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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 16, April 9, 2011

Indo-Russian Strategic Partnership: A Reality Check

Thursday 14 April 2011, by Arun Mohanty

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s official visit to India on December 21-22, 2010 capped the visits of all the five permanent members of UNSC last year. This provided an opportunity to compare the magnitude of our strategic relation-ship with all these countries. Medvdev’s visit to India was preceded by the visits of US President Barak Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nikolas Sarkozy and Chinese Prime Minster Wen Jiabao to our country in quick succession making India feel like a much-sought-after bride. Since Medvedev became the last P-5 leader to visit India, it is tempting to compare his visit with the visits by the rest of the P-5 leaders.

The last Indo-Russian summit that gave a rich harvest of a record 30 agreements, signed between the two countries in many key areas like defence, energy, nuclear, space, science and technology, pharma, IT, bio-technology etc., made India’s relationship with Russia qualitatively distinct and different from our relations with the rest of the P-5 members. Indeed, India’s relationship with each of the P-5 members is described as strategic. However, while analysing the content of our relationship with each of these important nations, we find that India’s strategic partnership with Russia is unique, distinct and richer in many ways while our strategic partnerships with the rest of the P-5 members are rich in rhetoric but poor in substance. In fact, India‘s relationship with Russia is a “special and privileged strategic partnership”, as aptly described by our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Mentioning of this narrative in the Indo-Russian Joint Statement really signals that our strategic partnership with Moscow is distinct, stands on its own, and is at a qualitatively higher level than the rest of our relationships in this category.

Some foreign policy experts were skeptical that Medvedev’s visit, taking place in the shadow of the visits by leaders of the rest of the UNSC members, may not be very successful as there is some kind of diplomatic fatigue that has permeated into the relationship over the years, and the weakened post-Soviet Russia can hardly offer anything tangible to India. However, Medvedev’s visit belied these speculations, proving that our strategic partnership has enough potential to make it “innovative, special and privileged“, though there was no media hype and fanfare that one witnessed during the visits of the rest of the P-5 members.

The solid outcome of the visit is reflected in the unprecedented 30 agreements signed during the summit, which would expand and consolidate our strategic partnership in vital areas in the coming years. While the economic importance of the visit lies in the agreements for the further strengthening of our strategic cooperation in defence, civil nuclear, hydrocarbons and space sectors, the political significance is reflected in the strong and unambiguous support to India’s bid for the UNSC membership, unequivocal criticism of transboarder terrorism, particularly naming Pakistan as providing sanctuary to terrorists of all hues, pledge to help India join the NSG, support to New Delhi’s membership in the SCO and APEC, and expression of a strong desire for stabilising the situation in Afghanistan through joint efforts etc.

Political Cooperation

The Joint Statement issued at the end of Medvedev’s visit to India stressed that Indo-Russian strategic partnership has been marked by close coordination of foreign policy approaches to a wide range of international and regional issues. Both leaders highlighted the fact that this coordination of approaches by the two countries to various international and regional issues was an effective way of raising the joint contribution towards strengthening global peace, security and stability and to building a just and democratic global order. Both countries maintain the view that the changes taking place in the international system provide an opportunity to build an international order that is inclusive and democratic, based on the supremacy of international law, and adhering to the objectives and principles enshrined in the UN Charter. Both countries firmly believe that intensification of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership can help respond to the challenges thrown up by these changes in a more effective way.

An important element of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership is their joint efforts aimed at strengthening the central coordinating role of the United Nations Security Council in the maintenance of world peace and security as well as to increase the efficiency and authority of the UN in other areas of global governance. In this context both countries have resolved to further strengthen bilateral cooperation on issues related to the reform of the UN and its Security Council. Both countries have a common approach to the UN Security Council reform that should reflect the contemporary realities and make the world body more representative and viable in dealing with current as well as emerging challenges. The two sides have decided to work closely in the UN Security Council during 2011-12 when India occupies a non-permanent seat in the Council. Russia is the first country to have extended full and unqualified support to India’s bid for a permanent seat in the expanded UN Security Council years back while the stand of other P-5 members on the issue still remain ambivalent and ambiguous. Russia, unlike some of the other P-5 members, does not have any intention of ‘monitoring’ India’s performance in the Security Council as a non-permanent member in the next two years and admonish it to change its behaviour on Iran, Burma, East Asia etc.

