Dynamics of India-Russia relations
There is no denying that Russia holds a special place in post-Independence India. Since April 13, 1947, when the governments of the then USSR and India decided to set up their respective diplomatic missions in New Delhi and Moscow, both nations have more or less remained "tried and trusted friends", despite the occasional obstacle. The former USSR played a significant role in India's embrace with industrialisation, as it offered financial and technical assistance to a whole host of projects ranging from the thermal power station in Neyveli to the development of the Bhakra Nangal dam project.
The Russians also played a critical role in the early days of India's defence and space programme, not to mention the fact that the first Indian in space, Rakesh Sharma, was part of the Soyuz T-11 crew. Since those heady days of bonhomie, however, relations between the two countries have hit the occasional roadblock, especially with the growing influence of the United States on New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday landed in St Petersburg, Russia, seeking to strengthen those ties once again. He is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and will be in the country until June 2 for the 18th India-Russia Annual Summit. Reports indicate that bilateral trade, nuclear and technology cooperation will dominate proceedings during his visit to Russia. Politically, both countries have continued to maintain good relations, but bilateral trade is in sharp decline, slumping to less than $8 billion in 2015. Moscow's relationship with the United States and the European Union has recently taken a nosedive following events in Crimea and Syria. Both Western powers maintain the desire to step up economic sanctions against Russia, despite US President Donald Trump's apparent overtures and alleged connections.
Successive Western-backed economic sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea are still hitting Moscow hard. Russian energy companies, which primarily deal in oil and natural gas, have been hit especially hard. Energy and defence contracts have become central to Indo-Russia ties. In 2015-16, Indian companies invested about $6 billion in Russia's oilfields. Meanwhile, Russian oil giant Rosneft acquired Essar Oil's Vadinar refinery and port for an estimated Rs 86,000 crore. Rosneft now owns approximately nine percent of India's oil refining output. China, however, leads the pack in this sector, and Russia has become its largest supplier of crude oil. On the subject of nuclear power, there is the Kudankulam nuclear plant that India built with Russia's help. Moscow hopes to enhance technological cooperation in the field of uranium enrichment further. The last two components of the nuclear plant are expected to be developed by India's Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd and Russian firm Atomstroyexport.
If negotiations take a positive turn, the plant's progress will be the highlight of Modi's visit to the country. "Cooperation in peaceful uses of atomic energy is one of the fundamental components of the relationship between India and Russia," wrote Russian President Vladimir Putin in an editorial for an Indian news publication ahead of Modi's visit. "The construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant with our assistance is a flagship project in this field." Following the successful completion of the purchase of stakes in two oil and gas fields in Russia, Indian oil companies are eyeing more fields in Siberia. Both India and Russia have sought to boost bilateral trade and investment across a whole host of sectors, while committing to improve ease of doing business, including liberalising travel regime. Meanwhile, in a big-ticket arms acquisition last year, India had announced that it would buy the S-400 'Triumf' air defence systems from Russia, worth over $5 billion, and collaborate to set up a joint production facility for making Kamov helicopters. In this backdrop, Modi will attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia merely a month after India refused to send a representative to the Belt and Road Forum that sought to deliberate on China's One Belt, One Road initiative. Modi is expected to attend the event as the "Guest of Honour", as Russia seeks to project India as a significant economic partner, despite Beijing's reservations. It is imperative to note that despite improving ties, Russia remains wary of Beijing's antics. India must leverage this opportunity, as Russia seeks to counter the US-backed sanctions, which Putin sees as war by other means.
In the face of these sanctions, Russia has attempted to carry out a complete revamp and modernisation of its technological capabilities and attract foreign investment with little or no restrictions on the flow of capital. In fact, one can argue that India need not fear an American reprisal if it decides to maximise the scope of this relationship, considering how American and British banks have covertly invested in Russian oil companies. At the end of the day, it is all business, and one can also make the argument for how India's growing closeness with the United States has hampered its regional interests.
"The paradox is that as India has moved strategically closer to the US, American policy has worked against India's regional interests, propelling Moscow to forge closer ties with China and to build new relationships with the Taliban and Pakistan. The US continues to fecklessly accommodate China and battle the Taliban on just one side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan divide. Russia is equally nonchalant if its geopolitical chess play squeezes Indian interests," says Brahma Chellany, a noted expert in geopolitics, in a recent column for another Indian news publication. Pinned down by economic sanctions backed by Washington, Russia has sought to challenge US hegemony by exerting its geopolitical influence in Central Asia, Syria, Afghanistan, West Asia and Europe. It has noticeably achieved significant wins in this regard, especially in Syria.
In Europe, Trump's apparent inclination to reduce America's role has forced fellow European Union nations to look elsewhere and strengthen its security systems, fearing Russia's growing influence in the region. Nonetheless, it is Russia's apparent decision to forge a new relationship with the murderous Taliban that may cause some real consternation in New Delhi, as allegations are rife that Moscow is arming the insurgents. Moscow's motives are rather apparent, as it seeks to reverse the tide of history and force the US to get further bogged down in Afghanistan. As Pakistan provides sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban militants, geopolitical experts suggest that this has pushed Russia to forge new ties with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Russia has also courted China for investments into its oil and natural gas fields, besides selling arms to them and acquiring a share of the pie in the Beijing-backed OBOR initiative. "Against this background, Modi faces an exigent challenge to revitalise a flagging partnership with Russia while safeguarding India's regional security and its $3 billion development aid to Afghanistan since 2002. This challenge is compounded by the fact that a robust relationship with Moscow is vital to a balanced Indian foreign policy, to leveraging India's ties with other powers, and to managing an increasingly muscular China. A drifting relationship with Russia would crimp India's options, to its serious detriment," Chellany adds. How Prime Minister Modi walks this tightrope is something experts will closely observe.
Despite claims that Indo-US relations may become the "defining partnership of the 21st century", Washington has often proven to be an unreliable partner when it comes to protecting New Delhi's geopolitical interests, while issuing pointless homilies.
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