India-Russia Relations: Evolution, Challenges & Recent Developments

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Russia has been a time-tested partner of India for a long time now. Relationship with Russia is a key pillar of India’s foreign policy. The bilateral ties, in recent times, have suffered minor drawbacks due to India’s inclination towards the West and Russia’s growing relationship with China. Despite these differences, India-Russia ties remain strong. It can be seen through PM Modi’s visit to Vladivostok to participate in the 20th India-Russia annual summit and the 5th Eastern Economic Forum. Mr. Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the Russian Far East and this visit is intended to give “a new direction, new energy, and new speed” to the bilateral relations.

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How did it all begin?

India-USSR Relations:

  • A cordial relationship between India and Russia began in the 1950s.
  • It started with a visit by the then Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru to the Soviet Union in June 1955 and the First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev’s return trip during the same year.
  • During this visit, Khrushchev had announced that the Soviet Union supports India’s sovereignty over the disputed territories of Kashmir and Portuguese coastal enclaves such as Goa. Even today, Russia is on India’s side following the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A.
  • The USSR’s close ties with India hurt its relationship with the People’s Republic of China during the Khrushchev period as it had declared neutrality during the 1959 border dispute and Sino-Indian war of 1962
  • It had given India extensive economic and military aid during the Khrushchev period – more than China, creating contention in Sino-Soviet relations.
  • In 1962, the USSR had agreed to transfer technology to co-produce the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 jet fighter in India, which it had earlier declined to China.
  • During the immediate aftermath of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, the USSR was a successful peace broker between India and Pakistan.
  • In 1971, India had decided to assist the then East Pakistan to secede from West Pakistan.
  • As a guarantee against possible Chinese entrance into the conflict on the side of West Pakistan, India signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971 with the USSR.
  • In December 1971, India entered into war with Pakistan and ensured the establishment of the independent state of Bangladesh.
  • The relationship did not suffer despite its close economic and military ties with the Western nations in the 1970s.

How was the relationship between the two countries during the post-Soviet era?

  • The nineties were a tumultuous period for both the countries.
  • In 1990, India extended loans to the Soviet Union in the form of technical credit and in 1991, extended the food credit and a gift of 20,000 tonnes of rice.
  • After the dissolution of USSR, India, and Russia entered into a new Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in January 1993 and bilateral Military-Technical Cooperation agreement in 1994

Putin:

  • During the Soviet era, the political, economic and military policy of the USSR was characterized by ideological constraints.
  • Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, its economic interest was prioritized over everything else.
  • This changed the nature of the bilateral ties between the two countries.
  • Following the liberalization of India in 1991, the bilateral relations had to undergo rational changes based on common interests of both the nations.
  • Russia, under President Putin’s regime, saw a remarkable revival after a decade of political and economic instability following the disintegration of the USSR.
  • Russia was seeking reinstatement of its position in international politics.
  • The newly formed Russia was heartened due to the rising oil revenue obtained during this time.
  • Improvement was seen in Indo-Russia relations, which had suffered during the immediate aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
  • In 2000, during the visit of President Vladimir Putin, the relationship was heightened to Strategic Partnership.
  • The strategic partnership institutionalised annual meetings between the Prime Minister of India and the President of Russia and the meeting has been held every year since then.
  • During the 2010 visit of President Dmitry Medvedev, the relationship was elevated to the status of Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.
  • Both the countries have institutionalised the dialogue mechanisms to report to the two leaderships.
  • These are Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) that is co-chaired by the External Affairs Minister of India and the Deputy PM of Russia and Inter-Governmental Commission on Military and Military-Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) co-chaired by the Defence Ministers of both the countries.
  • These meetings are held to identify the priorities and review cooperation regularly and are the key platforms to take cooperation between the two countries forward.

What are the challenges faced by India-Russia relations since 2014?

  • The year 2014 was marked by new developments for both the nations.
  • India saw the emergence of a new government under PM Narendra Modi and Russia was witnessing deteriorating ties with the West over Crimea and Ukraine crisis.
  • Despite the announcement in 2010 of the “special and privileged strategic partnership” there were obvious signs of drift in the relationship.
  • The goal of achieving $ 20 billion in trade was not achieved by 2015.
  • In contrast, India-US trade was recorded at $142.1 billion in 2018 and Russia-China trade was at $107.06 billion during the same period.
  • Another indication of the stagnation of India-Russia ties was that in 2014, the US emerged as the top arms supplier to India – pushing Russia to the second position.
  • In 2016, India became a major defence partner of the US.
  • It began the 2+2 Dialogue in 2018 and had signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA, 2016) and also the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA, 2018) with the US.
  • Due to these outcomes, Russia had overturned its decades-old policy and since 2014, had supplied China with advanced weapon and weapon systems like Sukhoi 35 and the S-400 missile defence system.
  • Also, there have been increasingly close ties between Pakistan and Russia through the sale of Mi-35 helicopters and engines for JF-17 Thunder. They even began to conduct joint military exercises.
  • Military and technical ties have become the base for the India-Russia relationship. Thus, these outcomes are a matter of huge concern.
  • Despite the growing ties between Pakistan and Russia, it should be noted that Moscow stood by India on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • The main challenge that threatens the bilateral relation now is from China’s BRI, which Russia has joined.
  • It plans to link the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to the BRI. India’s connectivity plan in this region in the form of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is suffering.

