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Is Russia Relevant for India?

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • December 08, 2014

    Vladimir Putin is visiting New Delhi this year for the 15th Indo-Russian Summit after having reincorporated Crimea into Russia and taken a tough stance against the West in the Ukraine crisis. He has stood up against the various attempts by the West to isolate Russia. There is no doubting that a renewed standoff between Russia and the West has ramifications. These events have put India in an awkward diplomatic situation. Further, Moscow’s big shift towards Beijing has caused worries and its decision to forge defence cooperation with Islamabad has sown confusion and doubts in New Delhi. In a veiled signal, Putin also sent Russia’s Defence Minister to Islamabad weeks before his own visit to New Delhi.

    Russia is upset with India’s defence procurement policy and is unable to digest the fact that the United States is overtaking Russia in the Indian weaponry market. Many in Moscow are sulking, seeking retribution by ending the arms blockade of Pakistan to compensate for the losses suffered in the Indian market. A host of voices has emerged in the Russian media asking with ‘whom does India stand – the US or Russia?’

    In India, sceptics question whether the old and time-tested Indo-Russian ties have any relevance for either country today. The two countries have substantially moved away from each other, as can be seen from the divergent courses of their foreign and defence policies. Even the ‘buyer-seller’ defence relationship is being threatened by global competitiveness. India’s disappointment stems from Russia’s failure to meet delivery schedules, its sudden jacking up of costs, reluctance to transfer technology and the supply of unreliable spares. The late delivery of INS Vikramaditya was a case in point. New Delhi is impatient about the progress being made in two joint flagship projects – the stealth Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) based on PAK-FA or Sukhoi T-50 and the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MTA) based on Il-214. As things stand, it may take years before production of these aircraft will begin. India and Russia need to tie up the loose ends of these and other joint projects to strengthen bilateral defence ties.

    Two-way interactions between India and Russia have dwindled. The annual trade turnover targeted to achieve $20 billion by 2015 still hovers around $10 billion. While the reasons for this are well known, actions to bridge the huge information gap, language barrier, connectivity issues and stiff travel regulations that impede growth in ties are lacking. There remains a serious gap in academic research as well. Russian institutions lack funds. The once popular "Russian studies" in India and “Indology” in Russia are almost dead.

    Surely, Russia would be worried about Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign and the proposed Indo-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). The DTTI, in particular, seeks to go beyond a transactional defence relationship by freeing India from import dependency through co-production and co-development in several big-ticket items that are aimed at boosting India’s security and economy. It hopes to create jobs and make India a competitive defence exporter. Be that as it may, behind Modi’s perceptible message seems to lie the understanding that neither the US nor Russia would be able to satisfy his ‘Make in India’ demand.

    Instead of feeling hurt, Russia should update the scope of cooperation especially in the field of high technology. But diversification is a major challenge, especially when a linkage is yet to be established between the engines of growth in India and Russia. Russian investment in India is merely $1 billion. Barring a few firms like “Systema”, “Rusal”, “Severstal”, “Kamas” and others, Russia has done little to explore India’s non-defence sector. Whether India’s Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) is able to strike a deal with the world’s largest diamond mining company, Alrosa of Russia, for sourcing rough diamonds directly for the diamond processing industry in India should remain an important item on the Modi-Putin agenda.

    India too is yet to explore Russia’s vast technological potential. Russia could refurbish India’s strategic assets, and it has a strong scientific and technological base that can be taken advantage of by India. Russia’s natural resources span a vast territory – now filled by Chinese and South Korean companies. Steps were long needed to take Indian entrepreneurs to these places. ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL) has made a tardy investment of $6.5 billion in Russia’s in Sakhalin 1 and Imperial Energy. It is a story of missed opportunity. How Rosneft’s offer of two Siberian oilfields in Vankor and Yurubcheno-Tokhomskoye will be finally taken forward by OVL is an important issue.

    Russia is using energy as a powerful weapon of foreign policy to counter the heavy sanctions imposed by the West. Sanctions have provided Russia a strong impetus to establish an axis with China, especially in energy. The new gas deals for supplying 68 billion cubic metres annually could not only significantly offset Russia’s reliance on the European market but also help Beijing alter the balance of power in Asia.

    For New Delhi only a blockbuster deal i.e., for laying the proposed $40 billion long-distance oil and gas pipeline from Russia to India can turn around the trade prospect to touch over $100 billion. Energy diplomacy can replace the waning defence business and bring rationality to Indo-Russian relations.

    Russia is unnecessarily sowing the seeds for misunderstanding by forging military ties and selling weapons to Islamabad. Of course, courting Islamabad is linked to Moscow’s current isolation, but it has already sold Mi-35 Hind helicopters to Pakistan. The appetite for such sales could only grow further. Russia also sees Pakistan as an important determinant in Afghanistan. This time around, Russia’s position may no longer be identical to that of India. It may be more nuanced bordering somewhere between the Indian and Pakistani policies on Afghanistan. In 2000, Putin told Indian parliament that “the same organisations that were creating problems in the Indian state of J&K were behind problems in Chechnya and other parts of the Russian Caucasus.” But now, citing a packed schedule, Putin has cancelled his programme to address the Indian Parliament.

    However, the strategic partnership with Russia cannot be wished away so easily. Russia is still politically, diplomatically and militarily important for India. A country with large stockpiles of strategic bombers and a veto power in the UNSC acts as a useful counterweight against global hegemony. Here, India needs to be mindful of the risk of relying totally on the US, which could restrict access to civil-military technologies and snap all cooperation should India decide to lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. New Delhi also cannot ignore the geostrategic calculations, where the US can never replace Russia politically and operationally in case of a national crisis. Moscow, in the past, effectively checkmated any misadventure by China or Pakistan to undermine India’s territorial integrity. Russia’s diplomatic support to India in the context of the issue of Kashmir cannot be lost sight of, especially when the traditionally strong US-Pakistan relationship and China-Pakistan nexus still persists.

    India also should not forget Russian assistance in civil nuclear and civilian space programmes, especially when others had shunned nuclear commerce with India. However, challenges for implementing the proposed roadmap of constructing the remaining 12 nuclear power reactors after the completion of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plants need to be addressed.

    Importantly, the trust and comfort factor in the India-Russia relationship still exists. Irrespective of what Modi hopes to gain from the US and other powers, he needs to see ties with Russia as pivotal to India’s core national interests. Russia supports India joining the SCO as full member. This could happen when Modi goes to Ufa in July 2015, unless of course China were to stall that in retaliation for India’s unwillingness to admit China into SAARC.

    Modi needs to find more diligent ways to reboot the relationship with Russia and make it more relevant for changing times. Indications are that Modi is keen on turning around the relationship in a big way.

    Author is former Ambassador and expert on Eurasia

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India