India and Russia – Strategic Partnership with a Difference


(India-Russia Strategic Partnership @20)

In the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union, the new frustrated Russian leadership began to experiment and renew their relationship with USA and the West. In their scheme of things India was accorded a low priority. India herself has been redefining its global partnerships but her nuclear tests in 1998 put that outreach to test. Western countries resorted to sanctions. Both were disenchanted with the western opportunism and lackadaisical attitude. It was then that replacing the ageing and incoherent Boris Yeltsin Russia witnessed the emergence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who on the New Year eve became the President of Russia with a mission to take the Russian bear out of stupor and regain their confidence and pride. He had held India in high esteem but wanted to convert the wobbly relationship into a viable strategic partnership. India had a Statesman in late Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its Prime Minister who had realised the importance of the Indo-Russian relationship which was attested by the historical references and exceptional assistance for building of India in the early years after independence. Russia also gave the fullest support to India at the international fora.  Over the years it became instrumental in India becoming a member of the plurilateral initiatives like RIC, BRICS, SCO, INSTC and even hopes for a closer cooperation in Central Asia and its Eurasian Economic Union project. It appreciates India’s role in the stability and development of Afghanistan from where US retraction will create new challenges for the region.

When late AB Vajpayee was the Prime Minister the two sides agreed to have Annual Summits alternately in Moscow and Delhi. In 2001 visit of Vajpayee Moscow, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, for the first time met a world leader Putin, and signed a MoU for cooperation between Astrakhan and Gujarat.  Two decades of this exceptional comprehensive Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership has paid off due dividends for both the countries. Umpteen interactive mechanisms were galvanized to feed their result-oriented outcomes into the Summit so that the leaders could take stock of the situation and give directions to implement decisions for the desired course of action.

The special and privileged strategic partnership enriched further in the critical areas of Security, Defence, Space, Nuclear Energy, Hydrocarbons & Energy Security. It was then that for the first time Indian OVL was able to secure 20% of the stakes in one of the biggest Sakhalin oil blocs of Rosneft.

Since then for almost a decade and a half, India tried to repeat this feat but success eluded until 2017 when once again Indian private sector ESSAR was able to work in the hydrocarbons sector as the Russian economy began to face the effects of western sanctions. Russian forays into the nuclear energy sector in India also began to expand during this period.

Even though India and Russia have become complementary and natural partners the normal trade and investments between the two countries have remained far below potential. It has once again become the focus of the visit of PM Modi for the 20th Annual Summit and 5th Far Eastern Economic Forum (EEF). Putin invited Modi as the Chief Guest (September 4-5,2019) to Vladivostok, where India was the first country to open a Consulate.  While strategic cooperation in defence and security including space and nuclear areas remain the bedrock of the bilateral relations the real effort has been made to match it in the economic domain. The longish Joint Statement issued and the optics between the two leaders who have met several times and often talk on phone underscores the sincerity of purpose and intent. This time the salience and the intensity appear more determined in so far as economic and trade cooperation is concerned.

In the matrix of South-North cooperation, PM Modi announced the first ever Line of Credit of USD1 billion for a developed country, which is region specific in accordance with his new coinage “Act Far East” policy.

This is a facilitating carrot and convenience mechanism for the investors and projects including in the SME sector.

The region has acquired much greater salience in the context of Arctic explorations and new trade and energy routes hence shipping lanes from Chennai to Vladivostok are being explored. In the early 1990s the enthusiastic Indian diamond merchants like Rajesh Gandhi of Choron Diamonds had reached Yakutia (one of the coldest regions) with his Gujarati polishers to hone the Russian diamonds in his Joint venture. So did the Indian pharma companies. Indian film producers from the South explored the beautiful locations of the Far East and could get a boost with this resolve and direction by the Indian Prime Minister. On his part President Putin wants Indians to take a lead in exploring business opportunities for trade and investments as the regime framework for the investors is being liberalised. E-visa system was introduced some time back that would facilitate tourism from India. Given its declining population and the Chinese influx Russians might want some semblance of diversity and balance. Hence   the Indian work force, especially skilled ones that has already made its mark from the Middle East to Africa to the western countries and is sought after, has been welcomed into the Far-East. Hopefully, they would find the extreme weather hospitable too as some of our compatriots have done for decades.  Indications are right since 50 B2B MoUs and agreements worth $ 5bn were signed at the EEF apart from 15 G2G pacts. A trade target of US$30 bn (from current $11bn) has been set for 2025.

