India and Russia can have a bright future in their bilateral, strategic relations, said Russian scholar Petr Topychkanov, a fellow in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, during a talk on “India-Russia: Enablers and Limits” at Observer Research Foundation on November 23, 2017.
Topychkanov, on a 10-day trip to Pakistan, India, Berlin and Istanbul, reflected a positive spin on the relations between India and Russia. He spoke about the problems that the countries’ bilateral relations faced, which included strategic partnership and weak economic relationships. Four areas emerged as the main talking points during the afternoon, which Topychkanov carefully treaded upon–the reason why Indo-Russian bilateral relations are special, what their strategic partnership means, the goals the countries wish to achieve, and whether they have the instruments to move together.
Not many countries make attempts to assist each other in the absence of a formal military agreement. India-Russia stand out in that area because they’ve helped each other in the wars the countries have individually fought in 1971, 1998 and 2014. “The absence of a formal military alliance has helped us achieve this state in our relationship,” he said. India-Russia bilateral relations remain special to him because mutual respect existed between the countries even before a decision to sign a strategic partnership.
Reflecting on the negative public perception, he highlighted the negative (media) portrayal. Topychkanov gave the examples of some negative remarks in India about the Russia-China proximity, and talk in Russia about the Indian decision to allow the visit of an American delegation.
It was evident from the discussion that while there is an effort to trust each other, since India and Russia are powerful allies, there might be some fear as well, owing to unfriendly media reports. On a personal note, Topychkanov said he felt that India-Russia lack the effort to talk and understand what strategies they collectively have. However, he did mention how despite the absence of any military alliance, the countries are ready to depend on each other in areas of nuclear cooperation. Topychkanov emphasised how Russia is positive about transforming the nuclear growth order, and how even if there is a fear that Russia’s role could be limited, the country has a good way out, which is to focus on traditional institutions such as the BRICS.
While BRICS needs to understand its own impact in the world setting, Topychkanov talked about the need to build it in a way closer to the EU. However, a point of concern for him was that in the absence of a quick and detailed response—in uncertain times—from institutions such as BRICS, the public and leaders begin speculating, which may not always have a positive impact. This is important because sometimes, public opinion can be extremely influential. He ended his talk by mentioning the importance of connecting Moscow and Delhi. “I do believe we lack open public instruments. We need several working groups,” Topychkanov said, before stressing that the relation between India and the US is a great example that India-Russia can follow to make their dialogue more visible, and to make public opinion more visible.
An engaging discussion led to various diverging and challenging perspectives posed by the audience. This included a view that India and Russia will continue to be strategic regardless of the countries’ relations with China and Europe to which Topychkanov agreed.
However, Nandan Unnikrishnan, Vice President, ORF, who chaired the event, wasn’t as optimistic and said he didn’t believe in permanent allies, and that the success of any strategic relationship would depend on the relation India and Russia had with China and the US. If that relationship were to go south, the India-Russia relationship would go south as well.
On a question about whether the bilateral relations could get derailed because of unflattering media reports, Topychkanov spoke about how because English is still not a working language in Russia, there’s an absence of Russian voices in newspapers, which prevents Russian views, which tends to lead to unwarranted speculations. He touched upon how because Russia itself had allowed the visit of its nuclear submarine in an open manner in the nineties, it would be unwise to criticise India.
The chair ended on a fairly positive note with mention of how the India-Russia relationship was not going to fade away. The countries have tremendous potential, and their relationship is not dependent on any external factors.
This report was prepared by Shreya Sethuraman, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi