Some hardline calculations based on realpolitik paved the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Delhi, for the Covid-interrupted 21st annual India-Russia summit. The timing of the meeting, just before the virtual Biden-Putin summit and the conference of democracies hosted by the US president, was significant. The last in-person summit took place in 2019 when Prime Minister Modi visited Vladivostok. Putin set the tone for the visit by calling India an authoritarian center of the multipolar world whose foreign policy philosophy and priorities are close to those of Russia. He also hinted at major new initiatives for the privileged bilateral partnership. While all of these meetings had their optics and substance, the Modi-Putin summit certainly addressed the perception that India and Russia had allowed strategic gaps to emerge in their worldview. The substantial outcome of the summit was a joint declaration of 99 paragraphs and around 26 bilateral agreements.
There are several fundamental congruences in the overall approach of the two countries. In addition to rejuvenating old ties of friendship and dispelling the sense of drift, the visit was a clear signal of commitment to a multipolar international order and strengthened strategic balance as a lasting factor. ties between nations. Both countries guard against any structural imbalance in the international order that could affect both nations. Change is inevitable and the summit sent a signal that despite changes and shifting priorities, the two countries want to maintain strategic ties. Call it a coincidence that the summit took place after 50 years of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty of August 1971 and the ongoing celebrations to mark 50 years of the Bangladesh Liberation War, where both played a part important.
With parts of the S-400 missile defense system landing in India, despite the threat of US sanctions under CAATSA, and defense agreements signed with Russia, New Delhi has expanded its space of strategic autonomy. The 2+2 dialogue between foreign and defense ministers ahead of the summit mirrors a similar format with the United States. The Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation (IGCMTC) is new and will bring more depth and stability to the bilateral relationship, which is not without dissonance. Russia has criticized the Quad and AUKUS, seeing them both as platforms to pressure Beijing and Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has publicly voiced his criticisms, adopting the role of a “bad cop”. Putin has been much more circumspect in this regard. India has kept its lines of communication open and participated in other plurilateral forums like BRICS, SCO and RIC. India does not see its close ties with Western countries such as the US, France, UK and Germany as affecting its relations with Russia.
Defense relations have been a constant feature of Indo-Russian relations, and military modernization has become a high priority, triggered by China’s aggression and expansionism. Nearly 60% of Indian military equipment is of Russian origin. The agreement to manufacture AK-203 rifles in India with the transfer of Russian technology will re-equip and improve the capabilities of Indian soldiers, who still use the old INSAS rifles. The co-production and manufacture of four frigates and the supply of SU-MKI and MiG-29 aircraft were among other defense agreements. The agreement for the mutual supply of logistics has not been concluded but remains on the agenda. Last-minute changes to the text did not allow time for Cabinet committee approval. India already has a logistics agreement with the United States (LEMOA), Australia and France. A similar agreement with Japan is also under negotiation. Beyond defence, bilateral relations have grown in the energy sector, where India’s growing oil and gas needs match Russia’s proven ability to meet that demand. Moscow agreed to “preferential pricing” for oil and gas supplies and also agreed to deliver them via the northern Arctic route. Progress in collaboration in the downstream petrochemical sector is in sight. In the nuclear sector, Russia is a long-time collaborator and this sector should see greater cooperation. In Bangladesh, India and Russia are collaborating to set up the Rooppur nuclear power plant.
One of the weak pillars of the bilateral relationship is trade. Indo-Russian trade languishes at around $10 billion. India-Bangladesh trade is much the same. Although bottlenecks exist, both governments must urgently focus on this issue and a joint task force should be mandated to come up with options if the new $30 billion trade target is to be met. by 2025. The International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC) has the potential to connect landlocked Central Asia to the port of Chabahar and establish trade links. Russia is a country in demographic difficulty. The aging of the population and its growth rate are lower than replacement rates. India has the advantage of a young population which can be exploited for sectors like agriculture in the vast territory of Russia.
In the coming decades, India’s main challenge is to counter the China-Pakistan axis. While Russia has been pushed to get closer to China, mainly due to Western sanctions, it cannot be comfortable with Beijing’s growing footprint in its economy and in Central Asian states. India and Russia have no outstanding bilateral disputes. Both share long borders with China, and Kautilyan’s proposal to reach the nation beyond your neighbor is as relevant today as ever. Neither wants a China-dominated Asia or a China-centric international order. During the India-China LAC clashes, Russia quickly responded to India’s military demands, a fact that would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.
A declining power, Russia will not be opposed to the rise of deterrence against China, for which it will need India but also Quad and AUKUS, even if it will not participate in these initiatives. Russian and Indian strategic interests are aligned in the Eurasian region. In Afghanistan, initial differences over the Taliban may have occurred, but in the current scenario, the two share the concern that terror will spread over J&K and Central Asia. The announcement that the leaders of the Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have been invited as guests for the upcoming Republic Day celebrations and earlier meeting of NSAs from these nations and from Russia to Delhi are indications of a renewed outreach. The pandemic has witnessed cooperation and India has added the Russian vaccine Sputnik-V to the list of vaccines approved in the country and for export. While cooperation in defense, energy and space sectors will continue, bilateral relations need to grow in trade, tourism and other sectors to maintain long-term ties.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Former Ambassador and Secretary at the MEA, Visiting Researcher at the ORF and Founding Director of DeepStrat