India-Russia Ties Remain Strong Despite Fears, But Some Creases Need To Be Ironed Out

India-Russia Ties Remain Strong Despite Fears, But Some Creases Need To Be Ironed Out

by Ashok Sajjanhar - Sunday, October 23, 2016 06:27 PM IST
India-Russia Ties Remain Strong Despite Fears, But Some Creases Need To Be Ironed OutIndian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) (Alexander Vilf/Host Photo Agency/Ria Novosti via Getty Images)
  • From a review of the recent bilateral and BRICS-BIMSTEC summits, India-Russia ties seem alive and kicking despite apprehensions.

    Some hurdles remain, but they can be eased out with the help of a frank, in-depth dialogue between the two old allies.

The annual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Goa was watched and followed with considerable expectation and anticipation in Delhi, Moscow and other regional and international capitals.

For some time, it has been felt that the India-Russia relationship has become anaemic and frail and does not command the same salience that it once did in the Soviet days. This is correct to an extent. One could not have expected the relationship to continue with the same depth and dynamism as that which prevailed during the halcyon days – when the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed in August 1971 to ward off possible intervention by China, the United States of America (US) and the United Kingdom during the war with Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971.

The Peace Treaty was jettisoned in 1991 at the disintegration of the Soviet Union and after moves by Russia to have a close, strong relationship with the US. This, however, came to nought as the US refused to invest politically and financially in Russia's rise, forcing the latter to plough a lonely furrow.

Ties between India and Russia surged rapidly with the advent of Putin as President in 2000. An agreement to establish a strategic partnership between the two countries, with a provision to hold annual summits, was signed the same year. It is to the credit of both countries that these summits have been organised regularly since then. In 2010, the relationship was upgraded to the level of ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’ and summits continued. The recent summit on 15 October 2016 represented the seventeenth such summit between the two countries.

The India-US-Russia mix

The narrative in India among a section of analysts and the think tank community has been that India has tilted so much towards the US that its partnership with Russia, both strategic and economic, has become lackadaisical and listless. Signing of some highly advanced agreements in the recent times, like Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), with the US has further exacerbated this supposed alienation, as it could deter Russia from transferring its sophisticated technologies to India.

It has also been suggested that India has not invested adequate political capital and attention to build a relation of confidence, comfort and strategic convergence with Russia. This charge appears somewhat misplaced and exaggerated, as Modi has met Putin at least nine times since May 2014. This, in itself, is a large number and equal to the frequency of meetings between Modi and US President Obama over this period.

Russia’s improved relations with China

Russia’s economy has witnessed a steep decline in recent years, particularly after it was subjected to sanctions by Europe and the West on account of the Ukraine crisis and the “accession” of Crimea to Russia. This has nudged Russia into China’s expanding orbit. The rapid fall in energy prices over the last few years and China’s growing hunger for oil, gas and uranium further cemented this relationship. From the Indian perspective, the rising Russian affiliation with Pakistan, whether as a response to India’s cozying up to the US or to genuinely ensure that terrorists and drugs don’t flow into Central Asia and Russia, is a matter of considerable concern.

It was in this context that the Modi-Putin summit on 15 October was being watched with considerable hope and some anxiety.

Building on the strong foundation

The two countries signed 16 major agreements, including two key defence pacts which involved a Rs 39,000-crore defence deal to procure Moscow’s most advanced anti-aircraft defence system, S 400 Triumph, which will provide a ballistic missile shield to India. In another significant accord which can be expected to boost India’s “Make in India’’ initiative, India agreed to initially import and then manufacture Russian Kamov-226 T light utility helicopters. India and Russia will also collaborate to jointly manufacture four state-of-the-art guided-missile stealth frigates.

These defence deals are estimated to climb up to around $10 billion. While the cost of S-400s will be about $5 billion, the deals relating to the Kamov-226 helicopters and the stealth frigates will be worth $1 billion and $3 billion respectively.

