Re-energize old ties between Russia and India

The University of Mumbai.

The University of Mumbai.

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Scholars and diplomats discussed political, strategic and economic relations between Russia and India at a conference at Mumbai University, and sought re-energising of relations between them through more social, cultural and information exchanges.

The University of Mumbai hosted an international conference on “The Rise of New Russia” to focus on the post Soviet Russia and how best to re-energize relations between Russia and India.

Organised by the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies headed by Professor Sanjay Deshpande and the Department of Civics and Politics, the two-day conference at the end of January gathered diplomats, businessmen and scholars of international relations, geopolitics and security who focus on studies of Russia and the post-Soviet space.

Among Russians who attended were diplomats from the Russian Consulate, Vladimir Dementiev, director of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Mumbai, Sergey Markedonov, assistant professor at the Regional Studies and Foreign Policy department of the Russian State University for Humanities, and industry experts.

A wide range of issues were discussed, from trade relations and cooperation in energy and defence to geopolitics, including Russia’s role in the West Asian crisis and developments in Ukraine, as well as social and cultural exchanges between Russia and India.

Russia’s role in the emerging world order, its exercise of hard power in Georgia in 2008 and recently in Ukraine, its engagement in Central Asia and the on-going intervention in Syria were debated widely. The academicians focused on Russia’s strategic aspirations to re-emerge as a global force to reckon with and its emerging strategic capabilities, defence technologies and military reforms reflecting Russia’s super power aspirations.

While many scholars believe Russia should and will play a major role in West Asia, M. D. Nalapat, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, told RIR that the intervention in Syria has also been a “good showcase for Russian weapons”.

Economic cooperation

The conference addressed the current state of economic, political and cultural cooperation between Russia and India. Representatives of industries including pharmaceuticals, diamond manufacturing and logistics highlighted trade perspective and barriers that impact the desired growth of bilateral trade.

“Leaders of our countries believe in diversifying trade relations, increasing the share of hi-tech projects in bilateral trade,” Sergey Lunev, Russian Trade Representative in India.  “Both sides recognise that bilateral trade hasn’t reached the potential that both our economies have”.

Indian scholars remain positive of Russia’s political and economic evolution after the fall of the Soviet Union, despite acknowledging serious economies problems that Russia is facing over the past two years because of both internal structural problems and geopolitical factors.

Arvind Kumar, Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University believes the future of relations between Russia and India will depend on their larger economic interest. Geopolitical issues should remain separate from bilateral cooperation, from the questions of strategic and economic interests, and it is important for India to find ways to work with major powers where India’s interest remains paramount.

“On the economic side, on energy security, Russia and India have lots of things to do together. Geopolitical questions like ISIS, Russia’s position with Syria, Turkey, the Gulf countries, there are issues where India has to calibrate its strategy in understanding the complexities emerging from Russia’s policy. And fit into an environment where India’s interest is protected,” Kumar said.

Ashok Sajjanhar, former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, said although there was a feeling that relations between India and its “time-tested friend” Russia had been neglected, the latest visit of Narendra Modi to Russia, as well as India’s participation in the BRICS ad SCO summits last year, reaffirmed that the counties are going to continue close cooperation in defence, hydrocarbons, nuclear energy and other key areas.

A new view

The positive atmosphere of the conference suggested the longstanding bond between Russian and India has not grown weaker, but some analysts pointed out that many Indians see modern Russia is often seen through the lens of the Soviet era. This could obstruct adequate understanding of Russia’s current development vectors and assessment of the challenges it is facing.

“Among many countries I have been visiting, India remains probably the only one where Russia, and the Soviet Union, are praised so much. However, some Indian scholars tend to idealize the Soviet system while Russians themselves are criticising the effectiveness of that system and the costs of the Soviet experiment,” Markedonov pointed out.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, head, Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, who has been special aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, believes no relationship can sustain or grow on the basis of an old relationship. “It has to be re-energized in new circumstances,” he said. “Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union the world has changed, and Russia itself has changed in a very dramatic way”, he said. “We have to take these new realities into account when we think of that age old relationship. Russia, both during Soviet time and now, has been a reliable, time-tested friend of India,” he added.

Sajjanhar said, “We should view Russia as what it is today rather than what is was before. Both in India and Russia, we should refrain from romanticizing thoughts and ideas of the communist past.” “Information and cultural exchanges between Russia and India are not as extensive as in the past, contributing to lack of understanding of current political, economic and social realities in Russia,” he added.

Kulkarni believes that the political class in Russia and India needs to converse more, which is not happening today. Exchanges between academics, universities, think-tanks, and even the mass media, have to be brought to a new level. “It is extremely important because Russia today, unfortunately, is not a part of mass consciousness in India”, Kulkarni said. “If Russia and India want to increase cooperation across fields, this has to change.”

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