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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 51, December 5, 2009

India Needs a Stronger Partnership with Russia in the Emerging Multipolar World

Tuesday 8 December 2009, by Arun Mohanty

Indo-Russian relations took a serious beating in the aftermath of the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union. Russia under Yeltsin and Kozyrev, in their unprecedented enthusiasm to de-ideologise the country’s foreign policy, made an attempt to reorient its policy towards the West and treat India at par with Pakistan, an US ally in the Cold War era. Russia voted in favour of the Pak proposal for denuclearisation of South Asia, diluted its stand on Kashmir declaring it a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, sought to sell arms to Islamabad, made an attempt to annul the deal for supplying cryogenic engines to Delhi under US pressure, stalled the supply of spare parts to the Indian Army etc., thus delivering a heavy blow to bilateral relations.

However, Moscow was divested of much of its influence in the world stage, lost its old and time-tested allies, and failed to find any genuine friend in the West in the process of implemen-tation of its Euro-centric foreign policy that became extremely unpopular in the country in the mid-1990s resulting in the unprecedented debacle of the neo-liberals in the Duma (Lower House of Parliament) elections of December 1995. This forced Yeltsin to drop his pro-US Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and install the veteran Russian diplomat, Evgeny Primakov, as the head of the Russian foreign policy establishment. Russian foreign policy under Primakov took a swift turn from its avid Euro-Atlantic orientation heralding Moscow’s ‘look-East’ policy, otherwise known as Eurasian orientation. India was chosen as the first destination of Russia’s new Foreign Minister who went on his first ever foreign tour in his new capacity thus signifying New Delhi’s place in the Russian foreign policy priorities.

In the meantime India had also diversified its foreign policy objectives. However, both sides started talking about building strategic partner-ship in the second half of the 1990s, which largely remained a slogan till President Putin’s visit to India in the winter of 2000 when both sides signed the Delhi Declaration on strategic partnership that became the bedrock of our relationship in the subsequent period. Indo-Russian annual summits became a defining feature of the bilateral relationship during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh attended these annual summits held alternatively in Delhi and Moscow with President Putin. President Medvedev, who was the first head of a foreign state to visit India following the Mumbai tragedy of November 26, came to New Delhi in December 2008 to attend the annual summit continuing the tradition. It is now time to take stock of the bilateral relations in the run-up to the upcoming visit of PM Manmohan Singh to Moscow in the first week of December.

Political Relations

After the Soviet break-up, Russia’s new found love for the West led to the nose-diving of relations between the two countries in all areas. The 1971 Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which had provided the solid foundation for our productive cooperation in all spheres, was replaced by a new Friendship and Cooperation Treaty signed in 1993 that was bereft of the vital security clauses. Ideology was replaced by ‘pragmatism’ which became the watchword in the Russian foreign policy doctrine—meaning national interest would be paramount in the conduct of foreign policy. De-ideologisation became the key thrust of the Russian foreign policy which in practice became reidelogisation of the Russian foreign policy making friends with the former Soviet Union’s foes as the new Russia sought closer partnership with the West. In this process, close ties with India, a legacy of the Soviet past, took a beating and was readjusted under ‘pragmatism‘. In reality, Indo-Soviet relations were the product of pragmatism rather than any ideology; these were mutually beneficial, and served the national interests of both countries.

The defence and economic relations between India and the former Soviet Union were structured in a way to serve the interests of both countries, and did not constitute a sacrifice from either side. Massive Soviet assistance helped in building India’s industrial infrastructure without involving hard currency, and India was no doubt a huge market for Soviet machines and equipments. The rupee-rouble arrangement helped India acquire the much needed military hardware from the Soviet Union without spending hard currency, and India found a huge market for its consumer products in the Soviet Union.

