The long standing partnership, which New Delhi and Moscow have enjoyed since diplomatic relations were established in April 1947 have seen many ups and downs. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Indo-Russian relations have gone through some rough patches, with the relationship notably weakening during the 1990s. It is of significance however, that at a bilateral level, pragmatic considerations formed the basis of this relationship. While geopolitical realities and economic limitations did not allow the relationship to continue in the same way as it existed during the Soviet era, a sea change occurred after Vladimir Putin’s election as the head of the Russian state in 2000. President Putin became the architect of a new strategic partnership between India and Russia, bringing the two countries close to each other. These ties were further elevated to the level of Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership in December 2010. A fresh impetus and new direction was given to this relationship under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2014. A new milestone was achieved during the annual summit in Goa in October 2016 followed by President Putin’s visit to India in October 2018. During the last five years, various high level visits from both sides have given a new momentum to this unique partnership between the two countries. India–Russia strategic partnership has moved in the direction of greater cooperation in every respect but remained under the shadow of changing regional and global system, particularly in the light of the emerging Indo-US strategic partnership and increasing pre-eminence of China in the region.
Regional and Global Context
India-Russia relationship needs to be viewed in the context of new geopolitical and geo-economic shifts that are unfolding in the regional and global system. The current international order is characterised by the rapid shifting of global power to Asia, marked by, among other things, increasingly assertive role of China and its new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); the perceived shift in the US policy under the Trump’s Presidency; Brexit and its impact on the EU; Russia’s “pivot to Asia” policy; the growing Sino-Russian partnership in the light of the U.S sanctions on Russia; and growing new strategic partnership between India and the U.S. At the regional level, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the volatile cauldron of West Asian geopolitics characterised by the spread of the Islamic State (IS) ideology beyond the West Asian region, and the intense Shia-Sunni sectarian rivalry as well as intra-Sunni rivalry in the region are key developments. In addition, new energy scenario after the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration and its global impact (with increase in oil prices) has generated completely different scenarios, both economic and strategic, for many countries in Asia. Finally, the new policy decisions taken by President Trump have introduced greater uncertainties in the new global and regional order, which is still unfolding. These developments not only pose new challenges and threats, but also provide opportunities for India and Russia to engage with each other at bilateral and multilateral levels. Despite its diminished global heft, Russia retains the experience of great power diplomacy and a credible military arsenal to shape the international order and a strong Indo-Russia bilateral partnership continues to be relevant, given their shared strategic interests and concerns in maintaining security, tackling extremism and terrorism, and the increasing pre-eminence of China in the region.
New Dimension of India-Russia Cooperation under PM Modi: 2014-2019
Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin’s pledge to take the relationship to a new level, the current narrative on India-Russia relations has raised some issues questioning the changing nature of strategic partnership. While some pessimism exists on both sides about the bilateral relationship, the leadership in both the countries has worked towards enhancing this long standing special strategic partnership creating an optimism that India-Russia “diplomatic and political relationship still remains strong as ever”1 and “New Delhi and Moscow have been extraordinarily successful in fostering a friction-free relationship that harks back to the Soviet era”.2 More importantly, within India, there is a general consensus for sustaining and fostering of strong bilateral ties between New Delhi and Moscow. This view has been endorsed at the highest level in Moscow and New Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his 2017 speech called Russia “an abiding friend” and said, “…our trusted and strategic partnership…our investments in new drivers of our relationship and the emphasis on energy, trade, and S&T linkages are showing successful results”.3 Reiterating the importance of bilateral ties in his 2018 speech he noted “The change in the nature of this relationship to a Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership is an example of the similar aspirations and viewpoint of the two countries. Change is common phenomenon in the world. A lot has changed and is still changing, but the friendship between India and Russia has never changed”.4
Similar views were echoed by President Vladimir Putin on the eve of India’s 68th Republic Day. “Over the decades of independent development, India has achieved impressive success in economic, social, technical and other spheres. Special and Privileged strategic partnership with India is an invariable in Russia’s foreign policy”.5 The recent apprehensions and concerns of Russia’s shifting policy towards South Asia, characterised by growing engagement with Pakistan, should not be given undue weightage. Similarly, its new entente with China should be seen in the context of the U.S attempts to isolate Russia. Moscow still sees India as a key partner in its pivot towards Asia. According to Russia’s “Foreign Policy Concept” of 2016,6 Russia stands committed to further strengthening its special privileged partnership with India based on the convergence of foreign policy priorities, deep rooted historical friendship, and mutual trust with focus on implementing long-term programmes approved by the two countries to promote cooperation in trade and economy. More importantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been awarded the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle, the highest civilian award of the Russian Federation in April 2019, for his distinguished achievement in developing the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between the two countries. This is clear recognition of PM Modi’s new initiatives to not only boost the current engagement with its old partner Russia but to give a new direction to New Delhi’s policy approach towards Russia.
