Correcting the India-Russia narrative ahead of Putin’s visit

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Russia-Pakistan relations attracted negative focus. Russia’s denunciation of the Quad dialogue as a nascent ‘Asian NATO’ indicated imperfect understanding of India’s perspectives…writes P.S.Raghavan

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is expected in India on December 6, for the 21st bilateral summit meeting. The meeting comes in the backdrop of much uninformed speculation about the health of the India-Russia relationship. President Putin’s visit is an opportunity to counter negative narratives and showcase the present status and future course of India-Russia relations.

India-Russia relations flow from the India-USSR relationship of the Cold War years, when India received considerable political, economic and defence support from the USSR. While acknowledging this legacy, we should focus on the objective factors that give current relevance to the relationship. They include mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation and convergent strategic interests, particularly in their shared Eurasian space.

The defence cooperation remains a critical element of the partnership. About 60 to 70 per cent of the weapons and equipment of our armed forces are of Russian origin. Russia has traditionally supplied and shared military technologies that other countries have not done. The forthcoming supply of the state-of-the art air defence system, S-400, demonstrates this. Over the past decade, India has diversified its arms acquisitions sources, to reduce excessive dependence on one source. The share of France, Israel and the US in India’s arms imports has risen sharply. Even so, nearly half our arms imports over the past five years has been from Russia.

Recent years have seen a burgeoning of our energy cooperation. Indian companies have invested heavily – an estimated $15 billion – in Russia’s hydrocarbons sector. Further investments are reportedly under finalisation in the Russian Far East and the Arctic region. Russia’s largest foreign investment – about $13 billion – is in midstream and downstream hydrocarbons projects in India. India’s GAIL has a 20-year, $25 billion LNG supply contract with a Russian company. An India-Russia joint venture for a large petrochemicals project in India is in prospect.

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Russia’s largest foreign investment – about $13 billion – is in midstream and downstream hydrocarbons projects in India. India’s GAIL has a 20-year, $25 billion LNG supply contract with a Russian company. An India-Russia joint venture for a large petrochemicals project in India is in prospect.

The energy cooperation includes nuclear energy. Two 1000 MW units of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu are under operation, four more are in various stages of construction. The collaboration includes credit, technology and supply of uranium fuel. As India seeks to curb its carbon emissions to counter climate change, the proportion of nuclear energy in our clean energy mix will inevitably increase.

Covid-19 showed us that external dependence for critical primary or intermediate materials could create disruptions in our economy. Wherever domestic sourcing is not possible, strategies should be evolved for diversified external sourcing. As host to about 30 per cent of the world’s natural resources, Russia provides trade and investment opportunities to enhance our resources security. The promise of a strong economic pillar to reinforce the defence and energy pillars of cooperation is still to be fully realised.

Some negative perceptions have recently overshadowed these objective factors. Amid the worsening standoff across the India-China Line of Actual Control, many Indians saw Russia’s strategic partnership with China as potentially diluting Russia’s support for India. Russia’s initiatives for a political settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan reinforced these suspicions. Russia-Pakistan relations attracted negative focus. Russia’s denunciation of the Quad dialogue as a nascent ‘Asian NATO’ indicated imperfect understanding of India’s perspectives.

At the same time, some contra-indications were overlooked. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Moscow in mid-2020, when India-China tensions were running high. Russia assured him of timely deliveries of contracted defence supplies and even fast-tracking some (like the S-400), as per India’s requirements.

The Russians ignored China’s suggestion that such supplies should be suspended during the India-China standoff. In 2019, when China and Pakistan tried to canvas Russia’s support for their opposition to India’s decisions on the status of Jammu and Kashmir and on article 370 of our constitution, Russia took the firm stand that these were India’s sovereign internal decisions.

President Putin and Prime Minister Modi have been in regular telephone contact on bilateral and global issues. We have also had a crowded calendar of bilateral engagements in recent months. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar had high-level interactions in Moscow in July, including in the inter-governmental commission for economic cooperation. The Russian national security council chief has been in Delhi twice for bilateral and multilateral consultations with India’s NSA Ajit Doval. On December 6, the two defence ministers will co-chair the intergovernmental commission on defence cooperation. There will also be the first-ever 2+2 meeting of the foreign and defence ministers, to review their shared strategic and foreign policy interests.

It is evident that the context of India-Russia relations has evolved in recent decades. India is militarily and economically stronger. Its global footprint now includes strong partnerships with the US and key countries in Europe, West Asia, Southeast Asia and other geographies. On the Russian side, its global engagement has been influenced by the Cold War-like tensions with the US and its allies, particularly since 2014, and the warming of its relations with China.

The Modi-Putin dialogue will pull together these strands and exchange perspectives on the broader strategic landscape. Russia-China relations, Russia’s engagement with Pakistan, the geopolitical fallout of NATOs withdrawal from Afghanistan and India’s perspectives on the Indo-Pacific may figure. The challenges and opportunities for India-Russia relations from these external dynamics merit a separate analysis.

The relationship is adjusting to these realities. Bilateral convergences will coexist with differing perspectives on some international developments. In today’s global geopolitical flux, this is true of every bilateral relationship, however strong. The maturity of a strategic partnership lies in its capacity to promote shared interests and reconcile differences in a manner that accords with the national interests of the partners.

The Modi-Putin summit is expected to demonstrate this maturity in the partnership. Over the years, the two leaders have developed a close personal rapport that enables frank and cordial exchanges of views.

(P.S.Raghavan is a former Ambassador to Russia and former Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board; now Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.)

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