One of the key outcomes was the roadmap for energy cooperation as mentioned by former FS Vijay Gokhale “we had a major breakthrough in the energy sector.” This is a sector from where we have been looking to diversify our sources of supply and we are increasingly finding it attractive to buy oil and gas from the Russian Federation. It was that we agreed on a roadmap of cooperation in the next 5 years in which we will concretely work on investments both ways. Indian investment in Russian fields, in exploration and exploitation, in transportation of energy to India as well as Russian investments in India in the downstream sectors. We are looking at investing in additional oil fields in Russia in what is called the eastern cluster. We are also looking at sourcing energy and in this regard President Putin has also acknowledged that there is a need for us to look at how they can supply Russian energy to India in a safe, secure and in a way in which costs are maintained.”

It is extremely important in the context of on-going Persian Gulf Crisis keeping the long term perspective. However, it will need the grit of the businesses on the two sides and the sincere resolve of both the governments right down to the operative levels to productively harness the opportunities to a mutual advantage. India has agreed to test and buy the Russian Covid 19 vaccine as both countries face the pandemic head on.

Politically the relations probably are at their best as President Putin has met his match in Prime Minister Modi who takes decisions with clarity of purpose that was clearly evident in India going ahead with S-400 purchases and other deals despite US objections and CAATSA sanctions and Russia articulating its clear support to India on the abrogation of Art 370 as “India’s internal matter”.

Russia has been concerned with the increasing purchases of the US defence equipment and diversification by India but that is the name of the game. Relations with the US have enriched and diversified at great pace. But both U.S. and Russia need to understand that as long as we have to contend with treacherous terrorism driven Pakistan and an adversarial China, India’s defence pie will keep on expanding.

Of course, one cannot forget the “Dragon” in the room that is all pervasive and deeper engagement with Pakistan by Russia in strategic sectors, even if under the garb of Afghanistan, remain the points of concern. Happily, Russia has agreed not to supply critical weapon systems to Pakistan. Sino-Russia partnership has become remarkably close and they coordinate their positions on global issues on a regular basis. This has become more frequent as an “Alliance of U.S. sanctioned countries continues to evolve.” It is not to say that Russia and China do not have concerns or issues, but geo-politics dictates the coherent and coordinated positions to deflect the western clique and to secure their interests. This has brought about a testing ground for India-Russian relations especially as the Sino-Indian border conflict rages on. Russia obviously wants the situation to calm down and works in bilateral and trilateral formats to tone down the rhetoric and try to continue dialogue to resolve the conflict. However, despite Chinese objections Russia has agreed to not only expedite supply of S-400 but to meet the significant inventory request on priority.

Apart from regular Summits, Prime Minister Modi started an “Informal Summit” dynamic to address the key issues of global, regional and bilateral concern as and when required. The last one, at Sochi on May 21, 2018, was unusual as the two leaders spent nearly 9 hours together in a one on one meet.

One of the key concerns the Russians have is about the QUAD (US, India, Japan & Australia) in the context of the Indo-Pacific construct and China centric strategy of the US. It cannot be left behind from the growlingly active region. India has often tried to explain that from its perspective Indo-Pacific is not against any country but aims at ensuring the global good especially regarding freedom of navigation. In view of excellent strategic partnerships and expanding interests in the Far East and Indo-Pacific it may be expedient to explore a Japan-India-Russia trilateral which may help in bridging the trust deficit and evolve into a real strategic matrix of collaboration.

Since the fundamental objective of the foreign policy is to serve the national interest even the special ties need recalibration and review of the goalposts it  must be calibrated to real-politic to avoid emotional hiccups since transactional relationships and diversification of partnerships have become the norm in the international discourse. As Russia continues to reassert its influence in various theatres of conflict or cooperation it will surely be facing geopolitical headwinds and the one relationship that it can feel good about is with India.

(Ambassador Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Libya, Jordan and Malta. He has served for nearly six years in Russia. His second stint was as Deputy Chief of Mission in the rank of Ambassador and remains engaged with developments of India-Russian relations. The views expressed are his own)

Image Source: Twitter handle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi

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