An analysis of the contemporary phase of the India-Russia engagement clearly highlights various attempts and efforts being taken by New Delhi and Moscow to elevate existing ties to new height. Despite some differences on regional issues, both countries still share a common position on global and regional issues. They remain engaged through many multilateral groupings like BRICS, G-20, SCO, RIC and others. Both India and Russia have now accepted the reality that the new pragmatic relationship, away from the old romanticism of the Indo-Soviet era, needs to be crafted. It is also true that despite many challenges, there is a great deal of potential in the two countries to take the relationship to the next level. Many Russia lovers feel, “…the best times for the Indo-Russian relationship are yet to come”.7 In this context, it is important to draw attention to some of the key elements of PM Modi’s new policy approach towards rebuilding Indo-Russian engagement that has evolved over last five years. These are mainly:
- The new mechanism of engagement was initiated by the leadership of India and Russia by informal summit in Sochi on May 21, 2018. A unique form of summit in “international diplomacy, reflecting the deep trust and confidence between Prime Minister Modi and President Putin, underlining the desire of both countries to maintain regular contacts and hold frequent consultations on issues of mutual interest”8as described in the joint statement during visit of President Putin to India on October 5, 2018. Both sides have agreed to continue this practice of informal meeting to reiterate their commitment to the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between the two countries. The Sochi Summit is a clear manifestation of growing desire on part of the top leadership in New Delhi and Moscow to keep the level of interaction going to cooperate and appreciate “each other’s respective roles as major powers with common responsibilities for maintaining global peace and stability”9
- Another significant feature of bilateral cooperation between the two countries got highlighted by new momentum of engagement between Indian States and Russian Regions – developing the sister city partnership. Efforts were directed at signing of agreements between Assam and Sakhalin, Haryana and Bashkortostan, Goa and Kaliningrad, Odisha and Irkutsk, and Visakhapatnam and Vladivostok.
- New push has been given to promote strong defence cooperation, with focus on joint collaboration under “Make in India” initiative as seen in the agreements on manufacturing of AK-203 7.62 mm assault rifles, Ka-226T Kamov helicopters, and frigates. Additionally, leasing of nuclear submarine and conclusion of the contract for the supply of the S-400 Long Range Surface to Air Missile System to India reflects such cooperation, the unique feature of which has been the transfer of technology by Russia.
- Both countries have also stepped up cooperation in science and technology, co-opting the fourth industrial revolution and engagement in cyber security. The High-Level Committee on Cooperation in High Technologies was set up in November 2017 that identified concrete projects in areas of mutual interest for joint research and development. Many new initiatives have been taken up to boost cooperation in this sector.
- Connectivity has been an important component of PM Modi’s foreign policy priority. Under this, greater push has been given to International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). India and Russia also witnessed new level of cooperation within the framework of the SCO after India was accepted as full member in the regional organisation.
- Active and robust engagement has been manifested in the energy sector. The programme of Cooperation in Oil and Gas Sector for the period 2017-18 and the MoU between Gazprom and Engineers India Limited on the joint study of a gas pipeline to India and other possible areas of cooperation were inked. A new landmark was achieved in 2016 in nuclear power cooperation when Prime Minister Modi and President Putin dedicated Kudankulam Unit-1 to India; the second unit will be put in operation soon. They also witnessed the commencement of the site work for Kudankulam Units 3 and 4.
Although economic ties between Russia and India are the most unsatisfactory part of an otherwise fruitful relations, this seems to be changing. With the aim of building an “Energy Bridge” between the two countries, many initiatives have been taken in the last three years. Now, the largest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India is by the Russian oil company, Rosneft. Major progress has also been made by Indian and Russian oil companies since the last summit with the Indian companies acquiring equity in “Taas-YuryakhNeftegazodobycha” and “Vankorneft” making it the largest equity oil acquisition till now by India. In 2016, Indian Oil, Oil India, and a unit of BPCL agreed to buy 29.9 percent in the Taas-Yuryakh oilfield in east Siberia for USD 1.3 billion. The consortium signed heads of agreement for taking a 24 percent stake in Vankor field, also in East Siberia for over USD 2 billion and paid another USD 180 million as its share of future Capex. ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of ONGC, signed an MoU to raise its total stake in Vankor to 26 percent by acquiring additional equity at a cost of USD 925 million. Russia-India energy cooperation got a further push with Rosneft taking a 49 percent stake in India’s Essar Oil Limited, as well as recent Indian moves into the East Siberian upstream sector. This deal amounts to a massive USD 5.5 billion.10
To facilitate mutual high-technology investments, both countries agreed for creation of bilateral investment fund by the National Infrastructure Investment Fund (NIIF) of India with Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). To boost economic cooperation, both countries called for the finalisation of investment proposals in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, the chemical industry, mining, machine building, and implementation of infrastructure projects, cooperation in the railway sector, in fertiliser production, automobiles and aircraft construction as well as collaborative ventures in modernising each other’s industrial facilities. The feasibility of a free trade agreement between India and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is being done by the Joint Study Group, which could impart added momentum to bilateral economic cooperation.
