This month marks the twenty-five years since the end of cold war way back in 1991 when USSR, one of the two superpowers in the international system, dissolved into fifteen new independent republics. This is considered as a landmark point in world history as US became the sole superpower in the international system, a ‘hegemon’ as argued by many scholars. Meanwhile, the erstwhile USSR was succeeded by a weaker Russian federation which was smaller in size, weaker in strength and fragile economically.
After 1991, India and Russia moved away in different directions in terms of their economic growth.
This changed the equation of alliances in the world system as countries which were earlier dependent on USSR as an ally could no longer do so as Russia lacked the capability of providing that support system which USSR used to provide. India as a long-time ally of USSR faced the same situation during this period as the other allies of USSR were facing. Since independence, if there was one country which India looked up to at the times of need, it was USSR which many referred as India’s 24×7 friend. Now, India found itself on its own in the fast changing dynamics internationally.
After 1991, India and Russia moved away in different directions in terms of their economic growth. While Russia was facing extreme economic turmoil under the newly elected Yeltsin regime, India for the first time since independence was witnessing a rapid economic boom as India had opened its doors to the world market, or as critiques argue, India was forced to open its doors for the world market by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in the wake of its balance of payments crisis.
As a result, India saw the big-bang LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) reforms in 1991. One should remember that it was the same year when the cold war ended and USSR dissolved. So, two parallel phenomenon were taking place simultaneously in the context of Indo-Russia relations. India not only moved from the old ‘socialist structures’ and ‘License Permit Quota Raj’ to the embrace of ‘liberal-capitalist’ structures, but this move was also seen in India’s shift from Russia and its drift towards US, which consisted of both economic and strategic ties.
India relations with Russia continued to slump year after year, though there was no dearth of defence and strategic engagements between the two countries at the level of governments.
India relations with Russia continued to slump year after year, though there was no dearth of defence and strategic engagements between the two countries at the level of governments. The dearth was in the people to people contacts which India used to share with the Soviet Union once. Now, the entire emphasis shifted to rebuild and redefine India’s relations with Russia and also the fifteen new republics that came out of USSR.
This is because the nature and character of Russian state was significantly different from its predecessor USSR which was visible in the economic turmoil of Russia just after independence. As a result, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for the first time visited India in 1993, the two countries signed agreements that signalled a new emphasis on economic cooperation in bilateral relations. As per India’s former Diplomat Muchkund Dubey, “This visit was partly intended to restore the balance in the Russian foreign policy, which had drifted too far away from Asia towards Europe and it laid the foundation for a new relationship with India. During the visit, the problem of ensuring uninterrupted and assured supply of spare parts and equipment for the Armed Forces of India was seriously addressed and the commitment to keep up the flow of supplies was reiterated”.
Indian PM Narismha Rao reciprocated Yeltsin’s visit in 1994 and the focus of the visit was on bilateral goodwill and continuation of Russian arms and military equipment exports to India. The entire decade of 1990s saw the Indian economy booming with an unprecedented GDP growth while Russia’s financial crisis continued till 1998 when the country was hit by Rouble crisis leading to its devaluation.
1998 was the same year when India conducted the nuclear test at Pokharan and declared itself as a nuclear power. US and its allies like Japan and Canada put economic sanctions on India but Russia made it clear from the very outset, in contrast to the US policy that it was opposed to imposing sanctions against India. Though, in its official response to India’s nuclear tests, issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed “alarm and concern” and “very deep regret in Russia” over the Indian action. The statement urged India to reverse its nuclear policy and sign the NPT and CTBT.
Putin in his official statement supported India’s contention on Kashmir as he said that India was as much a victim of terrorism in Kashmir as Russia was in Chechnya.
The year 1998 can also be seen as the start of another phase of Indo-Russia relations as this was the year when India saw a non-congress party, BJP, forming a majority government at the centre. Though, the foreign policy of a country doesn’t change drastically with the change of political parties at the helm of affairs at the domestic level but still domestic constituencies play a very important role in diplomatic engagements as explained by international relations scholar Robert D Putnam in his two level game theory.
Around the same time, Russia saw the rise of Vladimir Putin whose stature since then has risen to a cult status. When Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned from Presidency in 1999, Putin took over as the acting president first and later in 2000 got his first presidential term. It was then when Putin first visited India in October 2000. It was the first visit by a Russian president in nearly eight years which resulted in a series of 17 agreements on economic, nuclear energy, defence and strategic arrangements and the signing of Strategic Partnership Pact
Putin in his official statement supported India’s contention on Kashmir as he said that India was as much a victim of terrorism in Kashmir as Russia was in Chechnya. Both Putin and Vajpayee who was the then Indian Prime Minister shared a strong position on Islamic Fundamentalism. This was before the time when terrorism was seen a global threat as 9/11 was yet to happen. When Vajpayee visited Moscow in November 2001, he reiterated the point that there are ‘no good or bad terrorists’ and signed the Moscow Declaration. The opening paragraph of the declaration said that “India and the Russian Federation affirm that international terrorism is a threat to peace and security, a grave violation of human rights and a crime against humanity. The struggle against international terrorism has become one of the priority tasks of the world community. This evil can be vanquished only by combining the efforts of all States”.
Russia overtly and covertly supported India many a times on the issues of Kashmir and cross border terrorism from Pakistan.
This mutual trust and bonhomie between India and Russia continued till the end of Vajpayee’s regime in 2004. Russia overtly and covertly supported India many a times on the issues of Kashmir and cross border terrorism from Pakistan. After 2004, things started to take another turn in the context of Indo-Russia relations when a new government came into power in India under Dr. Manmohan Singh replacing the Vajpayee regime.
The next few years were marked by India itching to sign the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. In July 2005, the deal was signed under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and, in exchange, the United States agreed to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with India.
International relations observers and scholars saw this deal as India’s tilt towards US which had implications on the equation between India and Russia. As per Ashok Sajjanhar, who was India’s Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, “Some major issues of dissonance appeared between the two countries. The first concerned the rapidly expanding ties between India and USA, which started with the U.S congress giving final approval to the India-US nuclear deal in October, 2008. The second concerned the growing defence relationship between India and USA. India has so far been heavily dependent on Russian armaments with more than 70 per cent of its weapons being sourced from Russia. Although in absolute terms Russia is still the largest supplier of defence equipment to India, its share in overall imports has progressively declined”.