If there has been criticism about India-Russia ties it has been that if one were to take out the defence component from it, there would be little to show for substance. Judging by the recent annual summit between India and Russia in Moscow things are set to change.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the joint statement at the Kremlin, said that the India-Russia relationship “truly meets the test of a special and privileged strategic partnership”. But for two countries that boast of having strong ties and mutual goodwill the annual bilateral trade has a buoyancy of just about $10 billion. To put that in perspective: Russia does not feature in the top 10 list of India’s trading partners, and on trade volumes is way below nations like South Africa and Belgium — two countries that do not feature in the popular mindscape as India’s leading trading partners.
Cooperation in the defence sector has been the bedrock of ties and now there is a concerted effort to diversify trade to cover a wide range of sectors.
Two highlights from the Moscow summit was the focus on hydrocarbons and terrorism. The deal to give ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) a 15% stake in Rosneft’s Vankorneft oil fields — the second largest oil fields located in eastern Siberia — is a major development. “For Russia to let India have a stake in its oil, which it sees as a strategic asset, reflects the importance of ties with India here,” a top official in the Indian embassy in Moscow said.
The focus on terrorism, especially from the Indian side, showed that New Delhi was willing to shed its cautious approach of self-censoring on the developments in West Asia. In his joint statement Modi expressed his condolences on the “unfortunate downing of the military jet in Syria...” The PM not only stood by Russia but also made a clear political statement when he said that the jet was downed “in Syria” and ‘not’ in Turkish airspace. If India wants to be taken seriously in the international arena it needs to take such bold positions on world affairs, as Modi did. In fact sections of the media glossed over this important nuance and chose to pay more attention to his alleged ‘disrespect to the national anthem’ — which, anyhow, was not the case.
Other sectors that will get a push are trade in diamonds, pharma, mining and tourism. With Russia freezing ties with Turkey and Egypt unsafe because of terrorism, India needs to step into this vacuum by attracting budget tourists from Russia. Efforts like the six-month multiple entry tourist visa and talks on group visa-free travel will enhance people-to-people contact.
These developments come at a time when there is a decline in Russia’s role in India’s foreign policy. Growing India-US ties are a reason for this, but that does not take away from the fact that Russia is still a very important — some say the most important and reliable — strategic and military partner for India.
Several factors have led to the ties remaining strong despite the lull.
The war on terror and India’s quest for acceptance at the nuclear high-table made it move closer to the West. Now, New Delhi is widening the depth of that focus to include both the superpowers. Moreover, it is increasingly becoming clear that when it comes to cooperation and progress the way India envisages it, it is not the West but Russia that walks the talk. The summit saw agreements furthering cooperation in the defence sector, in the transfer of technology and joint production. In the nuclear power sector, the agreement between Russia’s RosAtom and India’s Department of Atomic Energy for localisation of manufacturing is a new milestone.
From Russia’s vantage it is alienation from the West. For many years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia’s official priority was to develop better ties with Europe and the United States. “When [Dmitry] Medvedev was president Kremlin developed a policy paper that clearly stated what Russia needed was to modernise relationships with countries that can deliver hi-tech and an entry into sophisticated world circles, and thereby, diminish ties with countries like India and China”, says Fred Weir, who was Hindustan Times’ Moscow correspondent for two decades and is now with the Christian Science Monitor in Moscow. Also the developments in Ukraine, and more recently with Turkey, have forced the Kremlin and the country’s elite to develop an eastern orientation and recognise India again as a ‘natural and reliable partner’.
These factors have meant that while both nations are expanding their foreign policy horizons it is done by not compromising on the strategic importance of the bilateral ties. New Delhi-Moscow ties might be decades-old, but the political leadership in both countries have recalibrated it to the diplomatic realities of the 21st century.
There are very few bilateral relations that can be compared to the ties India and Russia share. A close parallel could be the US-Israel ties, but without Washington’s carte blanche to Tel Aviv. Russia has been India’s ‘all-weather’ friend, much like China is to Pakistan, but with much more credibility and respectability.
Postscript: Blame it on a routine that has set into India-Russia ties or the blink-and-you-miss-it duration of his visit, but Modi’s Moscow trip did not generate the buzz one expects from a foreign visit by this Prime Minister. This feeling is amplified when one compares it to the reception former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi received in 1976. Archive footage shows the grand welcome she received with both Russians and NRIs lining the streets of Moscow on a rainy day to have a glimpse of Gandhi. But that was about four decades ago; the times were different, the world was different. Gandhi was in Soviet Union and Modi in Russia — and the two are not the same.