overpricing and warranties.

(2) Cultural Vacuum

  • On an everyday level, while Indian films and yoga are popular in Russia, no parallel exposure to any aspect of Russian popular culture exists among Indians.
  • This is the most woefully neglected aspect of their relationship, suffering on both sides from lack of funding and, no less important, a shortage of political will.
  • Another aspect of ties is tourism which could be much more vigorous between the two countries than present India’s US affinity.

(3) India-US ties

  • Rapidly expanding ties and growing defence relationship between India and US, and India joining QUAD group led by the US has led to a strategic shift in Russia’s foreign policy, pushing it to align with China.
  • The signing of the long-awaited Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and other security related agreements, is set to elevate the bilateral defence partnership and give India access to advanced U.S. defence systems.
  • Another successful deliverable for India is Washington’s solidarity on the issue of terrorism expressed during the talks.
  • The two sides “called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.
  • However, a closer engagement with the U.S. is a challenge for India, as this relationship is not likely to be a partnership of equals, for the foreseeable future.

(4) One Dimensional Trade

  • India Russia trade has been mostly restricted to defence trade.
  • Other challenges in boosting trade – number of issues that hinder India-Russia trade, like, connectivity issues, distance, weak banking links, cumbersome regulations on both sides and Russia’s restrictive visa regime.

(5) Change in Russia’s foreign policy posture 

  • Russia is tilting toward Pakistan, China, and even recognizing the Taliban.
  • Pakistan – conducted military exercise; signed a military-technical cooperation agreement for arms supply and weapon development.
  • China – increasing strategic military relations between the two nations; Russia selling advanced military technology to China; endorsing China’s One Belt One Road initiative.

(6) Differences over the Indo-Pacific

  • Both India and Russia have a difference of opinion in understanding the concept of the Indo-Pacific.
  • Russia opposes the term Indo-Pacific as the term is primarily a US-led initiative aimed to contain China and Russia.
  • Russia does not accept the concept of QUAD. Instead, Russia supports the concept of Asia Pacific.

Steps taken to address the downturn in the relationship

  • Sochi Informal Summit 2018: The strategic partnership between the two has been elevated into a “special privileged strategic partnership”.
  • Reinforced defense ties: both countries finalized Su-400 air defense systems and nuclear-powered submarine (Chakra III) deal, construction of Ka-226 helicopters in India under the Make in India initiative.
  • Improving Trade Relations: India Russia Strategic Economic Dialogue was started in 2018 to achieve the target of $30 billion investment goal by 2025 between both countries
  • India participated in the Eastern Economic Forum (2020) which aims to support the economic development of Russia’s resource-rich Far East.
  • India has extended a $1 billion line of credit for the development of this region. Also, the proposal for a maritime route between Chennai and Vladivostok has been made.
  • Strengthening Energy cooperation: Cooperation in the development of oil in Russia including its arctic shelf and joint development of projects on the shelf of the Pechora and Okhotsk Seas.
    • For increasing connectivity, both sides called for the development of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

Potential Areas for Deepening Ties

  • Connectivity: There is scope for improvement in trade between Russia and India if the international North-South corridor through Iran and the Vladivostok-Chennai Sea route can be operationalized.
  • Technology: India can benefit from hi-tech cooperation with Russia in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, outer space, and nanotechnology.
  • Education, R&D: India can also cooperate with Russia on upgrading its basic research and education facilities. 
  • Diversifying Economic Engagement: Apart from traditional areas of cooperation such as weapons, hydrocarbons, nuclear energy, and diamonds, new sectors of economic engagement are likely to emerge – mining, agro-industrial, and high technology, including robotics, nanotech, and biotech.
    • Mutual benefits in the trade of natural resources such as timber and agriculture can also be harnessed.

Why is Russia Important to India?

  • Russia’s status in the international sphere: Russia remains, and will remain a pre-eminent nuclear and energy power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council
  • Multipolar World Politics: Since the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, maintaining close and strategic relations with Russia and the US at the same time is indispensable for India. A strong partnership with Russia provides India with leverages to deal with other countries.
  • Support for UNSC seat: Russia has stated publicly that it supports India receiving a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. 
  • Counterbalance to China Aggression: India has no option but to have a close relationship both with the US and Russia and to manage its difficult relationship with China. 
    • So long as Russia’s relationship with the West remains strained, Russia will look toward China. So long as Sino-Indian relations remain troubled, Russia’s going into the Chinese sphere of influence will not suit India.
  • India’s energy security: India to look toward Russia as an alternative source of energy supplies as the situation in the Middle East is escalating with threats to essential oil trade routes
  • Important Technology supplier: Russia can help India build its technological potential by providing access to its technologies, especially in defense technology and nuclear technology.

Recent Developments

As Russia declares war on Ukraine, the impact will also be on the recovering economies around the world, including India.

India’s position on the Ukraine issue

  •  New Delhi has taken a subtle pro-Moscow position on the question of Russian attacks against Ukraine.
  • A geopolitical necessity: India’s Russia tilt should be seen not just as a product of its time-tested friendship with Moscow but also as a geopolitical necessity.
  • China problem: India’s problem is China, and it needs both the U.S./the West and Russia to deal with the “China problem”.

Implications of war on Ukraine for India

  • It will embolden China: Russian action in Ukraine dismissing the concerns of the rest of the international community including the U.S. will no doubt embolden China and its territorial ambitions.
  • Sanctions on Russia will impact India’s defense cooperation: The new sanctions regime may have implications for India’s defense cooperation with Moscow.
  • Russia-China axis: The longer the standoff lasts, the closer China and Russia could become, which certainly does not help India.
  • The focus will move away from Indo-Pacific: The more severe the U.S.-Russia rivalry becomes, the less focus there would be on the Indo-Pacific and China, which is where India’s interests lie.

Way Forward

  • India and Russia have to identify their strengths and common concerns like developing joint projects in third countries. 
    • Such as the involvement of India and Russia in the Rooppur nuclear plant project in Bangladesh.
  • Focus on Eurasia: India and Russia have to explore their opportunities in the Eurasian region.
    • India can study the possibility of expanding Russia’s idea of an “extensive Eurasian partnership”.
  • India must take advantage of Russia’s capacity in helping India to become self-sufficient in Defence.
    • For example, India’s collaboration with Russia in the Brahmos Missile made India export such missiles to countries like the Philippines.
  • India needs to balance its relationship between Russia, China, and the US: This is essential after the US conducted a Freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP) in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
  • India has to utilise the scientific and technological base in Russia for the development of India’s problems.
  • Cooperation at Multilateral Forums: strengthening ties through various multilateral organizations including BRICS, RIC, G20, East Asia Summit, and SCO – where avenues for cooperation on issues of mutual importance exist.
  • Engaging Russia in Indo-Pacific narrative: India should pursue and facilitate Russia’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
    • Russia’s active engagement in the region would contribute to making the Indo-Pacific truly “free and inclusive”.
  • Prioritizing RIC in Indian Foreign Policy: India must promote mutually beneficial trilateral cooperation between Russia, India, and China, which could contribute to the reduction of mistrust and suspicion between the three countries.

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