Over the last couple of years, India and Russia’s relations have reached new heights. Growing cooperation in the field of defense and energy along with shared perception to an “equitable and multipolar world order” is strengthening bilateral relations despite many a irredentism.
The International strategic order has undergone a rapid change in the last few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, a subsequent economic recession which is propelling towards some sort of “trade war”, growing disarray within the EU along with a emergence of an “unholy power” in the form of China which is threatening peace and security of the global order.
On the other hand, despite these structural changes, India-Russia strategic partnership is evolving day-by-day. The normative framework of “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” is growing robust over the years, thus bringing out a new synergy in the relationship between the two countries having millennia old-civilisational ties as depicted aptly by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in his book, Arctic Home in the Vedas. Despite various changes at a structural level from time to time, brotherly relations are growing stronger day-by-day under the dynamic leadership of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India and Vladimir Putin, President of Russia.
The quintessence of India-Russia relations manifested more glaringly in the aftermath of the recent Chinese incursion into Indian territories and the subsequent border clashes. At the height of this tension, Russia silently stood with India, despite the fact that China is its traditional strategic partner. Moscow, without hesitation offered to New Delhi, the sophisticated S-400 and other defense equipment to meet the crisis situation. How should one judge Russia’s offer towards India?
Though it is purely a trade relation and not based on any military trade off, however, the timing is quite important. At the same time, one needs to underline here that Russia’s perception towards India is undergoing a sea-change in recent years. It is evident from the fact that earlier the relationship was merely a buyer and seller one but now it is more of a strategic cooperation and joint partnership. This facilitates technological sharing which boosts up more productive cooperation. The joint cooperation over Kamov helicopter to the manufacturing of AK-47 guns are indicators of Russian eagerness to move into a closer partnership with India. It may be recalled here that when Prime Minister Modi went to Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum meeting, he visited the Naval manufacturing facility at Zvezda located in Siberia. As reported, both India and Russia have also agreed to construct through joint ventures at the Goa Shipyard “two missile frigates” which will boost India’s maritime defense capabilities.
The significance of this cooperation can be understood in the context of the growing role of India as a major maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region. The “Make in India” programme which India initiated under the leadership of PM Modi is yielding significant fruits in recent years as evident from the host of defense cooperation agreements India has signed with Russia. The ‘Indianisation’ of defense production will also certainly alleviate India’s dependence on external markets for meeting defence requirements in the longer run.
It may be highlighted here that the robustness of India-Russia relations cannot be judged simply in the context of defense cooperation between the two countries. In recent years, energy is becoming the fulcrum of their joint partnership. Over the years, India has made big inroads into the energy sector particularly in Siberia and the Far East. Russia wants India to be a major collaborator for strategic cooperation in the energy field even in the lucrative Arctic energy sector. In fact, the September 2019 EEF summit provided the catalyst to greater Indian involvement in Russia’s energy sectors.
While highlighting the positive aspects of Indian and Russian relations which have become multi-dimensional in recent years, it is necessary to explain why trade figures are not growing as expected? Though both countries set a target of “30 billion USD by 2025” as reported, however, whether will this be feasible in the near future one will have to see. One of the major factors which is preventing greater engagement with Russia is that it is still reeling under Western sanctions. No doubt Russia is our traditional strategic partner but in recent years the United States is also emerging as a major supplier of defense equipment to India. One may recall here that prior to the recent stand-off with China, both New Delhi and Washington entered into an agreement to the tune of 3 bn USD in the month of February 2020 as reported . Similarly, the recently concluded Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) between the two countries decided to augment the bilateral defense cooperation between India and the US to new heights.
Recent Chinese jingoism has also brought the two countries together especially while maintaining a status quo in the Indo-Pacific region and not allowing Chinese domination. Russia is also reeling under a spell of sanctions by Western countries especially after the Crimea crisis. It is in this context, despite threat of sanctions from the US, India is forging trade and defense partnership with Russia. In addition to this bilateral trade, Russia should also offer India an opportunity to join the multilateral Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The Russian policy makers should realise that the only way it can balance China’s economic penetration in post-Soviet space is through joint cooperation with India. In this regard, Kazakhstan, another EEU member is also keen to forge trade partnership with India to minimize Chinese influence in its domestic economy.
Another problem which hinders greater trade partnership between India and Russia is lack of direct connectivity. This is hampering the movement of goods between the two countries. However, both the countries are keen to overcome this barrier by boosting the INSTC land and maritime corridor. Even the planned Chennai-Vladivostok maritime connectivity will certainly facilitate greater engagement with Russia.
The greatest constraint to India-Russia relations is emanating from the geopolitical disorders currently affecting both Eurasia and the Indo -Pacific region. Russia’s relations with China is undergoing a rapid surge in the post-1991 era as both are toying with an anti-Western stance. Some misconception is prevailing in the mind of Russian policy makers that China will bail out Russia in case of any crisis with the West. However, whenever Russia confronts a real problem whether it is in the Crimean crisis or the South Ossetia problem, China keeps mum. Despite these setbacks, Russia has not learnt any lessons. Also Russia’s hobnobbing with Pakistan has also raised many eyebrows. After all, Pakistan supports and provides sanctuary to the radical and terrorist forces. It is a well-recognised fact that Pakistan is a failed state. By aligning with Pakistan, Russia is showing its geopolitical weaknesses despite being a major power of Eurasia.
On the other hand, India -Russia relations are time tested and not hoisted to any external factor. Both the countries share a common perception to global order based on multipolarity along with a common stand on fight against global terrorism. Similarly, both the countries advocate “rule based equitable global order”. Despite Russia facing Western flak for its democratic credentials, India has stood by it. However, the need is to upgrade relations to a higher level. Rhetoric should be translated into reality in the bilateral relations between the two countries. In this regard, Russia should move out from the Chinese orbit and augment its relations with India on an “equal footing” for ushering an equitable world order. This can provide a new impetus to the India-Russia relations.
The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]