Should Russia worry about Modi's U.S. visit?

Barack Obama shakes hands with Narendra Modi on Sept. 30, 2014, in the Oval Office  of the White House in Washington. Source: AP

Barack Obama shakes hands with Narendra Modi on Sept. 30, 2014, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Source: AP

Although the relationship between India and the United States should be viewed indifferently by Russia, Moscow still needs to pay attention in order to learn from and not repeat mistakes made by New Delhi and Washington.

Does the Russian Government need to worry about the just-concluded visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States? This is not an easy question to answer, it seems. At first glance, the development of relations between India and the United States applies only to those two countries. Modi, as the leader of an independent and influential state, is free to make visits, meet with foreign politicians, and agree on India’s cooperation with other countries on the basis of national interests. Interests of partners may be considered, but they will always remain secondary.

In Russia, however, not all agree. As columnist Dmitry Kosyrev wrote,“The main question many Russians are asking is with whom does India stand? The United States or Russia?” Although, it’s true that at the same time he observed that this question does not make sense.

The Russian press also fervently responded to the news that Russia ceded its place to the US as the main arms supplier to India. In response to the development of Indo-US military cooperation, some hotheads suggested “compensating for their losses in India through the traditional American weapons market,” including Pakistan.

If we follow this logic, any attempt by India to develop relations with the United States is a threat to Russian interests in India, and any contract made by an American company in India is a blow to Russian business.

Both the proposed positions are extreme points of view. The truth must lie somewhere in between. Without a doubt, India will develop its foreign policy in accordance with its own national interests. Narendra Modi and Barack Obama will engage in bilateral relations according to the needs of the two countries. In general, India-America relations should be viewed indifferently by Russia.

Reacting with bitterness to any project agreed on by India and the United States would not only be a waste of time and resources for Russia, but it also the best way to ruin relations with India. Any attempts to take revenge on India for a particular contract they have with the United States would cause even greater harm to Russian-Indian relations. Recent history has shown that in the power structures of Russia there are those who, in response to a loss on the Indian market, have seriously considered the possibility of folding or freezing cooperation with India in some areas and increased efforts in the Pakistani direction.

Although the relationship between India and the United States should be viewed indifferently by Russia, Moscow needs to pay attention in order to learn from and not repeat mistakes made by New Delhi and Washington. The just-concluded visit of Narendra Modi to the United States provides fertile ground for thought.

One of the greatest strengths of Indo-US relations are the strong ties between the people of the two countries. To hold meetings on the streets of Moscow with the Prime Minister of India, similar to the ones that have taken place in New York or Washington, would be very difficult. Compared to the United States, Russia remains less attractive for travellers on business, students, and tourists from India. The number of Indians that have taken root in Russian soil is small. There are even less Russians in India.

Historical reasons, the language barrier, and climatic conditions often come in the way of greater interaction between Indians and Russians. However, there are other, often neglected problems. These include the passive stances taking by governments in Russia (mostly) and India (to a lesser extent) in supporting the attempts of small and medium enterprises to develop business relations between the two countries and the efforts of scientific communities of Russia and India to establish contacts with each other. I recall some examples of Russian companies opposing the entry of Indian players in the Russian automotive market, for fear of losing their already precarious position, which was still lost in favour of Chinese and South Korean companies).

There is surprisingly, a lack of active research and student exchanges programmes between Russia and India. These exchanges, in fact, are limited to irregular trips by Russian Indologists to India and Indian Russianists here. Russian institutes and think tanks are clearly inferior in their India-related activities when compared to their American competitors. The Russian voice was almost not heard at all in India due to the fault of Russia itself.

The lack of a solid foundation in the relations between the people of India and Russia stop us from repeating the words “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go,” as they were used in the recent Indo-US Declaration.

The second thing that catches the eye about Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States is India’s zealous interest in promoting the participation of American companies in its industrial growth. It is not just about the sharing of investment and technology, but also the joint development of technology in both the civil and military fields.

Like the United States, Russia has long had a visible presence in the Indian market. In some areas, Russia has a much stronger position in India than the US – take, for example, the field of nuclear energy. Joint technology development is also not alien to the Russian-Indian cooperation. The BrahMos missile is a good example. Russia's position in India is strong, but it is strong in certain niches. Prospects for the development of the Russian-Indian cooperative stay within these niches.

If tomorrow Narendra Modi offers Russian companies active participation in the industrial growth of India, many of them wouldn’t be competitive compared to American or Chinese companies.

Even in those niches in the Indian market, where Russia today feels quite confident, tomorrow it may begin to lose contract after contract. The main reason would be not because of scheming by third parties but the politics of India itself. The September 25 launch by Narendra Modi of the “Make in India” global initiative is not just another campaign. It is a national strategy, which for many years will determine the development of India’s trade and economic relations with other countries. As part of this strategy, India will use these connections for the development of technologies and liberation from the need to import products. Moreover, India is committed to becoming a competitive exporter. To maintain or increase its level of cooperation with India, Russia cannot be limited to those niches where it now holds a strong position and to the technologies that form the basis of the Russian-Indian cooperation in the civil and military sectors.

Returning to the question posed above in the title, we can say that Russia should not worry about the visit of Narendra Modi to the United States. Moscow should worry about the existing weaknesses in Russian-Indian cooperation, which ultimately may lead to lowering of Russia’s value to India.

Petr Topychkanov is an associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program.