Bilateral ties with Russia are a key pillar of India’s foreign policy. The same is true for Russia as far as its relations with India are concerned. Ties in all spheres including political, strategic, defence, energy, science and technology, space and commerce have expanded with time.
The last decade and a half has witnessed remarkable strengthening of relations between India and USA across a range of areas including political, strategic, defence, energy and others. The same period has seen a significant decline in relations between Russia and the US especially through imposition of far-reaching sanctions since last year over the Ukraine crisis.
This coupled with the rapid decline in international energy prices, export of which is one of the largest components of foreign exchange earnings by Russia, has pushed it into a close relationship with China. Unanticipated fallout of these developments is that China has emerged as the stronger and Russia the subordinate partner in this relationship.
Testing Times for Bilateral Ties
In substantive terms, relations between India and Russia have also lost some of their sheen as Russia considers its position as the exclusive supplier of defence equipment has been compromised with minimal fresh orders coming its way. It is upset that its position of primacy in defence supplies has been usurped by the United States.
The above has been accompanied by Russia reaching out to Pakistan. This is related to the imperative of Russia to expand exports of its defence equipment to support its huge military-industrial complex.
These developments have raised concerns whether relations between India and Russia are on a decline, notwithstanding the epithet of ‘’special and privileged strategic partnership’’ used to define this alliance.
It is inconceivable for Russia and China to be strategic partners. There are limited areas of convergence between the two countries notwithstanding the highly hyped multi-billion dollar deal for supply of gas or supply of sophisticated arms and equipment to China. Both internationally and regionally, in the medium and long term, Russia and China will continue to be strategic competitors and adversaries.
As with China, there is little meeting ground between strategic interests of Russia and Pakistan. This is particularly evident in the rapid developments in Afghanistan. Taliban attacks on Afghan assets and people are growing in frequency and intensity. This assists the rise of regional terrorist groups. This makes the situation dangerous for Russia as it is the guarantor of security in the Central Asian region.
It is in common interest of Russia and India to have a regional approach with involvement of countries including Iran, China and Central Asia to find a long term solution to the Afghan problem. The process has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned and should not, as has happened over the past months, be held under the patronage of Pakistan under the benign supervision of the US and China.
Reigniting India-Russia Partnership
The bedrock of India Russian partnership has been energy (oil, nuclear energy) and supply of defence equipment. More than 60% of India’s defence arsenal is comprised of supplies from Russia. There is immense untapped potential to further expand cooperation in these areas. In the field of defense, the relationship needs to evolve rapidly from a buyer-supplier partnership to one of technology transfer and joint production. This has already started happening but it needs to be given a strong impetus.
Both India and Russia have identical positions on most regional and international issues. They are strategic allies and partners in the true sense of the word.
Trade between our two countries has been the weakest point of the relationship. It is imperative for the Indian private sector to actively engage itself with strengthening economic and commercial ties. Joint ventures for manufacture of drugs and pharmaceuticals need to be established expeditiously. Information deficit about opportunities available in the two countries needs to be reduced on a priority basis.
India was invited to become a Member of the Eurasian Economic Union during the visit of PM Manmohan Singh to Astana in April, 2011. Not much work has been done on this proposal so far. A working group was established recently to examine the pros and cons of India’s membership. The group will submit its report within a year. Prima facie it appears mutually beneficial for India as well as members of this entity including Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia to integrate their economies and develop greater complementarity. This will contribute to containing the growing economic influence of China in Central Asia.
India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was finalised at the Ufa Summit in July, 2015. This will help India and Russia to coordinate their positions, particularly to strengthen collaboration in the Central Asian Region and restrain the growing presence of China.
Cooperation between different States of India and different Regions of Russia presents a bright opportunity to maximise advantages of their expanding economic partnership. Notwithstanding the current uncertain times, the future looks bright for India-Russian partnership.
(The writer is a former Secretary, National Foundation for Communal Harmony. He was formerly Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia)