ASIAOPINION

India-Russia strategic partnership: Positives and negatives

By Dr. Indrani Talukdar

In a rapid changing geopolitical landscape, the time-tested special and privileged relationship between India and Russia was on display in Bishkek when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit on 13 June. It was the first meeting between the two leaders after Prime Minister Modi’s second term. The meeting between the two leaders was termed as ‘excellent’ by Prime Minister Modi. The bonhomie and the special camaraderie shared between the two leaders were visible. During the meeting, President Putin asked the Indian prime minister for the second time to be the chief guest at the Eastern Economic Forum. The meeting is going to take place in Vladivostok on September 2019. 

Prime Minister Modi was already invited to the meeting. Russia till 13 June did not make it clear about the leader who will be the chief guest. The invitation to the Indian prime minister as the chief guest is an important gesture both bilaterally as well as globally. 

In the bilateral level, India-Russia’s special and privileged strategic partnership spans across the whole gamut of sectors and rests on the fundamental pillars of political and strategic cooperation, military and security cooperation, cooperation in the spheres of economy, energy, industry, science and technology, and cultural and humanitarian cooperation.[1]India attaches high importance to its relations with Russia. In the 13 June meeting the two leaders reviewed the aspects of bilateral relations between the two countries in order to help in further boosting the strategic partnership. The two countries are having high level state visits in preparation for the upcoming 20thannual summit, which is scheduled in September. The agenda for the two leaders during the annual summit this year will be to take a stock of developments the two countries have been able to reach since last year’s annual summit. They will also review on the projects that have started or needs to be started. 

The two leaders might focus on start-ups, artificial intelligence and manufacturing digitization, which were the main areas of discussion during the Russia-India session during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF).[2] The implementation on the outcome of the proceedings from the Eastern Economic Forum will also feature during the annual summit talks. To come out with concrete plans and actions, India is holding an Eastern Economic Forum Field Session on 18 June. There are visible developments in many sectors such as in diamond-cutting industry, timber-processing factory, tea-production and tea-packing factory and in the field of oil and energy etc.[3]   

India and Russia is giving intense focus on the economic aspect in their bilateral relations. In between these meetings, the 2ndIndia-Russia Strategic Economic Dialogue will also take place. The first dialogue between the two countries took place in New Delhi last year in November, one of the first follow-up actions of the 2018 Annual Summit. The meeting was held in St. Petersburg on November 25-26, 2018. The meeting was held with the objective to identify the most promising areas to improve bilateral trade, economic and investment cooperation, and to define joint projects in the framework of national programs.[4] Both countries are optimistic from the deliberations and agreements of the 1st India-Russia Strategic Economic Dialogue.

The two leaders are looking forward to enhance the bilateral trade aspect which still remains relatively weak in comparison to bilateral trade of both the countries in their interactions with other countries. However, there has been a positive upswing in this sector due to the push by the two leaders. The annual trade between India and Russia in 2017 reached USD$ 10.17 billion. During the 2018 annual summit, the two leaders noted that there was an increase of 20 per cent in 2017 in the trade volume between India-Russia.[5]During the 2018 annual summit, the two leaders noted that there was an increase of 20 per cent in 2017 in the trade volume between India-Russia.[6]

During the 18thmeeting of the India-Russia Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) held on December 13, 2018, India and Russia agreed to extend bilateral cooperation on defence joint-venture (JV) manufacturing projects including the Kamov-226T helicopters, naval frigates and projects related to land systems.[7]A joint venture on Kalashnikov rifle production was agreed during the 2018 annual summit. Another one on AK-203 was discussed during the bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Putin at the sidelines of SCO meet. 

In other sectors too there is progress between the two countries. For example, Russia’s Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond mining company, has invested in Mumbai in sales, marketing and support projects. It opened its representative office in 2018. 

India and Russia’s engagement in the International North South Corridor (INSTC), Chabahar Port and in the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) is supposed to improve not only the bilateral trade between the two countries but also help in enhancing each other’s positions multilaterally in the region.

Russia last year during the annual summit had invited India to invest in the energy sector as well as in mineral-rich sector in the Arctic. President Putin also has been encouraging India to invest, including through manpower (migration), in resource-rich and sparsely populated Russia’s Far East region.  

Globally, India-Russia shares common views such as equality, mutual respect and non-interference. The two countries are against any kind of unilateralism and support a multipolar world order. India-Russia also shares common views on resolving conflicts in the world such as in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria through dialogue amongst the conflicting parties and stakeholders. The two countries do not believe in using military force as factor in resolving any conflict.  

