Viewpoint from India: Ties with Russia remarkably steady

Source: Kommersant

Source: Kommersant

India’s ties with Russia have remained remarkably steady despite far-reaching changes in international relations. This shows the resilience of the relationship, but expanding it in new areas has been challenging. Which is why India-Russia ties, though well-moored, lack excitement.

Russia was the first country with which India established a strategic partnership in the year 2000 under Putin’s leadership. This had special significance in the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the drift in ties during the Yeltsin era but also shared concerns about unipolarity and support for multipolarity, and recognition of India’s post-1998 nuclear reality.

As part of the strategic partnership Indian and Russian leaders have held regular annual summits, now twelve in all. With India having signed strategic partnership agreements with a host of countries, at the 11th summit in 2010 India and Russia elevated theirs to a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership”, indicating a mutual desire to emphasize the  exceptional closeness of ties even as India has developed new external relationships, especially with the US.

Tried and trusted

India’s relations with Russia have many positive dimensions. It is a “tried and trusted” relationship, with Russia standing by India on some vital issues, not interfering in India’s  internal affairs or in its neighbourhood to India’s disadvantage and desisting from supplying arms to Pakistan.

India and Russia have shared interest in countering the regional impact of the rise of religious radicalism and terrorism in the Af-Pak region. On the future of Afghanistan, handling Iran’s nuclear challenge through diplomacy rather than military means and the issue of external military intervention in the Arab world, India’s  thinking is closer to Russia’s than to its western partners.

Defence supplies remain the strongest pillar of the India-Russia relationship. Between 50 to 70% of the equipment used by the Indian armed forces is of Russian origin.

Russia’s readiness to supply India with advanced platforms such as a Russian nuclear powered submarine on lease or provide technical assistance for strategic programmes such as India’s indigenously developed nuclear submarine Arihant, makes it a specially valued partner. India is cooperating with Russia on major projects such as the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft.

The downside to the excessive role of the defence pillar in the strategic partnership is that, in the absence of a robust economic relationship, the entire relationship with Russia can be weakened if India is unable to meet Russian expectations in the defence sales area. 

Russia is wary about our growing defence ties with the US. It has so far benefited from government to government deals without any tendering process, but with international tendering becoming more and more the norm for defence acquisitions, the Russians have to competitive, especially as life cycle costs are being introduced in the evaluation process. 

Balancing act

India has to do some tight balancing in, on the hand, preserving the depth of the defence relationship with Russia, and, on the other, being open to other defence partners, whether the Europeans, the Israelis or the Americans.

Civilian nuclear cooperation is another key area of India-Russia cooperation, though the US finally opened the doors of international cooperation with India’s nuclear power programme.

Russia is already constructing two nuclear power plants at Kudankulam and negotiations for two additional units on the same site have been finalized, but the announcement has been postponed owing to the on-going public agitation against the commissioning of Kudankulam 1 and 2. Unfortunately, a strong selling point for the India-Russia relationship has now become an object of domestic controversy.

In space, India-Russia cooperation on Glonass, the Russian version of GPS, is important,  as India is participating in the commercial as well as the military segment of the programme. The military part, which neither the American GPS and the European Galileo  offers to India, would provide greater operational accuracy to India’s strategic weapons.

The weakest link

The major weakness in India-Russia ties remains the economic pillar. The two way trade remains unimpressive at around US $ 8 billion.  At the 2010 summit it was decided to raise the figure to US $ 15 billion by 2015; the 2011 summit has increased that to US $ 20 billion.

Much effort has gone into creating platforms for businessmen of the two sides to interact in the hope of expanding trade flows, with limited results. The targeted figures of trade are unlikely to be met unless some imaginative initiatives are taken.

India is energy deficient and Russia is energy surplus, and so a mutuality of interest exists.  Translating this into concrete steps has escaped our respective abilities so far. India and Russia have been negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). With Russia becoming a WTO member and upgrading its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan to a “Common Economic Space”, a possible CEPA with the broader Eurasian region will now be considered.

While there is widespread goodwill towards Russia in India, the decline in Russia’s global political influence and the difficulties it faces to build a modern, innovative and technologically advanced economy has impacted on the India-Russia relationship practically.

The dynamic Indian private sector is not drawn to Russia. Cultural relations  have ebbed because of decline of state sponsorship; with young Russians and Indians turned culturally more towards the West. The number of Indian students in Russia  at 5000 is miniscule compared to numbers in the West.

Putin: a Russian affair

The last India-Russia summit took place after the controversial Duma elections in Russia. Public criticism of Putin whose popularity was being taken for granted has caused surprise. The West and sections of the Russian middle class may want Putin to go.

India views Putin, who initiated a strong strategic partnership with India, very differently.  It does not share the West’s aversion to him; it has no interest in his discomfiture, nor any in interfering in Russian internal affairs. Putin again in the Kremlin is beneficial for India-Russia relations.

India has no geopolitical stakes in the ups and downs of the democratic process in Russia, which it views as a concern primarily of the Russian people.

Kanwal Sibal is former Foreign Secretary and former India’s Ambassador to Russia

Originally published at

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