Former Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of India, Member of the Advisory Board and Dean of the Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, Vivekananda International Foundation
India–Russia relations have been traditionally state driven, and while this has given a certain stability to the relationship, it has also constricted its scope. At the state level the two countries have recognised that the relationship is beneficial for both and, despite drastic changes in the international scenario, they have tried to preserve a high level of mutual understanding.
Summit-level diplomacy has kept the relationship oriented in the right direction but expansion of ties beyond sectors controlled by the government — defence and energy — has not occurred sufficiently. Despite efforts at the highest level, and using the institutional mechanisms available, trade levels have remained abysmally low and investment levels have failed to pick up.
It is necessary to renew their strategic paradigm by taking into account the new realities. The changed economic needs of India and Russia have to be understood and cooperation adjusted accordingly.
Since the mid-50s, India and Russia have invested hugely in their relationship and the returns from this have to be preserved. The latent goodwill in India towards Russia is deep and this should be used more actively by Russia to give a fresh impetus to ties. At the highest leadership level, the two countries have recently yet again reinforced understanding and this can propel the relationship forward in the changing circumstances.
Not enough critical evaluation has been made of the state of India–Russia relations by foreign policy experts in both countries. The need for it has not been felt possibly because of the belief that the relationship, despite evident weaknesses, was being taken care of at the level of the two governments and, unless this was encouraged by the governments themselves, a broader scrutiny of it with forward-looking recommendations by those outside the government machinery was not required. If think tank specialists of the two countries have not got sufficiently engaged in joint exercises to appraise the relationship, it might be because of a sense, until recently, that ties were essentially in good shape and were at a level that met the needs of both sides.
In India the broad public sentiment has been that Russia is India’s time-tested friend and the noticeable lowering of Russia’s overall profile in India has not materially eroded that view. In India’s eyes, Russia has looked at India as a friendly country but not in the top bracket in terms of its foreign policy priorities. India has not been uncomfortable with the imbalance in the value attached by either country to its relationship with the other, recognising the disparity in power and global responsibilities between the two countries. In recent years, however, the India–Russia equation has been changing. Russia’s international status has waned; its economy has not performed well; its manufacturing has declined; it has not been able to exploit its impressive technological base to take a lead in innovation at the global level; its relations with the West have crumbled (largely because of the latter’s political myopia). On the other hand, despite its manifold problems, India’s international stature is on the rise; it has been growing well economically; it is modernising; it possesses valuable human capital; its foreign policy choices have expanded. India’s rising graph calls for a redefinition of India-Russia ties on a new and forward-looking basis.
India–Russia relations have been traditionally state driven, and while this has given a certain stability to the relationship, it has also constricted its scope. At the state level the two countries have recognised that the relationship is beneficial for both and, despite drastic changes in the international scenario, they have tried to preserve a high level of mutual understanding. The unbroken regularity of the India–Russia summits since the year 2000 testifies to this. This unique aspect of bilateral ties has, however, not created extensive linkages at multifarious levels between the two societies, whether in the area of business, education, culture, media or people-to-people contacts in general. Summit-level diplomacy has kept the relationship oriented in the right direction but expansion of ties beyond sectors controlled by the government — defence and energy — has not occurred sufficiently. Despite efforts at the highest level, and using the institutional mechanisms available, trade levels have remained abysmally low and investment levels have failed to pick up.
Of late, a perception has grown that India–Russia relations are not as good as they should be and that, in fact, a degree of drift is occurring, leading to some misapprehensions on both sides. From India’s perspective, close ties with Russia are a balancing factor in our foreign policy and give us the strategic autonomy that we feel we must have. In the context of our much improved ties with the United States, the strategic convergences that are emerging with it in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, and sizeable purchase of American arms, it is important for us that this is not seen as detracting from our relationship with Russia. More so, as the enhancement of our ties with the US has occurred at a time of serious deterioration of US–Russia ties. We would expect Russia to appreciate that the expansion of our ties with the US fulfils needs that cannot be adequately met by Russia. The factors at play in our relationship with the US are far more varied than those in the case of any other major power, whether it is the scale of our trade, investment, educational, research and development, scientific and technological, diasporic and other ties, including military exercises. Yet, the impression in India is that we have to make an effort to convince Russia that our rising engagement with the US is not at its expense. Russia’s overtures to Pakistan, especially in the military field, are construed in India as linked to our growing connection with the US. The evolution of Russia’s approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan/Taliban’s role in the search for a solution, and, in particular, statements made by mandated Russian officials dealing with our region that make light of India’s concerns about Afghanistan-related issues have caused confusion. The fact that Pakistan has begun to tout a Pakistan–China–Russia axis against an India–US axis in the region speaks of the diplomatic impact of Russia’s revised perspectives.
