The backdrop to the annual India-Russia summit in Goa on Saturday is an acrimonious East-West standoff, a strengthening Russia-China axis, Russia’s perceived dalliance with Pakistan and India’s broadening engagement with the United States. A recurrent narrative in India is that the warm India-Russia friendship is eroding.
While discarding romanticised versions of history, we shouldn’t forget significant historical facts that are still relevant. The Soviet Union’s contribution to building newly-independent India’s industrial base and military strength is such a fact, as also the USSR’s six vetoes in the UN Security Council on matters of core interest to India — in 1957 and 1962 on Jammu and Kashmir, in 1961 on the Indian troop withdrawal from Goa and thrice in December 1971 during the India-Pakistan war.
Though obviously not of that magnitude, it was helpful for India that Russia, as UNSC president in October, asserted J&K wouldn’t be on the Council’s agenda. Back in 2002, when India was under rising pressure to terminate Operation Parakram and defuse India-Pakistan tensions, there were periodic murmurs about possible UNSC action to reinforce the pressure. In addition to deft diplomacy by India, Russian support discouraged those moves.
Today, about 70 per cent of the weapons and equipment with our armed forces are of Russian origin. Their maintenance, overhaul and upgradation will remain an inescapable part of India-Russia defence cooperation. “Make in India” offers a new template for this collaboration. New solutions are also being found to old issues of timely supplies and transparent pricing of spares and components of Russian defence platforms.
India now seeks the best available defence equipment from around the world, but this is a gradual process. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) statistics show 70 per cent of India’s arms imports in 2011-15 were from Russia; the US being next with 14 per cent. Sipri concludes that “based on existing orders and weapons, Russia will remain, by a significant distance, the main supplier of major arms to India in the foreseeable future”.
Collaboration on modern technologies is evident in the BrahMos missile systems being developed and deployed on platforms of all three services. Joint development of the “fifth generation” fighter with “stealth” tech will be a qualitatively higher level of collaboration. Among the few countries developing such aircraft today, only Russia offers the possibility for India to join in their development and manufacture. The project will strengthen both the Air Force’s fleet and the country’s technological capacity.
The second 1,000 MW unit of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant will soon produce full power. Ten more units are in the pipeline. Russia is the only country involved in nuclear power production in India. Others still agonise on the financial and legal implications of our liability legislation.
The effort to strengthen the trade and investment pillar of the India-Russia partnership has intensified in recent years. In the past year, our hydrocarbon companies have proactively exploited attractive investment opportunities in Russia. An economic cooperation agreement under negotiation between India and the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) would benefit India-Russia trade. But the real gamechanger would be the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multi-modal route from India to Russia via Iran, that would make exports much more competitive because of 40 per cent lower freight costs and container transit times.
Even the closest bilateral relationships have challenges. Russia’s expanding defence cooperation with Pakistan has received much publicity, exacerbated by the recent joint military drills.
The intensification of Russia-China ties, including in defence, is of concern to India, specially (but not only) due to China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan. Russia too is concerned about the impact on India-Russia defence cooperation of the recent India-US Logistics Exchange Agreement (LEMOA).
Each side has its perspective on these developments. Russia’s tighter embrace of China was a political and economic necessity in the face of Western efforts, post-Crimean “accession”, to internationally isolate it and impose sanctions. At least part of the Russian explanation for its Pakistan initiatives is the concern that the Taliban domination of northern Afghanistan might facilitate the flow of terrorists and drugs into Russia through the porous Afghan-Central Asia borders.
It is this broad canvas that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss in Goa — of intensifying collaboration and new cooperation horizons, as well as some mutual concerns.
The strength of bilateral relationships is not in the absence of wrinkles, but in their capacity to iron them out to mutual satisfaction.
It needs acceptance that countries act in their national interest in response to developing situations. A frank dialogue would seek, not to restrict the third-country engagement of either partner, but to obtain the assurance that such engagement would be sensitive to the core concerns of the other partner. This understanding is possible with Russia due to the range and depth of our existing and potential cooperation, and a congruence of geopolitical outlook.
Geography is an important determinant of India-Russia ties. India and Russia share borders with an increasingly assertive neighbour. Political and economic compulsions influence each of their relationships with China; but each also has a longer-term strategic perspective. Similarly, India and Russia share the extended neighbourhood of Northwest, Central and West Asia, in which many of our perspectives coincide.
Geopolitics inspires alignments along multiple axes. Emotional hand-wringing that our “best friend” is now hobnobbing with our “enemy” is pointless. A hardheaded foreign policy should eschew all emotion.
The writer is a former ambassador to Russia. The views expressed here are personal.