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Mainstream, VOL LII No 50, December 6, 2014

Stocktaking before the Fifteenth Indo-Russian Summit

Sunday 7 December 2014, by Arun Mohanty

Russian President Vladimir Putin would pay an official visit to India from December 10 to 12, 2014 to participate in the fifteenth Indo-Russian annual summit. Russia is the first country and was the only state till a few years back with which we have developed this annual summit mechanism to find out ways and means for strengthening ties and exchange opinions on a host of international and regional issues of mutual concern. Though the understanding for holding annual summits was reached with President Yeltsin way back in 1992, that Russian President could make only one visit to India in 1993 during his entire presidency. However, President Putin, rightly considered as the architect of Indo-Russian “privileged and strategic partnership“, should be credited for making this annual summit mechanism a reality.

The significance of this summit lies in the fact this will be first full-fledged summit between the two strategic partners after the new BJP-led government came to power in Delhi, though Prime Minister Modi and President Putin had a meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Brazil. Although President Putin has visited India around a dozen times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no novice to Russia either. Modi visted Russia a few times when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in order to strengthen ties between the Russian region Astrakhan and his home State. The exchanges between the two leaders have been quite warm. Modi has indeed emphasised that Russia is India’s time-tested friend.

Though Modi’s interest in Japan, the US, China has been highlighted in our press giving the signal about Modi’s foreign policy priorities, not much is known about the new government’s possible interests in Russia. There have been commentaries drawing attention to the fact that not a single Indian Minister, with the exception of Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan (who was in Moscow to attend a conference), has visited Moscow so far to reassure Moscow about the importance of Russia for India, though Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogogine has paid two visits to the Indian Capital during the period after the new government came to power.

President Putin’s upcoming visit to India takes place in the backdrop of dramatic changes in the international arena following the Ukrainian crisis that prompted serious Western sanctions against Russia. The Russian foreign policy is poised to take a predominantly pro-Asian turn and to make renewed efforts to hasten the end of US hegemony paving the way for a genuinely multipolar world. India is considered a vital stakeholder in the process of transforming the world into a multipolar global system.

The Delhi summit also takes place in the backdrop of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s first ever Pakistan visit paving the way for defense cooperation between the two countries. Marshal Grechko was the first and last Soviet Defence Minister to visit Pakistan way back in 1969. The issue is likely to figure in the summit discussions. However, India—that has itself diversified its sources of weapons procurement leading to a significant chunk of defence contracts going to the US—can hardly do anything when Russia diversifies its arms export destinations. Russia was the only strategic partner of India that was not providing arms to Pakistan. Moreover, Moscow’s argument —that it wishes to cultivate Pakistan in order to tackle the Afghan situation that might get worsened after the US withdrwal from that country—can hardly be refuted.

Notwithstanding these mild irritants, the forthcoming summit promises to be yet another landmark event In the annals of bilateral relations. More than a dozen agreements are under discussion for signing during the summit that would provide new impetus to our relation-ship in many spheres. The most important document planned to be signed in the course of the summit is the document on strategic vision that would provide a roadmap for development of our relations in several major spheres.

Nuclear cooperation is likely to take the pride of place in this important document. Construction of two reactors at Kudankulam has been complete, and full understanding has been reached regarding the construction of the next two reactors at the same site. There is a plan to build another two reactors with Russian assistance at the same place. There seems to be some differences between the two sides on the number of reactors to figure in the vision document. While Russians propose to build some 20-22 nuclear reactors in the coming years, India is willing to give only 12 reactors to Russia keeping more for the US for “strategic” reasons. However, here our policy-makers should not lose sight of the fact that Russia has the best technology in the world in this sphere whereas the US lags behind Moscow in the area as it has not built a single reactor during the past 12 years.