Pragmatism has been reflected in Russia’s “multi-vectored” external policy founded on its Eurasian identity that provides a place of priority to India in Moscow’s foreign policy agenda. India definitely stands high in the post-Yeltsin Russia’s foreign policy priorities. In spite of the under-standing to have regular annual bilateral summits, there were only three summits during the 1990s with President Yeltsin visiting India just once and Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and H.D. Deve Gowda visiting Moscow twice. However, the annual summits—providing opportunities for exchange of views on all vital issues and to determine new guidelines for strengthening bilateral cooperation—have become a regular feature of our relationship ever since Putin came to power. The older generation of Russians, still nostalgic about the Soviet past and peeved by the humiliation heaped on them by the West, particularly during Yeltsin’s presidency, highly value the time-tested friendship with India. Though the new generation does not seem to share the same warm feelings like their parents for India, a public opinion poll conducted in 2004 by the Moscow Carnegie Centre suggested that India remains the most friendly country for a majority of Russians of all generations—82 per cent of the respondents chose India as the most friendly country for them. But unfortunately, India has not capitalised on this fact, nor has the Russian foreign policy taken account of this mood in the country.

In the changed circumstances after the Soviet break-up India made an attempt to diversify its foreign policy. The economic collapse in Russia as a result of the disastrous market reforms coupled with the lack of desire on the part of the then Russian elite to cultivate a warm and productive relationship with Delhi, forced India to change its foreign policy direction and strengthen its ties with other countries. Putin’s ascent to power in 2000 heralded a conscious effort for rebuilding the relations on a new, strong foundation and to take them to new heights. The signing of the Declaration on Strategic Partnership and ten more agreements in various areas provided a very strong boost to mutual cooperation in the political, economic, defence, trade, science and technology, and cultural spheres. Eight full-fledged bilateral summits have been held alternatively in each other’s capitals following President Putin’s first visit in 2000 and these have provided a lot of content to our growing strategic partnership in many vital areas.

Political cooperation between India and Russia has emerged as the dominant feature in our bilateral relations. Annual summits, regular ministerial-level meetings have led to intensification of political cooperation between our two countries, and this is reflected in our cooperation in combating international terrorism, the uprisings in Kashmir and Chechnya, the evolving situation in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Middle East, joint efforts for building a multipolar world and a just democratic global order. Both countries hold identical views on a host of regional and international issues and coordinate their efforts in various fora, including the UNO. Russia was the first major country to strongly support India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the expanded UN Security Council. Both sides stress the need for early finalisation of the ‘Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism‘ and the ‘Comprehensive Convention of on International Terrorism‘ in the UN. The underpinning of both these conventions is that these urge all nations to pass domestic laws that ‘make all acts of terrorism for political purposes’ unjustifiable ‘irrespective of political, philosophical, ideological and racial considerations’. The essence of these conventions lies in the fact that the armed separatist movements in Kashmir and Chechnya could be equated with international terrorism under these proposed conventions, which in turn would help in safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries.

The Moscow Declaration on Defence of Multi-ethnic and Multi-confessional States, signed in 1994, and the Moscow Declaration on International Terrorism, signed in 2001, are designed for further institutionalising and consolidating our cooperation to root out the terrorist menace. The Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Combating Terrorism, signed in 2002, and the resultant Joint Working Group, formed in 2003, have been quite useful in intensifying our cooperation in combating international terrorism. Both sides have set up a panel of experts to fight terror and to share information between our security agencies, exchange equipment and help each other with training. This has been useful for both countries to share each other’s experiences in this vital area of combating terrorism.

President Medvedev’s visit to India in December 2008 was symbolic and assumed a lot of significance as he was the first world leader to visit India after the ghastly terror attacks in Mumbai that claimed 166 lives. Obviously terrorism was at the top of last summit’s agenda as both countries are victims of this menace. Expressing strong solidarity with the Indian people and government, Medvedev pledged to “work with India on a whole spectrum of problems and provide support in all directions”. The Joint Declaration signed during the summit urged the international community to provide all assistance to bring to justice the organisers of the terrorist attack on India’s financial capital and called upon all countries to “actively cooperate with India in its efforts to find the perpetrators, masterminds, sponsors and everyone connected with the barbaric act”.

Russian Stand on Kashmir

The Russian stand on Kashmir, that was seriously diluted in the aftermath of the Soviet disintegration by describing Kashmir as a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, has been reversed over the years. Moscow believes Kashmir is an integral part of India and the issue should be resolved bilaterally on the basis of the Simla agreement without any internationalisation. This particular stand of Moscow on Kashmir is significant in the back-drop of media reports of the US giving mediatory rights to China for resolving the vexed issue between India and Pakistan. Russia explicitly demands ‘an end to cross-border terrorism’ for resumption of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan.


India and Russia regard Afghanistan as the hub of instability in the South and Central Asian region. Russia is quite apprehensive of an unstable Afghanistan as it can have a spillover effect in Central Asia, Russia’s strategic underbelly. India seriously believes that the armed Kashmiri insurgents have a strong nexus with Afghanistan that is located in its extended neighbourhood. Apart from the terrorist threats from Afghanistan, the war-torn country holds political and economic importance for both New Delhi and Moscow. The decision to set up a Joint Working Group on Afghanistan demonstrates the seriousness of both countries in collaborating on the issue. The Moscow Declaration on International Terrorism, signed by both countries in 2002, emphasised the ‘need to avert the spilling of the conflict beyond the boundaries of one region, to prevent further extension of terrorism’. Both countries have been maintaining effective interaction in the framework of the JWG on Afghanistan, which is important in the backdrop of the worsening situation in that country, increasing Talibanisation of Pakistan and the new Af-Pak policy of the US.

Convergence of Interests in Central Asia

We have a large commonality of interests with Russia in Central Asia. Russia does not perceive a threat to its interests from a growing Indian presence in Central Asia, and there is no significant adverse consequence for our relationships with the Central Asian countries if they remain under Russian influence, except perhaps with regard to Indian access to the region’s energy resources in the most unlikely scenario of pipelines linking this region with South Asia. What is important for us is that Russian presence in Central Asia counters the presence of China and the US and prevents Pakistan from extending its influence in the region. Growing US presence in the region, apart from countering Chinese influence, would promote Pakistan’s interests there as Islamabad would become the key to any strategy to direct the flow of hydrocarbons from these Central Asian countries to South Asia.

India and Russia express deep concern ‘over the threat to the security and stability in Central Asia, posed by international terrorism and religious extremism‘. Both sides agree that regional cooperation can play an important role in the stabilisation of the situation in the Central Asian region. Indo-Russian cooperation in Central Asia can help to stabilise the situation in the area and defend each other’s interests there from not-very-friendly countries located outside the region.

Multipolar World and Strategic Stability

India and Russia support the establishment of a ’multipolar world based on sovereign equality of all states and emphasise the recognition of legitimate security interests of all states’, expressing their ‘determined opposition to the unilateral use or threat of force in violation of the UN Charter, and to intervention in the internal affairs of other states, including under the guise of humanitarian intervention’. Both countries have issued a Political Declaration on Global Challenges and Threats to World Security and Stability, under which both countries have agreed to coordinate their efforts and positions on a host of regional and international issues of mutual concern.

Trade and Economic Relations

Trade and economic relations between India and Russia nosedived following the Soviet disintegration as both countries engaged themselves in market reforms and structural changes, and the new Russia eliminated state monopoly over foreign trade. The bilateral trade turnover sharply declined from US $ 5.5 billion in 1990 to half-a-billion US dollars in 1992. The trade turnover increased to some extent but hovered around $ 2-2.5 billion till 2005. However, the bilateral trade volume made significant increases starting from 2005-2006, making an annual growth of 30 per cent. The latest data suggests that Indo-Russian trade has crossed $ 8 billion in 2008 and is likely to achieve the $ 10 billion figure by 2010. What is a matter of concern for India is that the trade balance between the two countries has heavily tilted in favour of Russia. While Russian exports to India have made a quantum jump, India’s exports to that country have witnessed very insignificant growth. India has to take serious measures to offset this negative balance. Though bilateral trade has grown over the years, both sides feel worried because this does not reflect the potential of both countries, constitutes less than one per cent of each other’s trade volume, and is absolutely not commensurate with the high level political cooperation that both countries enjoy.

Another weak point in Indo-Russian trade relations is the narrow base of each other’s export baskets, and the exports need to be diversified. While Indian exports to Russia consist of mainly three groups of products such as those of agricultural origin like tea, coffee, spices; medicines; textiles, leather etc. that constitute 80 per cent Indian exports to that country, Russian exports to India constitute mainly four categories of products such as fertiliser, metal, newsprint and machines etc. Both sides have to expand the export baskets to each other’s country in order to increase the bilateral trade volume.