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What are the recent positive developments in India-Russia ties?

  • It is evident from the above-mentioned facts that India-Russia ties are facing a few differences and challenges in recent times.
  • However, at the same time, the potential of the relationship between the two nations was underscored by the important agreements on the construction of 12 nuclear power plants in India during the coming decades, the ‘localized manufacturing’ in India of Russian-designed nuclear power plants and the finalisation in 2014 and 2015 of the supply of crude oil by Rosneft to Essar.
  • In 2016, vital agreements were signed between the two nations during the annual summit.
  • These agreements concern the supply of S-400 Triumph Air Defence Missile System, 4 frigates and also the manufacturing of Ka-226T.
  • In terms of investments, both the countries had set the target of $30 billion by 2025.
  • But the two-way investments have already crossed the $30 billion target and now the countries are aiming for $50 billion by 2025.
  • There weren’t any significant arms deal in 2017 as India had cancelled Multi-role Transport Aircraft and it had also pulled out the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft Project that began in 2007.
  • In the 2018 Annual Bilateral summit, the Sochi summit, there was an acknowledgment of the need for addressing the drift in the relationship.
  • This summit saw the concrete conclusion of the S-400 deal despite the threat of it attracting Countering America’s Adversaries through the Sanctions Act.
  • This shows India’s desire to maintain its strategic autonomy while also building strong ties with Russia.
  • In defence trade perspective, Russia still remains India’s top supplier of arms between 2014 and 2018. However, the overall exports have fallen by 42% from 2009 to 2013.
  • Despite the steps taken by both the governments to improve the bilateral ties, the differences over the foreign policies may continue in the future.
  • The most prominent of them all is Russia’s disapproval over the concept of Indo-Pacific, with the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov calling it an “artificially imposed construct” being promoted by the US, Australia, and Japan, to contain China.
  • The remarks made in February 2019 came even though in June 2018, PM Modi in his Shangri La speech made it quite clear that the concept of Indo-Pacific for India is based on “inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity”.
  • There are also differences in the Afghanistan issue, although diplomatic talks have provided certain clarity.
  • The major breakthrough in India-Russia relations was seen during the PM Modi visit to Vladivostok to attend the 20th India Russia annual summit and 5th meeting of Eastern Economic Forum.
  • This visit saw some notable developments that include:
  • Credit: India had pledged to extend $1 billion lines of credit for the development of the Russian Far East (Act Far East Policy).
  • Maritime route: There is also the proposal for the maritime route connecting Chennai and Vladivostok. This is of significance as Vladivostok is a short distance away from Russia’s border with China. This is of importance also because India is building nuclear plants in collaboration with Russia in Kudankulam. It will also increase India’s presence in Indo-Pacific.
  • Gaganyaan Project: Russia would help train the Indian astronauts for the manned space mission.
  • Both the countries, during this visit, had expressed their concern over the possibility of the arms race in the outer space.
  • India and Russia have agreed to hasten preparation for the signing of the India-Russia Intergovernmental Agreement on Promotion and Mutual Protection of Investments.
  • Other areas of cooperation between the two nations in international issues include:
  • Reformation of UNSC: Russia supports India’s bid for permanent membership in UNSC.
  • Terrorism
  • Russia also supports India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

What can be the way forward?

  • There are areas of convergence that can be used to improve the relationship between the two countries.
  • For example, India and Russia are calling for active promotion of joint projects in third countries in areas where there is a complementarity between them in terms of technology and resources. India and Russia are involved in the Rooppur nuclear plant project in Bangladesh on a trilateral basis.
  • Furthermore, President Putin had proposed for a more “extensive Eurasian partnership involving the EAEU and China, India, Pakistan, and Iran”. This should be made use of by India to strengthen its presence in Eurasia.
  • India can help Russia by providing the much-needed workforce in sectors like agriculture and construction without engaging in permanent settlement.
  • The need for the workforce is especially acute in the Russian Far East due to the continued decline of the population (population has declined by 24% between 1991 and 2015).
  • The trade relationship between the two countries needs active intervention for it to see the full potential.
  • Both countries must take advantage of policies like ‘Make in India’.
  • Concrete proposals in areas that have already been identified should be implemented on a priority basis.
  • These include start-ups, infrastructure projects, shipbuilding, river-navigation, high-speed railways, space, food processing, and high-tech products (e.g. space technology, new materials, aviation, agriculture, information and communication technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence, medicine, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnologies, supercomputing technologies, and material sciences).
  • The two nations can cooperate on common interests in multilateral forums like BRICS, SCO, G20, and East Asia Summit.
  • However, even in these cases, the differences in the foreign policy goals are beyond the bilateral dimensions and can pose as a challenge to India-Russia bilateral ties.

Conclusion

Relationship with Russia has always been the foundation for India’s foreign policy and it will continue to be so despite the occasional differences in interests. It is evident that India’s recent tilt towards the West is for taking up Pakistan’s position as a US’ strategic partner in the South Asian region. And Russia, for its part, is countering the US’ position in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Regardless of all the obvious differences, both India and Russia are balancing their national interests while maintaining and strengthening of bilateral ties. If this continues, India-Russia relations will last to become stronger in the future.

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