India and Russia supports against militarization in outer space. The two countries reaffirmed during the 2018 Annual Summit that the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) is important as it will avert grave danger for world’s peace and security. The two countries also support the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in prevention of chemical weapons. India praised Russia in early completion of destruction of its chemical weapons’ stockpiles.[8]Similarly, on terrorism, India and Russia denounces every kind of activity related to this menace. 

The two countries partnership in multilateral forums such as SCO, BRICS, G20, UN, Russia-India-China (R-I-C) formats also adds to peace and stability in the global and regional level. The Informal Meet between the two leaders in Sochi last year has added in strengthening the relationship between the two countries. The two countries mostly likely go for the second one this year.  

Russia recently awarded Prime Minister Modi with the highest state award, the ‘Order of St Andrew the Apostle’.  Hence, everything in the special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia seems to be in an upswing and positive mode. However, in today’s fast-changing geopolitical landscape and the swing state approach amongst all countries, there have been some misunderstandings between India and Russia due to some developments, leading to misinterpretations on both sides. These challenges might create problems for the two countries in the future.  

Problems in the Partnership

On relationships with third countries, India and Russia are clear of not having any problem with their individual relationship with other third countries such as India-US or Russia-Pakistan. However, given the time-tested special and privileged relationship shared between the strategic partners there seems to be hiccups emerging whenever either of India or Russia strengthens their bilateral relationship with their so-called adversaries. 

For example, India has expressed its concerns to Russia on the latter’s growing relationship with Pakistan. When Russia has kept India out of the meeting on Afghanistan that Moscow had conducted in December 2016 between Russia, China and Pakistan, India expressed its displeasure. Though the differences were resolved however, there India would be monitoring closely the relationship between Moscow and Islamabad. 

On Taliban, Russia’s position changed towards the group since the terrorist groups in 2016 were able to defeat the Islamic State (IS) and the affiliated groups in Afghanistan and near the borders of Central Asia. Russia and the Central Asian countries are apprehensive of the threat of IS near the borders. Though India attended the meeting between the stakeholders and the Taliban on Afghanistan under the Moscow format in 2018, however, New Delhi’s position remains same on terrorism i.e. there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ terrorists. However, since 2016 there is a change in Russia’s narratives on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ terrorists. Earlier, President Putin did not keep any distinction on terrorists or the terrorists groups however, there is a slight change as Russia no longer talks on the definition of terrorism. Moscow is serious about its fight against terrorism as well as on financing of terror groups however, its diplomacy of not naming countries like Pakistan for state sponsoring terrorism is a growing problem for India. 

In February 2019, when Pulwama incident happened, Russia sympathized with India and also supported India in naming Masood Azar as a terrorist under the United Nation Security Council Act, however, it could not pressure China, another strategic partner from listing Mr. Azar as a terrorist. Russia and China recently has upgraded their strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era. For India, the growing closeness between Russia and China[9]also creates problem. New Delhi will always have the concern of Russia-China-Pakistan nexus, given the close proximity between the three. One common thread which binds these three countries together is their grievance against the US. 

In fact, the tensed relationship between US and Pakistan is a boon in disguise for Russia as it can increase the bilateral defence cooperation between Moscow and Islamabad. For Russia, Pakistan is crucial for its security as well as economy. Islamabad’s strategic location is important for Russia’s EaEU project as well the project’s security. Pakistan has the capability through state sponsored terrorism to disrupt the EaEu project as well as Russia’s position in Afghanistan.[10]At the same time, Russia needs access to Gwadar and Karachi ports which helps in Moscow’s still nascent vision on Indo-Pacific[11]

Russia though is closer to India but at the same time is courting China and Pakistan which Moscow knows are the Achilles’ heels for India. Russia’s support to China’s Belt Road Imitative (BRI) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) despite knowing India’s legitimate concerns[12]and the sale of S-400 missile defence system to both India and China highlights that Russia is somewhere playing with India’s vulnerabilities.  

On the other hand, Russia has not retreated back in showing its displeasure on India’s growing relationship with the US. They have raised concerns about QUAD in Indo-Pacific region. Moscow feels it is an alliance amongst US, India, Japan and Australia to contain China or other powerful country (read Russia itself) from gaining a foothold in the region. New Delhi has clarified to Russia that India believes in an open and inclusive engagement and cooperation in the region and welcomes Russia’s engagement in Indo-Pacific. However, how far Russia is convinced needs to be observed in the future. Similarly, though Russia has not expressed any skepticism, however given the historical dispute between Moscow and Japan and the latter’s positive relationship with India, there might be apprehensions within Russia. 

Conclusion 

India and Russia in the 21stcentury is walking a tightrope with so many vulnerabilities for both the countries. The two leaders are working hard to iron out the challenges the bilateral relationship faces. It is crucial for the two countries to address the issues and strengthen the partnership strongly. It is because if the problems between India and Russia are not addressed in a candid, transparent and honest manner then there will be problems in the bilateral relationship. India needs to maintain adroitness and prudence and balance US with Russia. Moscow is important for New Delhi. 

