Ambassador Asoke Mukerji
The 19th Annual Summit between India and Russia was held in New Delhi on 4-5 October 2018. The meetingwaspart of a historic process launched by the first Annual Summit in 2000 between the late Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Vladimir Putin to consolidate the strategic partnership between India-Russia in the 21st century. The 19th Summit was notable, in the words of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, for providing “a new impetus and a new direction to our special privileged strategic partnership”.
It was evident from the unusual nature of the Summit that Prime Minister Modi and President Putin had decided to continue with the format of personal discussions that had characterized their informal Summit held in Sochi on 21 May 2018. At that meeting, the two leaders had spent 9 hours in each other’s company, discussing bilateral and international issues without a structured agenda. In New Delhi, the two leaders spent almost 5 hours in similar interaction, including at a private dinner hosted by Prime Minister Modi at his residence on 4th October 2018, before participating in the more formal programme of the Summit on 5th October 2018.
After the talks, Prime Minister Modi reiterated that India maintains “unmatched and solid ties” with Russia and emphasized President Putin’s personal contribution to developing this special and privileged strategic partnership. On his part, President Putin affirmed that “India is our good friend, and we share a special relationship with this country”.
The outcomes listed by the two leaders in their public remarks, as well as in the joint statement issued at the end of the Summit, illustrate the determination of both leaders to prioritize specific areas of cooperation. These areas would become the drivers of the special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia in the 21st century.
People-to-people exchanges : The announcement by Prime Minister Modi during the Summit to take “measures that will pave the way to further expanding people-to-people exchanges, as well as raise awareness among our people about their friends abroad” stands out. This is a conscious attempt to make India-Russia relations people-centric. As Prime Minister Modi emphasized, “goodwill and positive people-to-people contacts are the driving force behind India-Russia relations”, which provide “the foundation for friendly relations between Russia and India in the future”. On his part, President Putin reaffirmed that “direct human contacts are bound to promote friendship between the peoples of India and the Russian Federation”.
The focus on incubating talented youth from India and Russia as catalysts for the future direction of India-Russia relations was evident at a special function during the Summit. The two leaders took time to interact with a joint group of young innovators under the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM)-Talent and Success Foundation (SIRIUS) initiative launched at the Sochi informal India-Russia summit in May this year.
President Putin reiterated that “Russia and India have always been interested in each other’s culture and spiritual heritage”. Prime Minister Modi asserted that “relations between our civilizations and cultures date back centuries”. He underlined that India would “contribute to the success” of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which had been originally established in 1818 in St Petersburg.
Military-technical cooperation:The buildup to the 19th Summit was dominated by media attention on the signing of the defence contract for the acquisition of the S-400 Long Range Surface to AirMissile system by India from Russia. This contract is part of the long-standing collaboration between the two countries in the military-technical sector. President Putin characterized military-technical cooperation as “part and parcel of the Russian-Indian strategic partnership”, in which “joint development and production” of modern defence platforms play a significant role. Prime Minister Modi invited Russia to set up a dedicated Defence Industrial Park in India to provide a focus on Russia’s participation in the Make in India programme.
Trade and Economy : President Putin acknowledged that expanding trade and investment cooperation between India and Russia had attracted “great attention” during the discussions held between the two leaders. Addressing CEOs of Indian and Russian enterprises in New Delhi during the Summit, Prime Minister Modi invited Russian enterprises in India to take advantage of the special “Russia Plus” policy that had been put in place to encourage such participation, especially in partnering India to usher in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. President Putin expressed Russia’s interest in expanding Indian business in the Russian market despite “the most complicated and acute challenges” posed by unilateral sanctions imposed by western countries on Russia. He referred to the joint “goal of increasing trade to $30 billion by 2025, and the volume of mutual investment to $15 billion”, while noting that bilateral trade turnover last year totaling $9 billion had registered an increase of 21% over the previous year.
Strategic Dialogue: During the Summit, NITI Aayog and Russia’s Economic Development Ministry established a Strategic Dialogue to look at expanding cooperation in social, economic, industrial and regional cooperation. The intention is to use these four areas to generate new drivers for the bilateral economic relationship. The first meeting of the Strategic Dialogue is scheduled in St Petersburg at the end of 2018.