Prospects for Future Cooperation
Given the past experience and understanding between the leadership of two nations, prospects for cooperation in future are immense. Recently, in his speech, PM Modi suggested five areas11 where the relationship can be taken forward, these are: (a) Enhance further interaction and engagement between Indian states and Russian provinces; (b) Russia becoming a source of conventional energy for India and greater involvement of Russia in India’s “campaign of New and Renewable Energy”; (c) Given the ongoing cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, Russia can be joint partner in manufacturing sector in India as their relationship can now go beyond buyer–seller to joint manufacturer of things in India; (d) Grow old partnership in the defence sector to be transformed into joint producer under India’s new initiative of Make in India. Additionally, Moscow can open a dedicated Defence Industrial Park in India; (e) High prospects for Indian IT and Pharma companies to work in Russia.
Russia’s experience in many areas can be very useful for India’s start-ups particularly in the field of space, fertilisers, gems and jewellery and in the field of food processing. These are prospective areas of cooperation in future between India and Russia. Four focus areas of cooperation identified jointly by India and Russia include Energy, Digital Economy, Startup and Infrastructure.
While the challenges that confront the Indo-Russian ties remain present on the horizon, including their recent divergent foreign policy priorities, yet India considers Russia to be the most important partner in its social and economic progress. The trade between the two countries has increased greatly in the last two years. If we take trade figures of 2017-18, India’s trade with Russia has grown by 20 percent. Given the trust and comfort of working with each other and past experience, it is likely that India and Russia will remain a key vector in each other’s foreign policy priorities as endorsed by top leadership in Moscow and New Delhi. India’s former Ambassador to Russia has very aptly noted that, “the legacy of the past continues to have relevance for the present and future. The clouds in the relationship reflect differences in security perspectives; they can be dispersed with frank dialogue, resulting in policies which accommodate the core interests of both sides. It is therefore not appropriate to sound the death knell of the India-Russia “special and privileged strategic partnership”.12
(Dr. Meena Singh Roy is a Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.)
1 Ajay Kamalakaran, “Putting the ‘Hindi-Russibhai-bhai’ years into perspective”, 11 January 2017, at https://www.rbth.com/blogs/tatar_straits/2017/01/11/putting-the-hindi-russi-bhai-bhai-years-into-perspective_677623, accessed on 16 January 2017.
2 Harsh V. Pant , “India-Russia Ties and India’s Strategic Culture: Dominance of a Realist
Worldview”, India Review, vol. 12, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1–19.
3 Inaugural Address by Prime Minister at Second Raisina Dialogue, New Delhi, 17 January 2017, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/27948/Inaugural_Address_by_Prime_Minister_at_Second_ Raisina_Dialogue_New_Delhi_January_17_2017, accessed on 27 January 2017.
4 Prime Minister’s address at India-Russia Business Summit, October 5, 2018, at https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/30472/prime+ministers+address+at+india+russia+business+summit+october+05+2018
5 “Privileged strategic partnership with India important to Russia: Putin”, 26 January 2017 at
http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/privileged-strategic-partnership-with-india important-to-russia-putin/articleshow/56790490.cms?prtpage=1, accessed on 28 January 2017.
6 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, Approved by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putinon November 30, 2016, at http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248;#sel=163:2:Url,163:64:l33, Accessed on May 2, 2019
7 Meena Singh Roy, “The Trajectory of India-Russia Ties: High Expectations and Current Realities,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 11, No. 4, October–December 2016, pp. 322-331
8 India-Russia Joint Statement during visit of President of Russia to India ,October 05, 2018 , at https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/30469/IndiaRussia_Joint_Statement_during_visit_ of_President_of_Russia_to_India_October_05_2018
10 Viktor Katona, “Rosneft’s Indian romance”, 24 October 2016, at http://in.rbth.com/economics/ business/2016/10/24/rosnefts-indian-romance_641571, accessed on 22 January 2017; and Nilova Roy Chaudhary, “Russia-India relations in 2016: A review”, 28 December 2016, at http://in.rbth.com/economics/cooperation/2016/12/28/russia-india-relations-in-2016-areview_670298, accessed on 24 January 2017.
11 Prime Minister’s address at India- Russia Business Summit, October 05, 2018, at https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/30472prime+ministers+address+at+india+russia+business+summit+october+05+2018
12 P.S. Raghavan, “India-Russia Strategic Partnership – a Mutual Commitment”, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 11, No. 4, October–December 2016, pp 302.
(This article is carried in the print edition of May-June 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)