India and Russia share the objective of preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, including preventing their possible acquisition by terrorist groups. Both countries maintain the view that all states possessing nuclear weapons should accelerate concrete progress on the steps leading to global nuclear disarmament in a way that promotes international stability, peace and undiminished and increased security for all. Both countries had signed the Moscow Decla-ration on a Non-Nuclear and Non-Violent World as early as in 1986. The two countries are interested in strengthening multilateral export control regimes as an important component of the global non-proliferation regime. In this regard, Russia has expressed readiness to assist and facilitate India’s membership in the NSG, MTCR and the Wassenaar Arrangement.


India and Russia, victims of international terrorism, have had productive cooperation in combating the scourge terrorism. They coordinate their activities of combating cross-border terrorism on the basis of the Moscow Declaration signed by them in November 2001 and in the framework of the Joint Working Group on Combating International Terrorism. Both sides, holding the view that international terrorism is a threat to peace and security, a grave violation of human rights, and a crime against humanity, maintain that there can be no justification whatsoever for any act of terrorism, and that multi-ethnic democratic countries like India and Russia are especially vulnerable to acts of terrorism which are attacks against the values and freedoms enshrined in their societies. Pointing an accusing finger towards Pakistan, the Joint Statement condemns the states that aid, abet or shelter terrorists, charging them with being guilty of acts of terrorism as their actual perpetrators. The Joint Statement, just falling short characterising Pakistan as a country offering sanctuary to terrorists, calls upon Islamabad to expeditiously bring all the perpetrators, authors and accomplices of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks to justice. Coming down heavily on Pakistan, Medvdev fell short of naming it as an ‘uncivilised state’ when he in his press conference said: “I believe that no modern civilised state can hide terrorists as law-abiding citizens and cannot proceed on the assumption that they will change.” He urged for international cooperation to facilitate the process of extraditing terrorists. Pakistan’s dubious and duplicitous role on terrorist groups and individuals like Hafiz Saeed, who are under the UN-anti-terrorism sanctions, has been put under scrutiny as the Joint Statement demands strict observance of the sanctions regime against persons and entities listed by the UNSCR 1267 Sanctions Committee.

It should be stressed that no other P-5 country has so openly and so clearly and categorically condemned Pakistan for providing sanctuary to terrorists. The agreement for intelligence sharing on the issue is vitally important for India as Russia is virtually the only country that is ready to share the information about terrorist hideouts on Pak territory, received through its satellites, particularly in the backdrop of the other P-5 nations’ reluctance to share such sensitive information with us. Here it is worth recalling that Russian President Medvedev became the first global leader to visit India in the aftermath of Mumbai terror attack to express deep solidarity with India in early December 2008.


India and Russia share identical views on the situation in Afghanistan, situated in the common neighbourhood of both the strategic partners, and focus on economic reconstruction of the war-ravaged nation. The Joint Statement could not have been more explicit with the two sides expressing concern over the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, and emphasising that successful stabilisation in that country will be possible only after the elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism that flourish in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both sides underscore the importance of stepped-up action by the International Security Assistance Force in combating production and trafficking of illegal narcotics in Afghanistan. This is significant in the backdrop of Washington’s reluctance to take up the issue seriously under this or that pretext, as Americans are not affected by the menace. While rejecting the concept of bad Taliban and good Taliban, India and Russia welcome the Afghan Government’s policy of reintegrating those individuals who agree to give up violence, adhere to the Afghan Constitution and do not have ties with the Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

