Why Russia still matters
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 11 Dec , 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting India in the second week of December for what will be the 15th annual summit between the two countries. He is scheduled to address, during his stay at Delhi, a joint session of Parliament, a rare honour reserved for select foreign dignitaries. His visit assumes significance at a time when Russia is no longer fashionable in the Indian discourse on international relations and strategic affairs. Ever since the advent of the Modi government, one has heard a lot about the USA, China and Japan. Modi has talked about converting the “Look East Policy” to “Act East Policy”. But the new Indian Prime Minister has not said anything substantially on Russia, India’s only “all weather friend” over the years.

…in the field of economics, while China, Japan , Australia and the United States are talking of investing scores of billions of dollars in Indian economy, India and Russia have not even able to reach  the target of US $ 15 bn bilateral trade.

It may be noted that the annual India-Russia summits are held alternatively in India and Russia, thanks to the declaration of “the India Russia Strategic Partnership”, signed in October 2000. It was the brainchild of none other than Putin, who sincerely tried to restore the traditional warmth and vibrancy to the bilateral relationship that was lost during Yeltsin’s Presidency.  Even from India’s viewpoint, there have been some serious issues with Russia. All this, in turn, is probably due to the relative decline of Russian power – falling demographic indicators, excessive dependence on petroleum and military products to revive the economy, and unreasonable often uncompromising Western expansion in the Russian periphery – at a time when a rising India is diversifying its global needs.

That explains why in the field of economics, while China, Japan , Australia and the United States are talking of investing scores of billions of dollars in Indian economy, India and Russia have not even able to reach  the target of US $ 15 bn bilateral trade.  Official statistics suggest that India-Russia bilateral trade in 2013 stood at US$ 10.01 bn, out of which India’s exports to Russia stood at US$ 3.1 bn (an increase of 1.7% over 2012) and India’s imports amounted to US$ 7 bn (showing decrease of 14% over 2012). Indian investments in Russia are estimated to be US$ 7 bn, bulk of which is in the energy sector, while Russian investments in India are estimated to be of the order of meagre US$ 3 bn, primarily in the telecommunications sector. The main problem in the economic sphere, it seems, is that two countries have not yet come to terms with the new situation where private players and organisations are dominating the economic contours and where they have to deal with each other directly without governmental interventions.

But then, there is now a great scope for improvements on this score. As Russia is under Western sanctions because of its actions against Ukraine, India can raise a demand for its products in the Russian markets. India can easily take advantages by filling the vacuum created by the banned Russian imports from Europe such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and dairy products. Besides, there are now suggestions to replace the dollar and the euro with the rupee and ruble for trade between the two countries. Russia and China, one is told, have already started their mutual trading through ruble and yuan.  There is also the other suggestion that India and Russia should conclude a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the form of an agreement between India and Eurasian Customs Union of which Russia is a part (along with Kazakhstan & Belarus).

India has invested heavily in Russia’s hydrocarbon sector. One of India’s most significant overseas investments (2.8 billion dollars) has been in Sakhalin – I (Siberia) for extracting oil.

Similarly, India and Russia are in talks to construct what is called the daddy of all pipelines that will transport gas from Russia across the Himalayas via China to India. At a projected cost $30 billion – the world’s most expensive – the pipeline will, when constructed, enable Russia to sell its energy to Asia by lessening its dependence on the Western markets. And, both China and India, among the world’s largest energy consumers, will love to have the Russian energy by reducing their dependence on the highly volatile Middle East. But question remains about the technical feasibility as well as the security of the proposed pipeline, which has to pass through Pakistan, which incidentally, has already mocked at the very idea.

India has invested heavily in Russia’s hydrocarbon sector. One of India’s most significant overseas investments (2.8 billion dollars) has been in Sakhalin – I (Siberia) for extracting oil. But this is not all. India has also invested more in that region through ONGC Videsh Limited – 2.1 billion dollars was the investment for buying a British company called Imperial Energy in the Tomsk region in Siberia. India has been discussing with the Russian side on several more investments where ONGC Videsh Limited is willing to go along with Russian oil and gas majors like Gazprom and Rosneft to invest in different regions of Siberia and even North Russia. In Siberia the regions are Sakhalin-III and there is a region on Timan Pechora, as also there is an interest on the Indian side in the Yamal peninsula, which is a gas-rich area in Northern Russia.

