Annual summits between the leaders of India and Russia, held alternately in the two countries, are part of their special and privileged strategic partnership. Russian President Vladimir Putin will arrive in New Delhi on October 4 for the next summit, and the leaders will be conscious of the need to carry forward the enhanced mutual trust and personal chemistry which was reaffirmed at their informal meeting in the Russian city of Sochi on May 21 this year. Putin’s itinerary starts with a welcome dinner with PM Modi on October 4. The next day’s schedule will include delegation level talks and lunch, call on President Ram Nath Kovind, and the presence of the two leaders at a business event and a presentation by talented students from the Sirius Education Centre of Russia and the Atal Innovation Mission of India to highlight collaboration between the younger generation. It is also expected over 20 non-defence agreements in fields such as audio-visual cooperation and exchange, transportation and highways and cooperation in space including training of Indian personnel for the human space flight will be inked. The spotlight, however, will be on defence agreements—especially the much-discussed agreement for purchase of five S-400 Triumf air defence systems. During the visit, India will gift one Type 75 and two Type 77 MiG vintage aircraft to Russia that stopped producing this aircraft in 1985, while India continued to upgrade the variants.
A truly multipolar world has not quite emerged but has already thrown up multiple aspirants, led by China, which is threatening the unipolar domination of the United States. India and Russia as major players are also hedging their bets and opening up relationships with other partners, bringing about strains in the Indo-Russian relationship. Russia is concerned about India’s growing defence ties with the U.S. (with whom India signed the COMCASA agreement during a recent 2 plus 2 dialogue), which is threatening sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if the S-400 agreement goes through. Following U.S. sanctions after the Russian action in Ukraine, and more recently after Russia was accused of interfering in U.S. elections, India is also worried about Russia’s growing economic dependence on China in energy, connectivity and defence as well as its growing proximity with Pakistan due to its belief that to keep ISIS out of Afghanistan, cooperation with Pakistan and accommodation with Taliban is key.
India still imports more than 60 per cent of its military equipment from Russia. India has conveyed at the highest levels on many occasions that it will go ahead with the agreement to purchase S-400 systems for US $5.43 billion and the United States should find a way around the CAATSA so that the question of any sanctions is ruled out. Besides the S-400 purchase, which was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security last week, discussions are ongoing to conclude a final agreement worth US $1 billion for 200 Kamov 226T utility helicopters. There is a strong possibility that an agreement to acquire four Krivak class stealth frigates— of which two will be built in India—for a total cost of US $2.2 billion will also be inked during the summit. There are indications that an agreement for the joint production of AK 103 assault rifles in India may be inked. CAATSA provisions had held up Indian imports of spares for existing Russian equipment for some months and India is therefore keen that India and Russia agree on a framework agreement to produce spares in India for existing Russian equipment in the Indian inventory like fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery guns and multi-barrel launcher systems. This issue will be discussed also by the Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, who embarked on a five-day visit to Russia on October 2. He will hold discussions also on manufacture in India of 1770 Multi-Purpose Future Ready Combat vehicles (FRCVs) to replace the ageing T-72 Main Battle tanks (MBTs). Russia’s Armata FRCV is a frontrunner in a proposed deal of US $4.5 billion.
Economic ties are important for a long-term interdependent relationship, and the year 2017 showed an encouraging 21.5 per cent increase in trade turnover which took bilateral trade to US $10.17 billion. India and Russia are committed to reach US $30 billion turnover in trade by 2025. The bilateral investment target of US $30 billion by 2025 has already been reached and the two sides have set a new target of reaching US $50 billion in investments by the same date. Russian Ambassador to India Nicolai Kudashev pointed out that the first four nuclear power plants at Kudankulam with Russian collaboration (two operational and two under construction) used 20 per cent locally produced components. This percentage will go up to 50 per cent for the next two units. An agreement for the new site for more than three VVER 1200 Russian designed nuclear power plants is on the anvil. Russia and India will cooperate in construction of a power plant in Rup Pur, Bangladesh and this could be a starting point for joint nuclear projects in third countries. Kudashev also recalled that Gazprom is now supplying liquefied natural gas to the LNG terminal in Dahej, and the Rosneft company (as part of an international consortium) acquired Essar Oil limited in a $12.9 billion investment. Indian oil majors have also invested US $10 billion in Russian oilfields. Kudashev believes that the Russian Export Centre, which will operate from Mumbai and Delhi, will strengthen linkages between small and medium enterprises. Reliance of India and Sibur of Russia are building a butyl rubber plant in Gujarat, which will go on stream in 2019. Russian railways are also studying the feasibility of the Nagpur-Secunderabad high-speed train project. While 100 top Russian CEOs were in India in early August for a comprehensive interaction with Indian counterparts, an equal number of business persons will take part in a business event on October 5 at an event where the two leaders will be present. India and Russia must expedite the operationalisation of the North-South transport corridor and revive the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor to shorten transportation time and freight between the two countries. Cooperation with Russia in the field of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, cyber security, robotics, science, biotechnology, outer space, information technology, nanotechnology and trade in resources such as construction material and timber, agricultural produce and diamonds are all areas of enormous promise.
Besides sharing a common stand on most issues of international concern, Russia and India cooperate closely in BRICS, RIC and SCO groupings. In fact, it was Russia which all along pushed for India’s inclusion in the SCO even if this has come at the expense of a concession to China to include Pakistan in the organisation. Fighting terrorism is the main thrust of the SCO, besides enhancing economic cooperation. In all these organisations, Russia and India need to cooperate closely so that the benefits are shared equally by all partners and not cornered by an economically predominant China. India is also inclined to sign an FTA leading to a greater economic integration with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, where the main constraint for India lies in transportation links and connectivity. In the Asia-Pacific, India associated itself with the Quadrilateral grouping with USA, Japan and Australia as the other partners, given its promise of cooperation in varied fields in the region. Russia, however, is wary, like China, of this development, fearing another anti-Russian U.S.-led grouping which will be against its interests. Prime Minister Modi’s clear pronouncement at the Shangri-La dialogue earlier this year that India sees the Indo-Pacific as an open and inclusive concept not directed against a third country and his assertion that India will consult with Russia on the Indo-Pacific has gone a long way in assuaging Chinese and Russian suspicions. On issues like Syria, Iran, and Korean peninsula, both India and Russia hold close positions with minor variations. There is need to narrow down differences in understanding and collaborating in Afghanistan where Russia is dealing with the Taliban in the belief that this will bring about a reconciliation in Afghanistan, and in dealing with Pakistan which is seen by Russia as an important player in Afghanistan, thus constraining its ability to criticise Pakistani actions in fostering and encouraging terrorist elements in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in India across the borders.
The Indo-Russian relationship is time-tested. Russia remains India’s dependable partner. India has supported Russia steadfastly in difficult times, most recently in the Skripal chemical incident in which Russia was accused, without clinching proof, of carrying out chemical attacks in the United Kingdom. This relationship needs to be preserved by both sides. While a military dependence cannot guarantee long-term friendly ties, common economic interests, policies and attitudes to world problems can be a cementing bond. It is for this reason that besides collaborating in the military technology field, both sides need to concentrate on enhancing their economic partnership, finding new avenues of cooperation and strengthening people to people ties, especially between their younger generation.
(Anil Wadhwa is a former Secretary (East) in Ministry of External Affairs, and has served as Ambassador to Italy, Thailand, Oman and Poland. He is currently a Senior fellow with the Vivekananda international Foundation. Views expressed here are personal.)