India-Russia ties are a classic example of Lord Salisbury’s dictum that there are no permanent friends or foes when countries formulate foreign policy — there are only permanent interests. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remarkably short 28-hour visit to Russia — the shortest ever in the 60-year history of bilateral ties — reiterates this. Mr Singh’s summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently did not lead to any comprehensive political declaration to speak of. Not that this was totally unexpected, given the frostiness that now envelopes Indo-Russian ties.
New Delhi and Moscow have had very close links since Soviet times. India remains one of the biggest markets for Russian arms. It is no secret, however, that the relationship has come under a lot of strain from new challenges, including competition from the West and the growing economic and military might of China. This has made it increasingly difficult for both countries to translate their once powerful political trust into tangible results in economic interaction and trade. Leave weapons out of the equation, and trade between Russia and India is clearly nothing much to write home about. In fact, statistics show that the graph has actually dipped to its lowest level for more than two decades. This so startled the Kremlin and South Block that they prompted Messrs Putin and Singh to set up a joint study group earlier this year to give fresh impetus to bilateral trade. As a country that is drifting closer to Washington, India needs to acknowledge the winds of change sweeping Russia and adjust its energy policy accordingly. Moscow’s growing confrontational posture vis-à-vis the US and the West suggests that India could increasingly become a faint blip on the radar for a resurgent Russia. So while it makes sense for India and Russia to continue their friendly ties built on their past proximity, this should not be at the expense of their quest for strategic cooperation with other countries. The same imperatives that forge strategic relationships in international relations also apply to the India-Russia strategic relationship.