As regards the military cooperation between the two, Russia provides India around 70 percent of its defence needs. And importantly, the defence cooperation is not exactly restricted to a buyer-seller relationship; it includes now joint design, research and development, joint production, training, and service-to-service contacts. Russia is always prepared to share its most sensitive and newest developments in technology to India that the United States and other Western nations have been reticent to do. Brahmos missile system is a shining example of this type of collaboration. Presently, several similar joint development projects in areas of cutting edge and frontier technologies are being pursued, the most important being the joint development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft(FGFA).

Russia is supplying advanced weapon platforms to China in a move that may have implications for India. – Su 35 fighter planes and Amur- 1650 submarines.

However, there have been some distinct irritants in the military sphere, of late. It was an unstated agreement that that Russia would not be providing China (or for that matter Pakistan) the same weapon systems it supplies to India, particularly so with regard to the offensive weapons. But Russia is not limiting itself to this understanding anymore. Russia is supplying advanced weapon platforms to China in a move that may have implications for India. – Su 35 fighter planes and Amur- 1650 submarines. Similarly, last month agreed to supply Mi-35 fighter helicopters to Pakistan.

Of course, Russia has its own grievances against India. After all, India no longer considers Russia to be a great market, given the comparatively poor technology associated with its weapons. Even in military sales, the Russian attitude in going against the signed agreement on Admiral Gorshkov aircraft (India has rechristened it as Vikramaditya) carrier with regard to money and delivery schedule has not been exactly helpful.  Besides, India is finding that that Russia is proving to be non-cooperative and nontransparent in developing the FGFA, where India has equally invested US $ 295 million for the preliminary designs. All this explains why India has diversified its defence-markers and how the US has overtaken Russia as the biggest supplier of military equipment to India in the past three years, much to Moscow’s chagrin.

However, despite all the hiccups, Russia, in my considered view, will continue to remain India’s most valued ally for many more years to come. Because as strategic partners, India and Russia share the same global outlook that the existing architecture of global security, including its mechanisms based on international law, does not ensure the equal security of all nations. The fundamental reality is that though Russia may have lost its position as a super power in Cold War equations, it is still a big power if one goes by any possible definition of the elements that constitute power. It is huge and possesses the largest landmass of the earth as a single country.  It strategically abuts on Central Asia, China and Iran, an area of political, security and economic interests to India. Russia is endowed with enormous natural resources, technological capacities and trade potential. It still is the most important military power in the world after the United States. Most significantly, Russia, perhaps, gives a higher priority to India in its foreign policy and strategic calculations than the United States or other power centres of the world, their acknowledgment of India’s rising importance notwithstanding.

…it is Russia, which has provided the most vocal support for India becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

All told, Russia never hesitates to transfer its most sophisticated technology to India. It is Russia, which gives its nuclear submarines on lease to India. It is Russia, which has unhesitatingly cooperated with India in its march towards becoming a major space power. It is Russia, which has unhesitatingly established nuclear power stations in India, something that cannot be said of the United States even after the conclusion of civilian nuclear deal. And it is Russia, which has provided the most vocal support for India becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Of course, in today’s world nothing is free and Russia has its own reasons to ensure that India remains its close ally as well. Russia, of late, might have increased its ties manifold with China, India’s principal strategic competitor. But then the fact remains that Russia needs India as much as it needs China. Likewise, India might have improved its equations with the United States, of late. But then the fact also remains that India needs Russia as much as it needs the United States.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Prakash Nanda

is a journalist and editorial consultant for Indian Defence Review. He is also the author of “Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy.”

