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Prime Minister’s Visit to Moscow: Need to Revitalise the India-Russia Partnership

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • October 21, 2013

    Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is visiting Moscow for the 14th India-Russia Summit from October 21. Historically, India has shared a multidimensional and strong partnership with Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union). Its contribution in building India’s national capabilities and being a ‘reliable’ partner is well documented. India has often referred to ties with Russia as a “key pillar of its foreign policy” and the two countries share a common vision on a number of regional and international issues.

    The importance of this visit needs to be analysed within the context of a rapidly changing international environment. As a result, the priorities of both India and Russia have changed, wherein ideology has been replaced by an emphasis on promoting national interests through a multi-vectored foreign policy. This has seen India strengthen ties with the US while Russia is now more frequently engaging Pakistan. The India-Russian strategic partnership, which may not reflect the glory days of the past, continues to move forward, albeit sluggish. The challenge lies in reinvigorating this relationship.

    On the foreign policy front, developments in Syria do highlight the contours of global geopolitics. By sticking to its position and through deft diplomatic manoeuvring, Russia has re-emerged as one of the principal actors. The perceived US military and economic decline and its indecisiveness in taking concrete action will in the near future highlight what Russia has been striving for all along; emergence of a multipolar world. Russia has positioned itself as a key global actor in such a scenario.

    Already a number of Russian initiatives have gained traction. As the Chair of recently held G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia called for and suggested ways to tackle global economic slowdown, combat tax evasion and undertake reform of international financial institutions. Russia’s active membership of several other multilateral organisations; be it the G-8, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Russia-India-China (RIC), high table of United Nations Security Council apart from a strong military power base offers it the unique advantage of being a pole in global diplomacy.

    Multilateralism also blends in with India’s independent foreign policy discourse. Therefore, India and Russia can explore common synergies in their endeavour to create a multi-polar world order and reforming global governance structures.

    Moreover, both India and Russia share apprehensions about China’s rise and assertiveness, despite significantly improving their bilateral ties with it. China’s growing economic engagement with Central Asian Republics has ramifications for the entire Eurasian region. Therefore, India and Russia can look to engage China in SCO and RIC meetings.

    Similarly, developments in Afghanistan remain a matter of concern for both the partners. They can work together to implement the common goal of ensuring stability and economic prosperity in the country. The role of SCO becomes important since it provides a platform to all the stakeholders to work on Afghanistan in the backdrop of post 2014 withdrawal of American forces.

    Russia is a Eurasian country and has pushed for building ties with the growing economies of South-East Asia. This policy is often congruent with India’s own ‘Look East’ policy. At a time when China’s maritime disputes have risen and US ‘pivot’ remains a work in progress, India and Russia can look to form synergies on their policies towards this geopolitically evolving region.

    The India-Russia partnership will continue to be mutually beneficial. India needs Russia’s support in organisations like the SCO and in building the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which is expected to significantly improve connectivity with the Eurasian region. Russia is the only country from where India can get access to sophisticated military hardware and technology without any pre-conditions.

    At a time when there exists profound differences between Russia and the West (EU and NATO expansion eastwards, lack of missile defence guarantees from US, EU’s Third Energy Package and general disagreement on Syria) and apprehensions on China’s rise, India as an emerging and powerful country remains one of Russia’s most reliable partners on the global stage.

    However, there are irritants in the partnership which needs to be resolved. Russia remains concerned over India’s weapons diversification policy which is seen within the broader context of the country’s perceived drift towards the West. A number of big Russian investments in India, from Sistema to Kamaz and Titanium Products have run into rough weather. Russia is also peeved at the imposition of Nuclear Liability Law on units 3 and 4 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant project.

    India on its part has had to deal with significant delays in weapons imports from Russia apart from concerns over their quality. Moreover, Russia has refused to entertain India’s request for tax concessions for ONGC’s Russian acquisition ‘Imperial Energy’ where production is becoming unviable, having linked it with the resolution of Russian investments in India.

    Some of these issues require taking decisions at the highest political level. Considering the good personal equation between President Putin and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the two countries can be expected to resolve a majority of these irritants.

    In terms of opportunities, there is a need to strengthen bilateral economic ties which continue to remain the most unsatisfactory part of the strategic relationship. Total trade between the countries is just USD 11 billion in 2012.1 However, Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation and India’s ongoing discussions on signing a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with the Customs Union should open up new economic opportunities.

    While defence cooperation continues to remain the mainstay of India-Russia partnership, the two countries can explore common synergies in co-developing more weapons platforms with cutting edge technology.2 Emphasis can also be placed on organising more joint military exercises.

    In the modern world, where high technology is key to power, it is imperative that India and Russia find synergies in developing cooperation in the field of science and technology. Diffusion of high technology from military to civilian usage through innovative projects can be attempted in order to build national capabilities.3

    Moreover, the quest for reliable supply of energy remains a critical component of India’s national security and cooperation with resource rich Russia can go a long way in augmenting it. Apart from nuclear energy, India can look to tap into hydrocarbon investment opportunities in Russia’s Far East, Siberian and Arctic regions.4 This will help India diversify its hydrocarbon imports away from the volatile Middle East.

    There is also a need for increasing cultural cooperation and people-to-people contacts in order to be aware of each other’s histories and national capabilities. Greater interaction between ‘think tanks’ of the two countries, promotion of Russian language studies in India and an easier visa regime to boost tourism can also be looked into.

    The prevailing trends offer India and Russia both challenges and opportunities to find common synergies and engage each other in areas of mutual interest and concern. They cannot afford to dilute the partnership since they both need each other.

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

    • 1. Embassy of India in Moscow, “Bilateral Relations: India-Russia Relations”, July 2013, Accessed on October 10, 2013.
    • 2. Russia’s has earmarked an ambitious ‘weapons modernisation programme till 2020’, which is expected to significantly modernise its Soviet era military-industrial base.
    • 3. India has a participation in Russia’s Skolkovo innovation project through Mr. Ratan Tata who is a member of the Skolkovo Foundation Council.
    • 4. Russia has offered India a stake in Madagan 2 oil-field, discussions have taken place for a stake in Yamal LNG while GAIL has signed a 20 year LNG deal with Gazprom.