Geographically and security wise, India is surrounded by China and Pakistan, both nuclear-powered countries. Growing closeness between Russia-China-Pakistan does not help in assuaging insecurity within India but increases it[13]. Whereas India’s relationship with the US is still testing the waters. Meanwhile, India’s partnership with Russia is time-tested. Though US is trying to come closer to India however, history has shown that New Delhi and Moscow has stood for each other in times of need. Russia has helped India in building its defence industry[14], space as well as civil nuclear energy programme. At the same time, New Delhi has been reciprocal in its sentiments such as during the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 and the recent signing of S-400 missile defence system by India, despite America’s warning. 

At the same time, New Delhi can use its growing good office to mitigate the tension between Russia and the US which is not healthy for the world. India who shares good relationship with the major powers such as America, Russia, Japan and to an extent China can bring together to build a constructive and positive world order where challenges such as terrorism in its truest forms is contained. Taking along countries like China and Pakistan through genuine dialogue and transparent understanding will be important for the stability and peace of the international community. For Russia, the friendship with China and Pakistan also comes with risk. History is a prove of it. In this complex world order and time, India and Russia will need to go back to the words ‘special and privilege’ and ‘time-tested’ to keep focusing and working in the relationship. Will the two countries be able to stand for each other in the need of time? Support on paper and real actions are two different things. Hence, the future between India and Russia will be that of walking on a tightrope. 


[1]“India-Russia Joint Statement during visit of President of Russia to India (October 05, 2018)”, Ministry of External Affairs, October 5, 2018. https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/30469/IndiaRussia_Joint_Statement_during_visit_of_President_of_Russia_to_India_October_05_2018.

[2]ksenia kondratieva , “SPIEF 2019: Business between India and Russia in search of ‘new blood’”, Business Line, June 9, 2019. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/spief-2019-business-between-india-and-russia-in-search-of-new-blood/article27705533.ece.

[3]This format is for holding exploratory meetings to identify key issues to be considered in greater detail. “India to Host Eastern Economic Forum Field Session”, Eastern Economic Forum, June 8, 2019. https://forumvostok.ru/en/news/india-to-host-an-eastern-economic-forum-field-session/.

[4]“Joint Statement following the results of the 1st India-Russia Strategic Economic Dialogue”, Press Information Bureau: Niti Ayog, February 5, 2019. http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=188068.

[5]“India-Russia Joint Statement during visit of President of Russia to India (October 05, 2018)”, Ministry of External Affairs, op.cit.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Manjeet Singh Negi, “India, Russia agree to extend bilateral cooperation on defence joint-venture projects”, India Today, December 14, 2018. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/india-russia-agree-to-extend-bilateral-cooperation-on-defence-joint-venture-projects-1409162-2018-12-14

[8]“India-Russia Joint Statement during visit of President of Russia to India (October 05, 2018)”,Ministry of External Affairs, op.cit.

[9]In comparison to the annual trade volume between India and Russia which stands at $10.7 billion, the same between Moscow and China stands at $87 billion in 2017. “China takes center stage at opening of Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok”, RT, September 11, 2018.https://www.rt.com/business/438138-china-russia-eastern-economic-forum/.

[10]Pakistan had helped the Mujhaheedins against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. 

[11]Russia’s narratives talks about Asia-Pacific rather than Indo-Pacific because it does not have direct access to the Indian Ocean apart from its relationship with India, Pakistan, Maldives and the neighboring countries of the region. 

[12]Russia has been asking India to join the BRI and not lose out on the investments. However, Moscow has forgotten that how fiercely it fights for its own sovereignty. Crimea is one of the biggest example.  

[13]New Delhi already faces terrorist problems from Pakistan apart from the nuclear threat. The border issue between India and China has not yet resolved despite many dialogues between the two leaders. Though the two countries are engaging each other through economic cooperation and informal meets however, there is no guarantee of another Dokhlam. Also, the BRI and CPEC do heightens the security concerns for India. It is not only the sovereignty issue but also the threat from the terrorists. Pakistan has been using terrorists against India. The route of CPEC goes through Gilgit-Baltistan in PoK. There is no guarantee from Islamabad that it won’t used terror against India through this route and also encroaches upon India’s territory. Similar concern of encroachment is with BRI.     

[14]Russia has been the only country which had transferred the sophisticated technology to India whereas the US has always refused. 

Dr. Indrani Talukdar is a Research Fellow at ICWA, New Delhi. 

Disclaimer: The views are that of the authors and not of the Council or Foreign Policy News.

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