Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attend a news conference following their talks in New Delhi. (REUTERS)
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attend a news conference following their talks in New Delhi. (REUTERS)

Expanded defence cooperation, free trade area figure in India, Russia talks

Lavrov said the two sides also agreed on joint efforts to tackle a decline in mutual trade due to the Covid-19 pandemic
UPDATED ON APR 06, 2021 11:18 PM IST

India and Russia on Tuesday discussed ways to deepen military and strategic cooperation, including manufacturing of Russian military hardware in the country, and begin talks on creating a free trade area between India and the Eurasian Economic Union. These matters figured in the meeting between external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

“We talked about the longstanding partnership in nuclear, space and defence sectors... We spoke of connectivity, including the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor,” Jaishankar told a joint news conference after the talks.

Lavrov, whose visit to New Delhi focussed on preparations for the annual India-Russia Summit to be held in the country later this year, said the two sides discussed military cooperation, including the expansion of the manufacturing of state-of-the-art Russian weapons in India under the “made in India” and Atmanirbhar Bharat initiatives.

“In this strategically important area, Russia is a major foreign contractor for India. We are the only partner that indeed transfers to India cutting edge military technology,” he said.

“Deepening of military cooperation serves national interests of both countries. At the same time, we respect the right of our Indian friends to diversify ties in this area,” he said.

Jaishankar said India’s “defence sector requirements in the past year were expeditiously addressed” by Russia – an apparent reference to the country’s emergency military needs amid the border standoff with China in Ladakh sector.

According to a recent estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), Russia was the most affected supplier as India’s arms imports fell 33% between 2011-15 and 2016-20. Though it continues to account for almost 60% of the hardware of the Indian military, Russia is also facing growing competition from the US and France.

Responding to a question on reported US pressure on India to prevent military-technical cooperation with Russia, Lavrov said this was an issue for any country that wants to sign agreements with Russia for weapons systems.

“We did not discuss these statements from the US, instead we confirmed that we are going to deepen our military cooperation... We also discussed the prospect of additional manufacturing of Russian military equipment in India within the concept of ‘Made in India’,” Lavrov said, adding that there were no “fluctuations or changes” on the part of India.

The US has held out the possibility of slapping sanctions on India over the purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia.

Lavrov further said that working with India on trade and economic issues is one of the priorities of the Eurasian Economic Union, a bloc that includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. “We hope to launch talks on a free trade area between India and the Eurasian Economic Union based on mutual benefit,” he said.

The two sides also agreed on the need to “galvanise work on the renewed inter-governmental agreement on mutual security of investments” and on increasing the share of national currencies in trade, he said.

Jaishankar also briefed Lavrov on new economic initiatives, such as Atmanirbhar Bharat and the production-linked incentives programmes, to expand manufacturing in 13 sectors which have opened up new opportunities for Russian businesses.

Lavrov said the two sides also agreed on joint efforts to tackle a decline in mutual trade due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They also discussed cooperation in nuclear energy, space, including manned programmes, building rocket engines and satellite navigation, and transportation infrastructure projects in Russia’s the Far East and the Arctic, he said.

Collaboration on Covid-19 vaccines figured in the talks, and Lavrov noted the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) has signed contracts with several Indian firms to manufacture about 750 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. He didn’t rule out further cooperation to cover manufacturing of Indian vaccines in Russia, while Jaishankar said a decision would be made by regulatory authorities of both sides.

“For us, were those vaccines to be made in India, it would be one more affirmation of the importance of ‘Made in India’ and our own vaccine capacities,” Jaishankar said.

The Russian minister also conveyed a message from President Vladimir Putin to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and invited Jaishankar to visit Russia.

Former ambassador Vishnu Prakash said there are various difficulties associated with infrastructure development projects in Russia’s Far East and the proposed free trade area with the Eurasian Economic Union.

“Besides India’s resource constraints, there’s also the influence of China. It won’t be easy for us to compete with China’s financial resources and economic muscle-flexing. Russia itself has been concerned about increasing Chinese influence in these areas,” he said.

“The Russian military hardware is certainly something we should consider, but after the S-400 and the threat of sanctions under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), nothing is going to be smooth sailing. Being the devil’s advocate, I’m not dismissing this but it isn’t as straightforward as it would appear,” Prakash said.

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