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7 thoughts on “Why Russia still matters

  1. By any yardstick Russia is slipping away into a third rate power with enormous capacity to blow up the world. It is high time that the Nehruvian socialist doctrine of staying in bed with Russia is trashed. The Congress fiefdom demise in the recent elections has awakened India to exciting possibilities. We see clearly now that the blind faith in socialism is what brought the 60 years of impoverishment in India. The biggest communist-socialist China outsmarted the world by making capitalism their hallmark. It is estimated that nearly 7 trillion dollars wealth transfer has occurred from the West to China during the last thirty years. It has become number one economic power and in position to threaten its neighbors. Indian planners need to take heed of these development while there is still time. The wolves, meaning enemies of India, are knocking on the doors. Indian foreign policy need to be India Centric, not “ism” or “party politics”. Indian policy tenets must rest upon the fundamentals of democracy and capitalism. It is fair to assume that Russia and China will fall into a hegemony by default with Russia becoming a client state. Any dependence on this nation for India’s future security will be a mortal mistake. Due to the geo-political environment stirred up by China’s aggressive posturing, and the spread of Islamic extremism, the democratic nations have a common cause. US, Japan, Australia and the Western Europe are the ones needed for partnering with for a better tomorrow. Now is the time for India to take the bold steps.

  2. Further to my previous post, it is worth my while to point out a very pertinent point made by the former diplomat (and once the Indian ambassador in Russia) M K Bhadrakumar which I came across as:
    ” There was a time when Washington used to pressure the government of Boris Yeltsin not to give cryogenic engines to India as that might enable India to take a leap forward in its space technology. Now the US wants India not to engage with Russia”

    This demolishes the final view expressed in this column:
    “But then the fact also remains that India needs Russia as much as it needs the United States.”
    In sum, this column deserves to be trashed by right thinking people.

  3. “After all, India no longer considers Russia …, given the comparatively poor technology associated with its weapons” –
    Gee, how does one conclude that ?
    “Russia is supplying advanced weapon platforms to China in a move that may have implications for India. – Su 35 fighter planes and Amur- 1650 submarines.” –
    “Platform” is one thing, but the “weapons system” for it is an entirely different matter. By the “weapon system” I mean, e.g. for fighter-interceptors (platform) the radars, the on board missiles … and so on. One must make a fundamental distinction here. With an inferior weapon system, the platform however sophisticated is useless in the battle field. And there is crux of the problem.
    It will be military secret, but I would think, the weapons system Russians pass on to India are far superior in technological and lethal terms to what China gets. Apart from that information being military secret, there is the scientific technological capability. At present, and it will remain so for the next decade, scientific-technological knowledgebase and expertise of India in radars and related field (e.g. imagery) is far more advanced than that of China. I found there are several other blemishes in the article relating to military technology that have crept into this article.
    And as for the Aircraft carrier (Vikramaditya), has the journalist done his homework in costing ? How much did India finally pay to Russia, and what India would have paid to any western nation (Britain or France) if India wanted to buy a similar aircraft carrier from them? I am afraid the cost would have escalated three times to buy from the West. And for delay, how much delay has gone for buying French Rafale?

  4. Russia matters, hardly. The two most important reasons are: First, it is a totalitarian society operating on the whims and wishes of a handful of military generals and KGB. It’s policies and behavior towards India can change without warning. Example, they are now hawking their most advanced military equipment to the two nations who are considered mortal enemies of India simply because India is currently engaged in weapons contract negotiations with the West. Second, Russia is rapidly moving into the category of a failed state economically with enormous military implications. A military takeover, civil war or further breakup is not out realm of possibilities. Based on the past performance of Russia in context of aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and other purchases, India needs a better partner. There is more downside to hitching defense relationship with Russia than upside.

  5. Guns aside, what else Russia can offer to India. Trade at $10 billion is peanuts. All Russian help is highly appreciated and is fully paid for. The main issue is what else we should build our relationship on. There is nothing Russia makes, which India can buy in bulk. There is nothing Russia wants to buy from India. They never even try. Lasting relationships are built on trade, finance, culture and mutual appreciation. There is nothing there for each other to stand on.

    Even in the matter of guns trade; that Vikramaditya price escalation and delay. Too much argument took place to add a silly air conditioner to T-90 tanks; Russians insisted on their intellectual property rights even if you touch one bolt of the T90 tank to add an air conditioner. Even now why is there a delay to supply spare parts when these are all paid for in advance.

    Guns trade is not enough; we have find something else. That oil and gas pipeline will never be built. Pakistanis are there to sabotage it.

    Hence it is difficult to build a lasting relationship, if other than guns there is nothing else.

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