Addressing the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow in July this year, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar stated, “Relations between Russia and India have been amongst the steadiest of the major relationships in the world after the Second World War. The paradox though is that precisely because it has held so steady, this relationship is sometimes taken for granted.”
He added, “Ours is a particularly mature relationship. More than its contemporaries, it has withstood the test of time, finding new convergences with changing circumstances.” Indo-Russian relations have grown over the years.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting 19 times since 2014 displays the steadfastness of the relationship. Russia displayed its proximity to India, when Putin participated in the Modi-chaired conference on maritime security of the UN Security Council, under India’s presidency. The upcoming summit would be their 20th meeting.
Historically, it was Soviet support that enabled India to free Bangladesh from the clutches of Pakistan in 1971 and kept the US and China at bay. Since then, Indo-Russian ties have remained steady. Russia has supported India in global forums, even when the Western world was pro-Pakistan. Similarly, India has never joined the world in criticism of Russia.
Though it is an established fact that India is now firmly in the US camp, yet its relations with Russia, a US adversary, remain steady. India and Russia are together in multiple forums including BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), RIC (Russia, India and China) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).
It is believed that Russia brought India into the SCO as a counterbalance to China, while China invited Pakistan for counterbalancing India. India also inducted Russia as a dialogue partner in the Indian Ocean Rim Association on 17 November. The group has 23 members and 10 dialogue partners. It gives Russia a major role in the Indian Ocean.
India and Russia are coordinating closely on the developing scenario in Afghanistan. The two nations are working in unison to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist hub and a major drug exporter. Both have similar concerns. It was Russia that provided the first opportunity for the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers to meet to commence diffusing the stalemate in Ladakh. This conversation was on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Moscow in September 2020.
Simultaneously, Russia-China relations are improving. With both nations being US adversaries, it is natural for them to be close allies. With the Western world discussing a diplomatic boycott of the Chinese Winter Olympics, Putin has accepted the Chinese invitation to attend the opening ceremony of the games, scheduled for February next year. China and Russia conduct joint exercises in the disputed South China Sea.
In a few cases, there are differing views between India and Russia. Russia views the Quad negatively. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is stated to have mentioned that the Quad was “directed at eroding long-standing universal formats of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region that exist under the auspices of the association of Southeast Asian nations”.
On a visit to India in April this year, Lavrov mentioned to Jaishankar that military alliances in the region (implying Quad) would be counterproductive. He supported the Chinese view that Quad was directed against it. Jaishankar tweeted, “I shared (with Russian Foreign Minister) our viewpoint on the Indo-Pacific.” These differences have never let the relationship slide.
India is currently funding the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor, which supplements the North-South Corridor through Iran. Simultaneously, there are discussions on the Northern Sea Route, in which both nations have special interests. The two nations have upgraded their relationship. The first 2+2 meeting, involving the foreign and defence ministers, is also scheduled to be held on 6 December.
As the Indian Ambassador to Moscow, D Bala Venkatesh Varma, stated in an interview last month, “India’s engagement is in line with Russia’s interests and is in line with India’s own interests; we have opened up new avenues of engagement whose impact will be measured not in terms of months or years but decades.”
India moved ahead with its procurement of the S-400 Triumf Missile Systems despite threats of sanctions from the US, the delivery for which is on schedule. India has defended its procurement on the basis that it was signed prior to CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) coming into force. The reality remains that India’s dependence on Russian military equipment cannot be ignored. Currently, 65 percent of Indian armed forces equipment is of Russian origin and India continues to rely on Russia for spares.
As Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla had stated when discussing Indo-Russia relations, that without Russian spare parts and maintenance help, “our ships won’t sail, our planes won’t fly”. India has signed a $3-billion deal to lease a Russian nuclear powered Akula Class submarine, likely to be delivered by 2025. In a recent decision, the defence ministry cleared the procurement of 7.5 lakh AK-203 assault rifles deal with Russia, which will be manufactured in Amethi at a cost of Rs 5,000 crore. Another major military concern for India is Russia not providing equipment currently in service in India to Pakistan. Thus, despite everything, India has to maintain close ties with Russia. India also participates in every major Russian exercise.
The only area where Indo-Russian relations have not been progressing is bilateral trade. In 2019-20, the trade between the two countries was $10.11 billion, well below desired levels. The two countries have set a trade target of $30 billion by 2025. Negotiations for the India-Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) Free Trade Agreement, which could boost trade, commenced in August last year.
The forthcoming India-Russia summit is on 6 December. In this summit, a logistics support pact between the armed forces of the two countries, on similar lines as between India and the US as also with Japan, is expected to be inked. In addition, a number of trade and technology agreements will be signed. The upcoming visit, though short and among the few by Putin since the pandemic took hold, would only draw the nations closer. Minor differences, which cropped up due to India’s strategic shift and closer alliance with the US, would be put to rest.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.