India and Russia have convergence of views on a host of regional cooperation formats. Taking note of several examples of successful regional economic and security cooperation formats operating in Asia as well as the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, the two countries underline successful interaction between India, Russia and China in the IRC format and the importance of this trilateral format in fostering dialogue and cooperation on global and regional issues between the three Asian giants and great civilisations in accordance with the Joint Declaration of the 10th IRC meeting at the level Foreign Ministers held in November 2010 at Wuhan.
In order to activate their joint cooperation and safeguard each other’s vital national interests in the region, Russia backs the Indian membership in the APEC and SCO while India extends support to the Russian entry into the East Asian Summit. Russia has promised to step up efforts to accelerate the process of India’s entry into the SCO. Noting that the Asian economies are increasingly becoming the main drivers of global economic growth and prosperity, India and Russia have resolved to work towards the creation of a transparent, open, inclusive and balanced security and cooperation architecture in the Asia-Pacific region based on the universally agreed principles of international law and giving due consideration to the legitimate interests of all states. Both sides stress the need for inter-national cooperative measures to counter both traditional and non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, extremism and weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking, organised crime as well as the need for strengthening maritime security and freedom of navigation in accordance with the universally accepted principles of international law, including combating piracy at sea, and to address the humanitarian consequences of natural disasters.

New Delhi and Moscow, keen on building a multipolar world order and change the global financial structure, envisage an important role for BRIC to promote a harmonious international system based on international law, equality, mutual respect, coordinated action and collective decision-making. Along with meetings of the Finance Ministers, Central Bank Governors, regular BRIC summits appear to be a possibility that would provide momentum to the process of the emergence of a multipolar global order. South Africa’s imminent entry into BRIC, which has been welcomed by both countries, will make the grouping a serious factor to reckon with in international affairs. India’s strategic affairs experts are unanimous that it is with Russia that India enjoys the greatest congruence of interests on regional and international issues as demonstrated in the Joint Statement. India no doubt has a greater and more sustained comfort level in political dealings with Russia than with any other P-5 member, for that matter with any other country in the world.


India and Russia have had a very productive cooperation in the defence sector for decades, and almost 75 per cent of Indian armed forces are equipped with military hardware of Soviet or Russian origin. The latest trend in the sphere suggests that our relationship in this strategic sphere is gradually being transformed from mere buyer-seller ties to joint research develop-ment and production, technology transfer, facili-tating our capacity for indigenous production of our military hardware. The deal for joint development of the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), concluded during the last bilateral summit, has pushed our defence cooperation to an altogether newer height. The preliminary design contract of the joint project, inked during the visit, may be worth only $ 295 million but it will lead to India investing around $ 35 billion over the next two decades to induct between 250 to 300 of advanced stealth fighters, that will be India’s biggest ever defence project. The FGFA or perspective multi-role fighter will be based on the Russian single-seater FGFA called Sukhoi T-50, a prototype of which is already flying, but it will be tailored to the IAF’s requirements. Reflecting the growing trend of local sourcing and technology transfer, the core elements would be developed by the Sukhoi design bureau while the Indian partner would be involved in some technical aspects of the project including electronics, navigation system, cockpit displays and development of the two-seater version. The agreement for joint development of a multi-role transport aircraft is yet another milestone in our aviation cooperation. Both countries have signed a framework agreement in 2009 adding a new dimension to our defence cooperation in the coming decade.


India being a major energy consuming nation and Russia being a major energy producer makes them natural partners in the area. Russia is poised to play a significant role in ensuring India’s energy security. India has invested $ 2.7 billion in Russia’s Shakhalin-1 offshore project and purchased the Imperial Energy Company for $ 2.5 billion; these are our largest investments abroad. Both countries during the visit signed an Intergovernmental Agreement that would facilitate our cooperation in the vital sector in the coming years. President Medvedev’s description of India as a ‘comfortable partner’ in the area promises to boost our cooperation in the future. The agreement signed between the ONGC and Russian company Systema, which has serious stakes in the Russian energy sector, opens up new vistas for bilateral cooperation in this vital sector and India’s stronger presence in the Russian hydrocarbon sector. Both countries have decided to take up specific projects to encourage direct business-to-business dialogue between the energy companies of both countries and to ensure that the contacts result in concrete and mutually beneficial projects, including joint ventures in upstream and downstream activities in India, Russia and third countries. All this would brighten the chances of India getting a foothold in Russia’s Far-Eastern and Siberian energy fields.


Indo-Russian nuclear cooperation constitutes an important element of our strategic partnership. While Russia is completing construction of two reactors in Tamil Nadu, it is likely to build another 16 new reactors in three Indian sites by 2017. What is important is that Russia does not see India’s liability law as an ‘obstacle’ while our two other strategic partners, namely, the USA and France, offering to build nuke plants in India, have strong objections and misgivings about the law, and are unlikely to provide assistance unless the law is amended. Moreover, there are a host of other unpleasant issues that are likely to adversely affect the prospects of our nuclear cooperation with France and the US. Though no new commercial contract was signed during the summit, that can be explained by the fact that Russia is pursuing a policy of wait-and-watch in terms India’s possible concessions on the issue. Indo-Russian strategic cooperation in this vital sector is not confined to just building nuke plants, supply of fuel to India. Both countries have agreed to enhance their cooperation in research and development, exploiting Russia’s uranium deposits in Yakutia, developing new generation reactors, jointly building nuke reactors in third countries, setting up global nuke energy centres. Russia has supported India’s intention to create a global centre for nuclear energy partnership and agreed to discuss future cooperation plans with the proposed centre. The Memorandum of Understanding signed by Rosatom Corporation and India’s Atomic Energy Commission for boosting scientific and technological cooperation in peaceful uses of atomic energy would push our relations in this sector to a new plateau. According to the roadmap, the value of contracts can reach $ 24 billion and both countries would go for joint manufacturing of equipments required for the construction of nuke plants. The two countries are contemplating cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy with third countries. All this provides an insight into the deep strategic nature of our nuclear cooperation and shows that Russia is far ahead of the rest of the P-5 countries trying to cultivate India in this sphere.


Both countries have agreed to expand their relations in the aerospace sphere, an area of traditional cooperation for decades. Apart from the Russian assistance in the Chandrayan-2, a manned space mission, a youth satellite, India would participate in the GLONASS satellite navigation programme. Under a deal India would receive high-precision navigation signals from GLONASS for civilian as well as military purposes; this would help us in our socio-economic development and fight against cross-border terrorism. GLONASS is the Russian equivalent of the United States’ global positioning system that permits users to determine a near precise position of any object within metres.

Science and Technology

Indo-Russian cooperation in science and technology is yet another area which is strategic in nature. Both countries have been strengthening this cooperation in this sensitive area on the basis of the Integrated Long Term Programme (ILTP), first signed in 1987 and the largest programme between any two countries. More than 500 joint projects involving scientists and research institutes from both countries have been under-taken under this programme. Both sides signed an agreement during the last summit for extending the tenure of the programme for another 10 years, and now the thrust of the programme would be innovation-based research. Though the programme is highly effective in terms of research, its weakness lies in the lack of industrial application. Hence both countries have agreed to set up two centres for facilitating commercialisation of the results of the research projects. Creation of new and innovative technologies would be at the heart of the respective economic modernisation programmes undertaken in both countries. The programme seems to be close particularly to Medvedev’s heart as he is engaged in implementing an ambitious innovation-based modernisation programme in Russia. The Russian President is keen for Indian participation in the Skolkovo innovation city project, his brain-child and dream project for promoting Russia’s innovation-based development programme. In this connection, the agreement signed between Tata and Vekeslberg, the CEO of the Skolkovo project, the centre-piece of President Medvdev’s modernisation programme, is quite noteworthy.

Trade and Economic Cooperation

Trade and investment, with around $ 8.5 billion worth annual turnover, remains the weakest link in our strategic partnership and falls far short of our potential; it is not commensurate with our high level political cooperation. Worried over the sagging trade and economic relations, New Delhi and Moscow have agreed to step up their effort to achieve a target of US $ 20 billion by the year 2015. Both sides have decided to strive for diversifying the trade basket and participate in each other’s privatisation programme in order to bolster trade and economic cooperation. An agreement for easing visa processing, considered being a serious obstacle on the path of development of trade and economic relations, will surely enhance our cooperation in this sphere in the coming years. Another factor likely to push our trade and economic cooperation is both sides’ intention to prepare a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement taking into account the implementation of the agreements on the formation of a Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. This intention should be translated into reality as soon as possible in order to provide impetus to our flagging relations in trade and economic cooperation. Inadequate banking and financing facilities have been serious constraints on mutual trade and economic cooperation. In this context agreements signed between the Vnesheconombank of Russia and India’s Exim Bank and State Bank of India are encouraging signs. It is heartening that the outgoing summit saw top private players of both countries coming closer and signing agreements, Memoranda of Understanding. In this context mention may be made of agreements and MoUs signed between Russia’s pharma major, R-Pharma, and India’s Dr Reddy’s Lab; Sibur and Reliance, Tata and Renova, AFK Systema and ONGC Videsh, agreement on development of ties in the IT sector, biotechnology etc. which will no doubt strengthen participation of private sectors of both countries in mutual trade and investment; this is important as our relations in this sphere are primarily government-driven, whereas the economies are currently dominated by the private sector.


The relations between our two countries have obtained rich strategic content with our solid cooperation spreading into sensitive spheres of defence, energy, space, nuclear, science and technology etc. These are primarily the areas where our emerging strategic partners, namely, the remaining four G-5 members, are trying to make a dent. It is heartening that new options have opened up before India that would enable us to diversify our sourcing and keep Russia alert about its commitments avoiding irritating delays in fulfilling contracts. However, we should keep the history of our relationship with each of these countries in mind before we go for diversifying our relations in the core sectors. India should not go for diversification simply for the sake of it. As we strengthen our strategic partnership with other countries, we should see to it that this does not happen at the cost of our tried and time-tested friendship with Moscow that has steadfastly stood by us during all the critical junctures of independent India’s history. Here we should not lose sight of the fact that Russia is the only country that does not supply arms to our arch-enemy, Pakistan, while all our other strategic partners help it in building its military capability in every possible way.

Moreover, in spite of some degradation Russia still remains a power-house of high tech and its fundamental science is still considered as one of the best in the world. It is only Russia which gives us its best military hardware, even some-times before its own armed forces get it and help in building indigenous defence capability through cutting-edge technology transfer and licensed production. India is the only country with which Russia is ready to share its best technology, and the project of the fifth generation fighter aircraft is a case in point. While France and China had evinced their keenness to be Russia’s partner, India has been chosen as Moscow’s privileged partner in the coveted project.

Russia and India are natural and genuine strategic partners, and there exists a consensus in both countries regarding our privileged relationship. The deep mutual trust that permeates our strategic partnership does not exist in the relations with any other country. This partner-ship is unique in that India and Russia are perhaps the only two major powers in the world that did not have any clash of interest, not to speak of any serious conflict, in the entire history of international relations, and political fluctuation in either country does not affect the strategic nature of our relationship. All this obviously cannot be said of our newly emerging strategic partners.


1. Joint Statement, Celebrating a Decade of Indo-Russian Strategic Partnership and Looking Ahead, December 21, 2010.

2. The Hindu, December 21, 2010.

3. The Hindu, December 22, 2010.

4. The Times of India, December 20, 2010.

5. The Times of India, December 22, 2010.

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

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