India, Russia reinvigorate bilateral ties

Some hard-nosed calculation based on realpolitik paved the way for the recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Delhi, for the Covid-interrupted 21st annual India-Russia Summit. The timing of the meeting, just before the Biden-Putin virtual summit and the conference of democracies hosted by the US President, was significant. The last in-person summit was in 2019 when PM Modi travelled to Vladivostok. Putin had set the tone for the visit by calling India one of the authoritative centres of the multipolar world whose foreign policy philosophy and priorities are close to that of Russia. He also hinted at new large-scale initiatives for the privileged bilateral partnership. While all such meetings have their optics and substantive components, the Modi-Putin summit certainly addressed the perception that India and Russia had allowed strategic gaps to emerge in their worldview. The substantive outcome of the summit was a 99-para joint statement and around 26 bilateral agreements.

There are several fundamental congruences in the global approach of the two countries. Apart from rejuvenating old ties of friendship and dispelling the sense of drift, the visit was a clear signal of the commitment to a multipolar international order and reinforced strategic balance as an enduring factor in ties between nations. Both countries are hedging against any structural imbalance in the international order that might affect the two nations. Change is inevitable and the summit sent the signal that despite changes and shifting priorities, both countries wish to maintain strategic ties. Call it coincidence that the summit took place after 50 years of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship of August 1971 and the ongoing celebrations to mark 50 years of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, where both played significant roles.

With parts of the S-400 missile defence system supplies landing in India, despite the threat of US sanctions under CAATSA, and the defence deals signed with Russia, New Delhi has broadened her strategic autonomy space. The 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers before the summit mirrors a similar format with the US. The Inter-Governmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation (IGCMTC) is new and will add greater depth and stability to bilateral ties, which are not without dissonance. Russia has been critical of the Quad and AUKUS, viewing both as platforms for pressurising Beijing and Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been voicing criticism publicly, adopting the role of a “bad cop”. Putin has been far more circumspect in this regard. India has kept her lines of communications open and participated in other plurilateral fora like the BRICS, SCO and RIC. India does not view her close ties with Western countries such as the US, France, UK and Germany as affecting her relations with Russia.

Defence ties have been a consistent feature of India-Russia ties and modernisation of the military has become a high priority, triggered by China’s aggression and expansionism. Almost 60% of India’s military hardware is of Russian origin. The agreement on the manufacture of AK-203 rifles in India with Russian technology transfer will re-equip and upgrade the capability of India’s soldiers, who are still using the old INSAS rifles. Co-production and manufacture of four frigates and supply of the SU-MKI and MiG-29 aircraft were among the other defence deals. The agreement for mutual provision of logistics eluded conclusion but remains on the agenda. Last moment changes in the text did not leave time for getting Cabinet Committee approvals. India already has a logistics agreement with the US (LEMOA), Australia and France. A similar agreement with Japan is also under negotiation. Beyond defence, bilateral ties have grown in the energy sector, wherein India’s growing requirement of oil and gas matches Russia’s proven ability to meet this demand. Moscow has agreed for “preferential pricing” for oil and gas supplies and also agreed to route them via the northern Arctic route. Some progress in collaboration in the downstream petrochemical sector is in the offing. In the nuclear sector, Russia has been a collaborator of long standing and this sector is likely to see greater cooperation. In Bangladesh, India and Russia are collaborating to set up the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

One weak pillar of the bilateral relationship is trade. India-Russian trade languishes at around $10 billion. India-Bangladesh trade is around the same. While bottlenecks exist, both governments must focus urgently on this and a joint task force should be mandated to come up with options if the new trade target of $30 billion is to be achieved by 2025. The International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC) has the potential to connect landlocked Central Asia to the Chabahar port and establish trade linkages. Russia is a demographically challenged country. The aging population and its rate of growth are below replacement rates. India has the advantage of a young populace that can be harnessed for sectors like farming in Russia’s vast land area.

In the coming decades, India’s foremost challenge is to counter the China-Pakistan axis. While Russia has been pushed into a closer embrace with China, primarily on account of Western sanctions, she cannot be comfortable with Beijing’s increasing footprint in her economy and in Central Asian states. India and Russia have no outstanding bilateral disputes. Both share long borders with China and the Kautilyan proposition of reaching out to the nation beyond your neighbour is as relevant today as before. Neither wants a China-dominated Asia or a China-centric international order. During the India-China LAC clashes, Russia was quick to respond to India’s military requirements, a fact that would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.

As a declining power, Russia will not be averse to the building up of deterrence against China, for which she will need India and also Quad and the AUKUS, though she will not participate in these initiatives. Russian and Indian strategic interests are aligned in the Eurasian region. In Afghanistan, initial differences over the Taliban may have occurred but in the current scenario, both share the concern over terror spilling over into J&K and Central Asia. The announcement that the leaders of Central Asian nations—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—have been invited as guests for the next Republic Day celebrations and the earlier meeting of the NSAs of these nations and Russia in Delhi are indications of a renewed outreach. The pandemic witnessed cooperation and India added Russia’s vaccine Sputnik-V to the list of approved vaccines at home and for export. While cooperation in the defence, energy and space sectors will continue, bilateral ties have to expand in trade, tourism and other sectors to sustain ties in the long run.

(The article was first published in The new Indian express)