India and Russia are legatees of one of the most enduring partnerships of the modern era. Over the decades, the early breakthroughs were buttressed by close military cooperation, and deep economic engagement.
This relationship has continued unbroken since the 1955 visit of first Nehru, and then the return visit the same year of Khrushchev and Bulganin, when they also visited Srinagar, the capital of Jammu & Kashmir State. Over the decades since then, the early breakthroughs were buttressed by close military cooperation, and deep economic engagement. Underpinning all these was a simple, basic reality: there was no conflict of interest between the two countries. This remains true today.
The challenge to this relationship came with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990’s. The erstwhile Soviet economy, and its military industry, was practically in ruins, with no one in effective charge. The political and diplomatic underpinnings were in similar disarray, as the leaders of the new Russia were preoccupied with the upheavals within the country itself, as well as in the neighborhood, the former Soviet space, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
India was going through its own economic transformation, and this involved, of necessity, some re-orientation in its overall foreign policy. The most visible symbol of this was what was called “Look East”, and is now called “Act East”. In essence, it meant greater focus on the Asia-Pacific countries rather than the more traditional orientation towards Europe.
Inevitably, there was a hiatus in the relationship in the 1990’s, but this was corrected in 2000, when the newly elected President Putin came to India and the two countries signed the agreement on Strategic Partnership. Russia was among the very first of our strategic partners, and the logic of the engagement re-asserted itself as both the countries widened their range of foreign policy activity.
Beyond peradventure, the principal focus now is on the economic aspect of our ties. Given the history, and the imperatives of today, our trade and investment is comparatively small. Both are $2 trillion-plus GDP economies, and yet the trade turnover is still stagnant at around $10 billion; mutual investments are below $7 billion from India and a lower number from the Russian side.
This can change – and will change – once our energy cooperation picks up in right earnest. India will need large amounts of hydrocarbons and nuclear energy, and Russia is in a privileged position in both. This is particularly true of natural gas, where the early LNG trade has begun. Both countries need to be realistic about lines of supply though: the idea of a pipeline from Russia to India is not a serious one, and needs to be shelved. Swap arrangements offer greater promise.
From the Indian side, we would be in a good position to supply medicines, food products, and consumer goods that offer the best price-quality mix. Services are another area of Indian strength, and another promising sector for cooperation.
Defense cooperation between the two countries remains one of the most important facets of ties. However, this is not going as well as one would desire, and the result is that other suppliers have also moved into the Indian market. Nonetheless, Russia is supplying India with top-of-the-line equipment. We are witnessing the growing cooperation in joint designing and production of modern equipment. No wonder Prime Minister Modi stated publicly that Russia would remain our privileged partner in the military sphere. Hi-tech civilian and dual-use technology is an equally important part of our cooperation.
The fly in the ointment is the growing military tie-up between Russia and China, and more recently, with Pakistan. Of course, Russia is not the only country that supplies military weaponry to Pakistan, but it is the only country that supplies it to both China and Pakistan – and these two are the major sources of concern for Indian security.
Military exercises are an important way for countries to strengthen their ties. This is an area to which the political leaders of the two countries need to pay more attention. There was a time when officers of the Armed Forces of the two countries also attended courses in each other’s institutions, but this has also slowed to a trickle now.
None of this takes away from the common concerns facing the two countries. Afghanistan is one issue that India and Russia can work together on. Both have similar interests in seeing the country stabilize itself, and not to become a threat to the neighbouring regions. It is in the vital interest of both India and Russia - Iran too – that Afghanistan should not become a source of extremist ideology and drugs. With the advent of the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the threat has grown more acute.
There are two additional areas where India and Russia need to coordinate their approaches. The first is the question of connectivity. In a welcome move, Prime Minister Modi, during his recent visit to Central Asia and Ufa for the BRICS/SCO Summits, proposed reviving the International North-South Transport Corridor. Now that Iran will also be free from UN-imposed sanctions, this idea should be implemented in earnest. Modi also suggested Iranian territory for linking Central Asian Hydrocarbon reserves with the Indian market. India is already the fastest-growing major economy in the world, and its need for energy resources will grow rapidly. Both these proposals are worth implementing in short order.
The second new area of cooperation is in curbing the role of foreign money, and particularly of illicit funds transfers. Both our countries have suffered from these ills, and they are undermining in some cases the civilizational bases of our societies, as well as for funding terrorist activities. We have spoken about this, but not much has been done by way of practical measures.
A third area is in the diplomatic field: there was a time when Nehru worked actively to reduce East-West tensions, whether over Korea or South-East Asia. For good reasons, we gave up on this kind of activity post-Nehru. But it may be time now for India to seek to alleviate the current tensions between the US and Russia. Few countries are as well-placed to attempt this task, and it is in the interest of India first of all that there should be more predictable relations between the two sides.
Here is a full bill of fare for the two countries to work on. It is to be hoped that when the two leaders meet later this year for the Annual Summit in Russia, we shall see forward movement on all or at least some of them.