Friendships are always tested and often events, and incidents become the litmus test of their credibility and dependability especially in the domain of international relations when the verbosity of the diplomatese confronts the real politic. India and Russia relations have often been scrutinised and even discredited through a myopic lens of’ friend’s enemy is my friend’ diatribe. During the past decade this has been applied in the context of Moscow ‘s strategic relations with Beijing in the global geopolitical competition and growing ties with Pakistan which has been an anathema for the Indian and foreign strategic drivers. A chemical mix of wrong proportions often leads to implosion, but it could also lead to fusion if performed under controlled conditions. India and Russia relations have proved the test of time and appear growing stronger and diversifying as well due to the same geopolitics as New Delhi, accused of going under the US umbrella, continues to exercise strategic autonomy to serve her national interests.
One of the key ingredients of a truly strategic partnership is the genuine concern and support to it at the highest level. There is no denying the fact that the bilateral relationship has acquired the requisite momentum and resilience due to the personal chemistry between the two leaders President Putin and PM Modi. The most recent display of this bonhomie was the presence of President Putin when the Indian Prime Minister chaired the UNSC meet (August 9) on UNSC Open Debate on Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Maritime Security- and laid out his five principles.
President Putin was the only P5 leader to personally join despite the fact that Moscow considers QUAD as a US project to contain China and also against their own interests especially in the maritime domain. However, the Presidency Statement issued thereafter clearly articulated the global concerns and expansionism of China though not naming it “The Security Council calls upon Member States to effectively implement the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code and Chapter XI – 2 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and to work with the International Maritime Organization to promote safe and secure shipping while ensuring freedom of navigation in accordance with applicable international laws.”
At the UNSC Soviet Union and its successor state Russia stood for India on crucial issues of concern. It was also evident when it tried to diffuse tensions between Delhi and Beijing and abstained on Afghanistan Resolution 2593 rather than opposing it. Moreover, Moscow is aware of Indian markets and strategic depth and despite its close relations with Beijing promised to supply parts and equipment delivery during the standoff with China. More often than not it remains sensitive to India’s security interests and no wonder both sides are going ahead with S 400 missile defence systems despite the US and Chinese objections. As such they not only have annual summits and informal summits but also work together at BRICS, SCO and G20. Another annual summit is on the cards before the end of the year. Perceptual differences and bridgeable divergences are a common theme in all relationships.
While the relationship in the strategic domain is expansive and deep the economic engagement has been far below the potential despite higher targets which remain unfilled. It is in this context that Russia invited PM Modi to be the Chief Guest at the Far Eastern Economic Forum (FEEF) in 2019 when for the first time India extended a $ 1bn line of credit to a developed country in order to promote trade and economic engagement. Large number of ministerial and business delegations have followed but, on the ground, credible progress needs to gather greater pace. Far east is of critical significance for Russia and growing presence and Chinese influence are a matter of concern and hence India could be an alternate benign balancer with its growing economic clout.
Russia has been inviting Indian investments and visitors as well as skilled and highly skilled workforce which is a welcome change. Moreover, in the context of Arctic explorations, the proposed Chennai -Vladivostok maritime corridor could be a game changer as the other land, rail and maritime corridors like International North South Transport Corridor become increasingly operationalised.
This year on September 3rd the 6th edition of Far Eastern Economic Forum was held in Vladivostok and PM Modi addressed it virtually. Applauding President Putin’s vision for the development of the Russian Far East, PM reiterated India’s commitment as part of its “Act East Policy’ of being a reliable partner of Russia in this regard. He underlined the natural complementarities of India and Russia in the development of Russian Far East.
He further stressed on the importance of greater economic and commercial engagement between the two sides in line with the ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’. He highlighted the importance of health and pharma sectors as important areas of cooperation that have emerged during the pandemic. He also referred to other potential areas of economic cooperation including diamond, coking coal, steel, timber etc.
As several Indian Chief Ministers had visited Russia since the 2019 Forum, PM Modi extended invite to 11 governors from the Far east to lead business delegations to India. While CM Gujarat and several businessmen and Indian industrialists virtually participated at the business event prior to FEEF focussing on diamond business between the state and Yakutia where Indian companies have had the lead in establishing businesses including Choron diamonds in late 1990s. Two sides are exploring long term supply of coking coal to the Indian steel industry and new opportunities in Agro industry, ceramics, strategic and rare earth minerals and diamonds Petroleum and Urban Housing Minister Hardeep Singh Puri led a delegation of Indian oil and gas companies to participate at the India-Russia Business Dialogue on the side-lines of the FEEF .
India envisages an energy and trade bridge. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the health and pharma sectors in our bilateral cooperation and Russian Sputnik V vaccines are being manufactured in India for global supplies which acknowledges Indian manufacturing capacity and R&D capabilities in this value and supply chain apart from providing another alternative medicine to fight the Covid.
Some others might follow.
The success of this enterprise will be directly incumbent upon the efforts put in by the industry, business community and entrepreneurs for which a constant SWOT analysis, course correction, establishing realistic expectations and identifying congruences and convergence of opportunities. would be necessary.
At the political level there is tremendous heft and commitment but what remains is the real push by the business community of both India and Russia to realise it and weather the odds.
Only then can we realise the full potential of the special and privileged strategic partnership the two countries enjoy.
(The writer is a veteran diplomat Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta, Secretary, Association of Indian Diplomats, President, MIICCIA Chamber of Commerce. The views expressed are his own)