Revitalizing India-Russia Relations


Hi everyone,

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be joining the talented team of bloggers that Shaun Randol has assembled here at The Mantle. Although I’ll mainly comment on things happening in South Asia, I also intend to make use of the freedom provided by the “-ish” in the title to discuss other issues, generally related somehow to something in South Asia (no, I can’t be more specific – that’s how great the “-ish” is).

For instance, I’d like to highlight several aspects of Manmohan Singh’s most recent visit to Russia (December 7-9, 2009), that may have laid the foundations of a more active partnership for the next several years, although it received little attention in western media (to be fair, it generated only mild coverage by Indian and Russian news outlets, as far as I can tell).

India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, recently went to Russia for the second time in six months to attend the annual India-Russia bilateral summit that rotates every year between the two capitals since the establishment of an India-Russia “Strategic Partnership” in 2000. Despite its institutionalization, the relationship has suffered from relative neglect over the past few years due to successive Indian governments’ focus on shaping Sino-Indian relations, then on completing long and complex negotiations with the Bush administration for a landmark US-India civil nuclear agreement. The latest summit in Moscow was notably more productive than previous editions in recent years. Indeed, the two countries gave new dynamism to their bilateral cooperation and signed several rather significant agreements, in addition to numerous smaller ones on a range of issues.

In the area of defense cooperation, they finally solved an outstanding issue regarding the pricing of a Russian aircraft carrier (the “admiral Gorshkov”) that was to be refitted entirely with modern equipment before its induction in the Indian navy, a subject that was generating an increasing amount of friction between the two.

They also formulated a new defense cooperation program for 2010-2020, which among others calls for the joint creation by the two countries of a fifth-generation fighter jet to be completed by 2015 and ready for production by 2020. This decision may prove itself a costly one for Russia in the long run: once the aircraft is ready, India will presumably choose to build its own planes for its own needs rather than purchase and import them from Russia, who thus loses one of its two most important defense markets. The other one is China (India and China together represent over 70% of all Russian military sales). But it appears unlikely that India would authorize selling to China such a sophisticated aircraft as doing so would basically give China the technology India has developed in collaboration with Russia. In other terms, it remains to be seen to what extent Russia is able to actually commercialize the aircraft.

Russia and India also signed an important civil nuclear deal, albeit one with a non-descript title: the “Inter-Governmental Agreement” (IGA) bears great resemblance to the landmark deal between the US and India except that the Russian one doesn’t place any restrictions on reprocessing technologies, and guarantees an uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. (The US deal mentions that further nuclear testing by India would put an end to nuclear cooperation between the two countries: a minor restriction that certain strategic analysts are trying to play up in India and Russia right now.) The nuclear agreement is also a way to confirm that energy cooperation will remain one of the core aspects of the India-Russia bilateral partnership.

While New Delhi no longer has a pressing or complex issue to deal with that would command most of its attention, and can thus tend to its partnership with Moscow, the fact that the possibility exists does not explain in and of itself why the two countries are revitalizing their partnership (or at least attempting to raise its visibility). The current revival stems in part from converging interests or similar perceptions of current geopolitical trends. In Afghanistan for instance, they have common interests and share a fierce and uncompromising hostility to the Taliban (whom Russia associates to its former adversaries from the 1980s, and that India views as proxies of Pakistan’s military), a factor made all the more relevant perhaps by President Obama’s recent announcement that a withdrawal process would start in July 2011. More broadly speaking, given Obama’s focus on redefining the US-China relationship, and his administration’s emphasis on its centrality (be it for shaping the 21st century or for getting past the immediate economic crisis…), maintaining or reestablishing an active India-Russia partnership represents an effective and attractive way to remain relevant in international and regional fora. It could also reflect a growing concern about China’s increasing clout within Asia, whose influence no one Asian nation can match by itself. Based on a near-perfect history of providing support in times of need, India-Russia (and before that India-USSR) relations have acquired a fundamentally positive image, so that today each party continues to consider that providing support to the other is or will be beneficial for both. This reflects the considerable confidence that Moscow and New Delhi each have that India and Russia respectively would never pose a threat to its own security or its interests – a rare disposition among emerging powers that belong to a same region.

Given this underlying atmosphere of trust, it is only natural that Russia would view an expansion of India’s international role, through an increased presence in multilateral organizations, as a positive development, as it would provide Russia with a trustworthy partner capable of exerting a greater influence on a wider range of issues. Indeed, Russia voiced support for Indian membership in no less than three important international organizations during the bilateral summit. Moscow called for India’s inclusion in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), for transforming New Delhi’s current observer status into a full membership within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and finally for fulfilling India’s “deserving” request to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

By breathing new life into a quasi-dormant relationship, India may be instinctively attempting to balance its relations with the US and with Russia; however, it is far more likely that Moscow and India are driven by a common concern of being marginalized in current trends revolving around the US and China. Russia, for its part, may feel the need for a revived partnership more than India, which knows that the long-term solidity of its partnership with the US is not threatened. Manmohan Singh’s government probably seeks simply to display a more mature, multi-directional foreign policy to show its detractors its firm commitment to preserving India’s “strategic autonomy.” 

China, India, Russia