Regional Cooperation : Both Prime Minister Modi and President Putin placed emphasis on the contribution of regional cooperation between the 85 entities of the Russian Federation and India’s States and Union Territories for enhancing India-Russia relations. India affirmed that she “stands ready to work with Russia to develop” the Russian Far East, while President Putin reiterated his invitation to Prime Minister Modi to attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2019 as the chief guest. Russia has opened an office of its Far East Agency in Mumbai to facilitate increased interaction with India.
Connectivity : The Summit discussed how to step up systematic work on constructing the North South Corridor, which would “considerably reduce the time for the delivery of cargoes from India to Europe”. India’s recent entry into the Customs Convention on International Transport of Goods under cover of TIR Carnets will significantly facilitate this objective.
Oil and Gas : Energy cooperation between India and Russia were identified as a focus of the discussions between the two leaders. The single largest foreign investment in India last year was Rosneft’s $12.6 billion in Essar Oil. President Putin conveyed that Russia would be a reliable supplier of hydrocarbons to India, with the state-owned Rosneft and Gazprom signing long-term contracts to provide India’s rapidly growing economy with fuel. India’s 20% stake in Russia’s Sakhalin 1 gas field was highlighted as a harbinger of the future role that Russian gas supplies would play in India’s objectives to create an environmentally-friendly energy driven economy. Russia welcomed Indian energy companies entering the Russian market in the Russian Far East, Siberia and the Arctic. Russia is building a nuclear-powered fleet of eight ships to ensure supplies of LNG to India and other destinations from its Arctic fields.
Nuclear Energy:A special emphasis was placed by the Summit on the fact that Russia is the only country which is currently collaborating with India in meeting India’s ambitious civilian nuclear energy goals. The Kudankulam nuclear power plant was held up as a “flagship project in the peaceful use of the atom” by President Putin, who confirmed that while the first two units were reaching their full capacity of power generation, another four units were under construction. India and Russia have agreed to collaborate in building 12 nuclear power plants in India over the next 20 years using advanced Russian technologies. The contribution of this sector to the overall strategic relationship between the two countries is evident in terms of transfer of sensitive nuclear technology from Russia to India, and continued support of Russia for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. As Prime Minister Modi had said in August 2016 when jointly dedicating with President Putin the first unit of the Kudankulam power plant, it is a “fine example of the strength of our special and privileged strategic partnership”.
Space Cooperation: Prime Minister Modi emphasized the important role of space cooperation between India and Russia in the years ahead. He said that India had set a “new goal in space exploration: we have a programme to send an Indian cosmonaut to space”. President Putin conveyed that Russia’s space agency Roscosmos was looking forward to facilitating India’s manned space mission.
Upholding Multilateralism: In terms of coordinating their foreign policy activities, the Summit upheld the principle of international cooperation as the guiding principle of multilateralism against attempts to use unilateral measures to conduct international relations. Prime Minister Modi asserted that “India and Russia believe in strengthening the multipolar world order and multilateralism in this rapidly changing world. This meets the interests of both our countries”.
United Nations: The joint statement reiterated Russia’s “unwavering support” for India’s permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council. Both sides upheld the centrality of the United Nations in international relations, and their commitment to implement Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agreement signed in Paris in December 2015.
Asian Security: In the joint statement, India and Russia agreed to work towards the establishment of a Regional Security Architecture that provides equal and indivisible security to all countries in Asia and in the regions of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They emphasized that “new initiatives aimed at strengthening of the regional order are to be based on multilateralism, principles of transparency, inclusiveness, mutual respect and unity in the common pursuit of progress and prosperity, and not directed against any country.” Specific areas discussed for future action between the two countries included countering terrorism and responding to the situation in Afghanistan, Iran and West Asia.
These outcomes and directions provide a strong foundation to mark the 20th anniversary of the India-Russia Annual Summit to be held in 2019.
(Ambassador Asoke Mukerji was India’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation and an elected member of the governing Council of the United Service Institution of India.)