The Prime Minister embarks on his first visit to Russia next week to attend the BRICS summit and a meeting of the SCO. A visit by an Indian dignitary to that country is fraught with symbolism, given the long and steadfast relationship that India enjoyed with Russia’s predecessor, the erstwhile Soviet Union. Notwithstanding India’s professed policy of non alignment, the Soviet stand of consistently backing India on various issues in international for a coupled with huge investments in our infrastructure, economy and defence had won for that country the reputation of being an all weather friend. This was proved to the world in August 1971 when the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed, amidst indications of the Sino American entente and war clouds over the Indian Subcontinent – probably the high water mark of the Indo-Soviet relationship.
…over the last two decades the newly formed Russian Federation’s ties with India did lose some momentum.
It needs to be accepted that over the last two decades the newly formed Russian Federation’s ties with India did lose some momentum. The break-up of the Soviet Union, developments in a fragmented Afghanistan, Western attempts to make inroads into the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the creeping Eastward expansion of NATO, requirements to rejuvenate the Russian economy including managing a suddenly fragmented defence manufacturing sector and ensuring markets for Russian oil and gas in Central and Western Europe through secure transit routes, forced Russia to reset its strategic calculus and search for new allies for securing its vital interests – even to the extent of annoying India by initiating dialogues with Pakistan and selling them military hardware, though more for economic reasons. Conversely, over the last 15 years, Russia has witnessed Indo-American relations passing through a completely different cycle, from the nadir of sanctions after the Pokaran nuclear tests, to moving forward in fits and starts towards a framework agreement – the ‘Strategic Partnership’ signed in July 2005, and onto the ‘Joint Strategic Vision Document’ signed by the two governments in January this year. Booming Indo-US trade, purchase of American military hardware, some transfer of high technology and the largest number of military exercises ever conducted by India with any foreign army are visible signs of this upward and expanding relationship.
With the unfolding of the Ukraine crisis with its wide ranging repercussions, Russia perceives itself to be in a state of siege. NATO is at its doorstep. Poland and part of the Balkan states are members, as are the erstwhile Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Georgia has been prevented from joining the West through armed intervention some years ago. With imposition of sanctions since early 2014, staging of NATO military exercises this year in Europe and recent talk of movement of US heavy military equipment to the Continent, Russia’s sense of isolation from the West is complete. The effect of falling oil prices, a receding economy and greatly reduced arms exports has further forced Russia to look at its neighbour China, with whom it inked important deals for sale of gas (May 2014) and construction of pipelines, all not on very favourable terms. A pending agreement to sell advanced Su-35 fighters, despite worries about reverse engineering, also awaits finalisation. Further economic cooperation between a mineral and resource rich Russia struggling with its economy and a China focussed on garnering new markets and resources appears inevitable, while prospects for defence cooperation have heightened. It is likely that there will be greater convergence between these two giants in future.
While trade with Russia will undoubtedly be the major focus of the Prime Minister’s visit, the other will be of realigning respective viewpoints on the current regional situation.
Notwithstanding the above, President Putin’s visit to India in December last was an attempt to rejuvenate mutual ties. Towards this end, progress has been made in certain sectors – defence manufacturing (specifically the Kamov deal and guarantees of availability of spares for in-service equipment), energy supplies, supply of nuclear reactors and minerals. Much however remains to be done. As per figures released by the Indian Embassy at Moscow, trade between the two countries is languishing at around $ 9.51 billion. In comparison, trade with Bangladesh for the same period was $ 6.6 billion (Economic Times, 24 June 2014). The figures speak for themselves. Private investments are low and the Russian economy is feeling the effect of the Ukraine sanctions. However, a significant takeaway from this visit was India’s assurance to Russia of its non interference over the Ukraine, and of not supporting any move by the West on this issue.
While trade with Russia will undoubtedly be the major focus of the Prime Minister’s visit, the other will be of realigning respective viewpoints on the current regional situation. Two statements would illustrate this issue – the Chinese ambassador to India, Le Yucheng, hasstated that “trilateral relations between India, China and the United States will contribute a lot to world peace and development.”( DNA India,13 December 2014. ), thereby alluding to a ‘India China and US triangle’. A few months later, the Russian press resurrected another idea on the eve of our Prime Minister’s visit to China, the ‘Russia China India Triangle’ ( Russia & India Reporter, 15 May 2015), a concept originally mooted in the early 2000s by the late Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov. Both statements while subject to multiple interpretations have two common factors, India and China. Deductions about the compulsions which forced these two statements from two different countries, are not difficult to make. The West is already doing its crystal gazing, with some alarm, as the contents of the latest book ‘The Russia China Axis: The New Cold War and America’s crisis of Leadership’ (Douglas Schoen and Melik Kaylan) indicate.
…there is a requirement to maintain the tempo of Indian military diplomacy in the region. A start was made by sending a marching contingent for Russia’s 70th Victory Day this year.
It is in this context that India has to perform some deft diplomacy at both the BRICS summit and the SCO meet. India is the declared pivot of the US Asia Policy, a rising power whose ties in all spheres (economic, military, educational, technological etc) with the USA are required to continuously expand, for mutual transactional benefit. At the same time, India remains firm against efforts to weaken regional stability, either indirectly or by design. The Western pressure on Iran to sign the nuclear agreement, military aid to Pakistan for ‘fighting terrorism’, stabilising Afghanistan, ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters and respect for each others territorial sovereignty are certain issues of concern to all. To retain its strategic autonomy, India will have to continue dialogues with like-minded regional partners, including Japan. However, demonstrating to Russia that India remains committed towards furthering the bilateral relationship despite constraints in its relationships with others, will provide the right balance. Pushing through important projects such as the India-Iran-Russia transport corridor (via Bandar Abbas and Astrakhan to Baku) which has been in cold storage for a while, reviewing the entire scope of defence manufacturing for land, sea and aerial weapon systems including inviting Russian corporations to ‘make in India’, and fast tracking execution of various agreements signed during President Putin’s visit to India in December 2014 are some options. Enhanced people to people interaction is another, which has paid rich dividends in the past. All efforts need to be made to ensure that the inherent potential in Indo-Russian relations is realised.
The Prime Minister’s itinerary includes visits to all five Central Asian Republics immediately in the aftermath of Moscow. Such a move provides India with the chance to comprehensively address all issues with constituents of the former Soviet Union in today’s developing environment. Last but not the least, there is a requirement to maintain the tempo of Indian military diplomacy in the region. A start was made by sending a marching contingent for Russia’s 70th Victory Day this year. Multilateral exercises with Russian, Chinese, Mongolian and Byelo-russian troops are on the anvil. As the next step, bilateral exercises with Russia could be worth considering.