Days after the summit, it was announced that Russia will lease out a second nuclear attack submarine of the Akula class to India for $2 billion. The lease of the first Akula-class submarine, INS Chakra, expires in 2021. The new submarine is expected to arrive in Indian waters in 2020-21.

Russian oil major Rosneft has signed a preliminary agreement to ship 10 million tonnes of oil per year to India’s Essar Group.

The two leaders launched the unit two of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant and witnessed the foundation laying ceremony of units three and four. In addition, a decision was taken to build units five and six of the Kudankulam complex and identify the location for the construction of a further six units.

In addition, over the last four months, Indian companies have invested around $5.5 billion dollars in the Russian gas and oil sector.

An important agreement for the joint study of a gas pipeline to India from Russia was signed. In a separate agreement, a Russian consortium comprising energy giant Rosneft, commodities trader Trafigura and private investment group United Capital Partners agreed to purchase 98 per cent of Essar Oil for $10.9 billion. Rosneft also signed an agreement with ONGC Videsh for education and training in the oil and gas sector.

Modi asserted that Russia's clear stand on the need to combat terrorism mirrors India’s own. He added that India deeply appreciates Russia’s understanding and support of its actions to fight cross-border terrorism, which threatens our entire region. This convergence of views was, however, less than obvious during the BRICS deliberations, when Russia did not actively support India to either infuse stronger language in the Goa Declaration or make a compelling case in his plenary statement. In fact, to the consternation of many, the 'T' word was missing from Putin's Address at the BRICS summit, although it did find a short mention in the BRICS-BIMSTEC meeting.

Hurdles in the ties

Notwithstanding the positive results of the bilateral summit, several wrinkles remain in the bilateral partnership that need to be ironed out urgently. One of them is the incipient relationship between Russia and Pakistan in the defence sector. Some analysts in India suggest that since India is not willing to assign a position of “exclusivity” to Russia in defence deals, it is in no position to demand or expect an “exclusive” deal from Russia. This argument is fallacious and does not stand the test of reason.

1. Russia continues to be India's largest supplier of defence equipment. According to the fact sheet published in February 2016 by the Swedish International Peace Research Institute – the most authoritative think tank on armament transfers, Russia accounted for 70 per cent of imports of defence equipment by India during 2011-15 while the US accounted for a meagre 14 per cent.

2. India buys only those systems and equipment from the US which Russia is not in a position to supply.

3. None of the armaments being imported by India from the US or any other source will ever be used against Russia. On the other hand, there is all likelihood that sophisticated armaments that might be exported by Russia to Pakistan will be used against India.

Conducting military exercises with Pakistan for the first time ever, particularly in the wake of Uri attacks, does nothing to burnish Russia’s image in the minds of common people in India who are supportive of a closer India-Russia partnership. It projects Russia in a poor light as a country which is willing to co-habit with a state sponsor of terrorism in exchange for a few pennies. The fact that the exercises were conducted in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and not in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was touted as a huge concession to allay the anxieties of India. This gives little solace, if at all, to those who are keen to see a more vibrant partnership between India and Russia. Russia’s argument that the scale and range of exercises it conducts with India and the level of defence partnership with India are much more robust and deeply entrenched than its engagement with Pakistan is not valid.

Any such joint military exercise would be viewed by terrorists in Pakistan as international approval or at least condoning of their activities.

India has always been mindful and supportive of Russia's core interests and concerns, ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, Ossetia and Abkhazia. India has always expressed an understanding of Russia's actions and refused to join in imposing any sanctions against Russia. India would, therefore, expect Russia also to be cognisant and mindful of India's core concerns and interests, particularly with respect to terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

President Putin’s lack of fervent and vigorous support to the issue of combatting terrorism has disappointed several of his admirers in India. While he was willing to speak out forcefully on the issue in the bilateral context, his voice was subdued in the BRICS context. Did China have a role to play in this marked shift in Russia’s position? It is necessary to have an in-depth, frank dialogue with Russia at different levels to remove any misunderstanding and bring bilateral ties on a firm platform.

The author is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is currently President, Institute of Global Studies.”

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