There are a number of infrastructural bottlenecks in the sphere of banking, financing, insurance, logistics that stand in the way of bilateral trade and should be removed to bolster relations in this area. Quick operationalisation of the North-South transport corridor that would reduce transit time by half and decrease the transit cost significantly can provide a serious boost to bilateral relations in this area.

The private sector constitutes a significant part in each other’s economy and has to play a greater role in order to strengthen trade and economic relations between the two countries. A marriage between the private sectors of both countries can help build stronger relationship in this field. Forget about marriage, the private sectors of the two countries have barely started looking at each other. The Indian corporate sector should take note of the fact that Russia is the largest market in Europe and has huge natural resources.

Russia can play a very significant role in ensuring our energy security, and we are natural partners in this area with Russia being home to huge energy resources and India being an energy consumer country. India has invested US $ 2.5 billion in the Sakhalin energy project and purchased the Imperial energy functioning in Russia for US $ 2.58 billion. Given the strategic nature of our relationship, India should go for bigger investments in the Russian energy sector in order to meet our requirements in future.

Defence Cooperation

One of the most important elements of Indo-Russian strategic partnership is defence cooperation. Seventy per cent to 85 per cent of our Air Force, Army and Navy are equipped with military hardware of Soviet or Russian origin. The foundation of this relationship was laid during Soviet times but it has entered a new stage in recent years. The buyer-seller relationship in the defence sector, that existed during Soviet times, has reached a new and qualitatively different stage with the thrust of our cooperation expanding to joint research, development, marketing etc. The BrahMos supersonic missile is a brilliant example of such productive cooperation between India and Russia. The fifth generation aircraft, multi-role transport aircraft are another two important projects of joint defence cooperation.

Russia is a power house of high technology which exists mainly in its defence sector. India is the only country with which Russia would like to share its sensitive technology. India should take note of this, and go for productive joint cooperation with Russia in this vital, strategic sector. Experts usually talk about the military-political cooperation between countries. But India and Russia can really talk about the military-economic cooperation that would benefit both countries immensely, first of all our country. Russian technology, resources, India’s IT and investment potential, given the strategic nature of our relationship, can really make this kind of military-economic partnership a huge success.

Manmohan Singh’s Visit to Moscow

The upcoming Moscow summit, scheduled to take place in the first week of December, is yet another unique opportunity to provide new content to our growing strategic partnership. The proposed agreements in the sphere of nuclear energy, high-tech, space, science and technology, defence, energy would no doubt strengthen our strategic partnership in these areas. The most significant amog the proposed agreements is definitely the Defence Framework Agreement worth nearly $ 20 billion under which defence cooperation would be developed in the next decade; and the nuclear cooperation agreement is set to provide a new impetus to our relations in that vital sector.

India and Russia are genuine and natural strategic partners, and are the only two major powers in the entire annals of international relations which have never had any clash of interests. But nevertheless there were misunder-standings in recent years, and these need to be addressed. Indian proximity with the US had caused irritation in Moscow which was under the impression that New Delhi’s growing relationship with Washington would be at the cost of Russia. A part of the Russian elite and strategic community seriously feared such an eventuality, and made an attempt to improve ties with Pakistan, even contemplated supplying arms to Islamabad. Musharraf’s visit to Moscow followed by that of Pakistani Army Chief General Kayani, who had gone to Moscow with a huge arms purchase list, caused legitimate anxiety within India’s strategic community. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must address Russian concerns and convince Moscow that strengthening of India’s ties with the US is not at all at the cost of Moscow.

India must value, treasure and preserve its time-tested strategic partnership with Russia, the only country to stand by us during trying times since our independence. In an emerging world that is turning increasingly multipolar and where the G-2 (comprising the US and China) are planning to rule the roost, India can ill-afford to ignore or neglect such a dependable partner like Russia.

President Pratibha Patil’s recent visit to Moscow has removed some of the irritants in our bilateral relations, and the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit must dispel the remaining misgivings and misunderstandings such as India’s migration policy and Russia’s apparent retaliation to such a step. It is imperative that urgent measures are taken to clear the clouds hovering over our genuine and natural strategic partnership.

Dr Arun Mohanty is an Associate Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the Director, Eurasian Foundation.

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