India is clear that US policy towards Russia is seriously flawed and has severely aggravated the imbalance in the international system. China has benefited the most from western efforts to weaken Russia’s international position. Russia has been compelled to strengthen its strategic coordination with China, which, given China’s phenomenal economic growth and the huge financial resources at its disposal, has given an upper hand to it in a relationship in which Russia had carried more weight in the past. It was Russia that had taken the leadership to establish the Russia–India–China dialogue and the BRIC forum, later evolving into BRICS, but now it is China that is becoming the senior partner. China is taking the lead to alter the nature of BRICS and consolidate its leading role in it by launching the idea of BRICS plus, which will serve as a platform for expanding its geopolitical and geoeconomic goals, and, in the process, diminish the relative role of Russia and India in the forum.
Russia’s belief that BRICS can be used to promote multipolarity, offer an alternative vision of global governance, potentially prevent western excesses and so on does not, in India’s eyes, take into account China’s disruptive conduct, its territorial irredentism, its disregard of international law and hegemonic ambitions in Asia. China continues to lay claim on large parts of our territory and this is a source of constant tensions in the relationship, whereas Russia has settled its border with China and can take a different view of China’s territorial claims based on history.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is seen very differently by India and Russia. For India, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor constitutes a violation of our sovereignty, China’s policies in our neighbourhood are seen as undermining our interests and its projects for the Indian Ocean are viewed as a security threat. Russia is not affected by these aspects of Chinese policies and can therefore have a different thinking on China’s projects and plans, though it needs reflection whether having covered its strategic flank vis-a-vis Russia, China is in a better position to challenge the US and establish a G2 of sorts, an outcome that would be reached at the cost of both India and Russia. The question therefore is whether India and Russia should become partners in this process or refine their strategy in ways that they do not accelerate the realisation of China’s geopolitical and maritime ambitions that are now quite evident. One can understand Russia’s more decisive shift towards Asia than in the past as a result of pressures on its western borders. From India’s point of view this should not lead to bolstering China’s primacy in Asia. India, as the second biggest power in Asia in every respect — the Indian economy is slated to surpass that of Japan in size by 2030 according to some projections — should be a much more integral part of Russia’s Asian strategy.
The belief in some Russian quarters that Pakistan can be a participant in major SCO or BRICS infrastructure and other projects within the framework of the India-Russia strategic relationship is unlikely to find a positive echo in Indian thinking, given India’s seven decades of experience with Pakistan’s endemic hostility. Russia’s evolving optic on Pakistan is creating a gap in the hitherto strong geopolitical understandings between India and Russia in our region.
China’s financial resources and its connectivity plans can, of course, be leveraged to the advantage of India, Russia and others in select areas. Russia, Iran and India could have jointly realised the International Transport Corridor (ITC) if the determination was there. China can be involved today, but without this project having to be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, especially as the ITC predates the BRI by years. Russia, with its close ties with Iran, should participate in the Chabahar project in which India is investing, by building the railway line to Zahidan, a project that would facilitate international access to Russia, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Will the Future be Brighter?
Having addressed the broad trends and developing gaps in the relationship, it needs to be underlined that the basic foundation of the relationship remains strong. Russia remains a vital partner for India, and one can surmise, that a rising India would be a valuable partner of Russia in Asia and beyond, especially as the two countries have shared thinking on several key aspects of global governance, be it respect for sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, and opposition to double standards in addressing issues of terrorism, human rights and democracy. Since the mid-50s, India and Russia have invested hugely in their relationship and the returns from this have to be preserved. The latent goodwill in India towards Russia is deep and this should be used more actively by Russia to give a fresh impetus to ties. At the highest leadership level, the two countries have recently yet again reinforced understanding and this can propel the relationship forward in the changing circumstances.
In this background, the VIF-RIAC report is very timely. All areas of the relationship have been covered: India and Russia in the international arena, economic relations, defence-related cooperation, educational, scientific and cultural ties, and media collaboration. The report is a critical evaluation of ties in these diverse domains. It is recognised in the report that to achieve substantial progress in bilateral relations it is necessary to renew their strategic paradigm by taking into account the new realities. The changed economic needs of India and Russia have to be understood and cooperation adjusted accordingly. Bilateral economic and trade ties being the weakest element in the relationship, a good part of the report is devoted to this subject. Defence ties being the strongest pillar of the relationship and facing new challenges, issues needing attention have been covered in some detail. The report is not simply an analytical exercise, it ends with a list of concrete recommendations covering the areas of foreign policy, bilateral relations, trade, economy and military cooperation, culture, science, education and the media. It is hoped that this report and its recommendations will be studied carefully by decision-makers and those who shape opinion on both sides.