Cooperation in defence, energy, science and technology are other pillars of our strategic partnership. Gradually, as Russia streamlines its defence production, irritants in the sphere are likely to be things of the past. Arguments in the Indian media about the meagre Russian spending in defence production and research and development should not be taken seriously as Russia has embarked on a multi-billion programme to revamp the military-industrial complex of the country. Russia is going to spend 20 trillion rubles (US $ 770 billion) till the year 2020 to modernise its defence industry and is working on a still bigger long-term moder-nisation programme of its military industrial complex till the year 2030. We should take note of this fact. It is further noteworthy that the thrust of our defence cooperation has been shifted from the buyer-seller relationship to joint research, joint development etc. While the Brahmos supersonic project is an excellent example of our successful cooperation, there are other important projects like fifth generation aircraft, multi-role transport aircraft currently in progress.

In spite of the fact that we have diversified our sources of military hardware procurement and significant defence contracts have gone to the US and Israel, Russia remains and would remain our most important supplier in this field for many more decades to come. India should not go for diversification for the sake of it. We have to see the reliability and trust-worthiness of the supplier. Which country will give us a nuclear submarine on rent? We should not also forget how our other suppliers attached political conditions and stopped supplying important spares in an attempt to blackmail us. At the same time Russia has to take note of the fact that delays in supply, pricing policy have caused a lot of dissatisfaction in India and it has to work accordingly in order to maintain its hold in the Indian arms market.

Energy is another important pillar of our cooperation. Energy is virtually the traditional sphere of our cooperation. The former Soviet Union and Russia have extended vital assistance to us in hydropower, thermal, nuclear energy generation. Of late our cooperation is gradually moving to the hydrocarbon sector. Russians were the first to find oil and gas in Indian soil at a time when Western experts had emphati-cally said there was no hydrocarbon underneath the Indian earth. India has made investments upto US $ 7 billion, our highest investment abroad, in the energy sector.

Our policy-makers should pay attention to two things in this sector. First, Russia is building a number of LNG plants across its Pacific cost, and it is worth investing in those plants for ensuring LNG supplies to India in future. Secondly, we should give more attention to bringing Russian gas to India through pipelines and, in this case, particular attention should be given to the proposed pipeline from Altai to Himachal Pradesh. Russia has offered stakes to us in the Vancour energy fields in the East Siberia region. President Putin’s visit should be used to have more cooperation in this area, particularly in the realm of acquisition.

The summit should be a platform to take our high-tech cooperation to new heights. Russian proposals for taking part in India’s “Make in India”programme, particularly manufacturing Sukhoi Superjet-100, MC-21 passenger aircraft, producing helicopters should be given due attention.

The weakest link in the otherwise vibrant strategic partnership is our cooperation in the trade and economic sphere. In fact trade and economic relations do not match the excellent political relations and do not reflect the potential of the economies of both countries. Both countries had taken a decision in 2009 to increase the trade turnover to US $ 20 billion by the year 2015. However, our latest trade turnover is languishing at around US $ 11 billion. Serious efforts should be made to change the abysmal situation in this sphere. In this connection sufficient attention must be given to the North-South transport corridor proposal. The problem with our bilateral trade is that it takes more than 50 days for Indian goods to reach Russia and so is the case with Russian goods heading towards India. This is not at all conducive for our trade as nobody wants to block his money for more than 50 days when the same commodities can be imported to Russia from Turkey, Dubai, Europe and China in a matter of a few days. If the North-South transport corridor functions then the transit time and transport expenses could be reduced by almost 50 per cent. That is why both governments should really take serious cognisance of this project which can be realised only through government investments because of the long gestation period.

The last point to be driven home is that Western sanctions have created conditions for increasing Indian exports to Russia. If Russia is planning to import foodstuff from Latin America, why cannot India supply them to Russia? Finally, pharmaceuticals and diamond trade hold huge potential for increasing our mutual trade turnover by several billion dollars, and these need to be discussed in depth to make Mumbai a hub of our joint activities in diamond and for the export of more pharma products to the huge Russian pharma market worth US $ 27 billion where Indian exports constitute less than US $ one billion.

Given the changing geopolitical situation, the forthcoming Indo-Russian summit holds a lot of promise to take our time-tested strategic partnership to new peaks.

Prof Arun Mohanty, Chairperson, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is the Director, Eurasian Foundation.

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