Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 01, 2017
On 2 June, PM Modi will be the Guest of Honour at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum which in recent years has emerged as the "Russian Davos".
India-Russia relations: Time for serious dialogue

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now visiting Russia — from 31 May to 2 June to participate in the 18th annual India-Russia Summit between him and President Vladimir Putin on 1 June. On 2 June, PM Modi will be the Guest of Honour at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum which in recent years has emerged as the "Russian Davos".

It is to the credit of Indian and Russian leaders that the regularity and momentum of annual summits have been maintained since they were launched 18 years ago during the first visit of Putin to India in October 2000. Putin can be termed as the architect of strong and vibrant bilateral relations as he has guided bilateral ties during his two terms as President from 2000 to 2008 and again from 2012 onwards. He provided significant impetus to bilateral strategic partnership which was upgraded to the level of special and privileged strategic partnership in 2010 during his four-year tenure as Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012.

A month ago, India and Russia marked the 70th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations. A wide-ranging and ambitious programme of seminars, conferences, visits, cultural events, etc. throughout the year has been worked out to celebrate the event in a befitting manner. It is worth noting that bilateral relations between the two countries were established even before India formally achieved its independence.

Relations with the former Soviet Union, and, after 1991, with Russia, have been a solid pillar of India's foreign policy. The Soviet Union supported India in its industrial and economic development as well as in the United Nations. India helped the Soviet Union by adopting moderate positions when Soviet Union found itself arraigned internationally for actions in Hungary or Czechoslovakia for human rights abuses. The pinnacle in bilateral relations was reached in 1971 with the signing of the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation.

Bilateral ties witnessed considerable turbulence at the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Peace Treaty was abandoned and both sides started looking to the west and other directions for new partnerships. This was the time when India established diplomatic ties with Israel, launched the Look East policy and made tentative moves to come closer to the US. Russia was looked down upon by the West and treated with disdain and pity as a vanquished State. Russia's growing disenchantment with the West brought it back to India. Russia did not join the sanction regime against India imposed by several western countries spearheaded by the US in the wake of India's nuclear tests in May, 1998. This show of support and strength was very valuable for India at that trying juncture.

Strategic partnership between the two countries was established in 2000. The last 17 years have seen a remarkable growth and expansion in bilateral ties in a wide variety of areas.

These include supply of defense equipment as well as their progressive manufacture in India. This has given a strong fillip to the Make in India Initiative launched by Prime Minister Modi. Brahmos Missile is a shining example of fruitful cooperation between the two countries. A number of far-reaching decisions including supply of S-400 Ballistic Missile Defense system, supply of 200 Kamov 226-T helicopters and several other defense systems were agreed upon during the 17th Annual Summit in Goa in October last year. Russia continues to be the main defense equipment provider to India notwithstanding the entry of new suppliers like USA, Israel and France in recent years. Over the past five years, Russia was the recipient of 70% of defense import orders placed by India.

Nuclear energy is another area which has shown remarkable growth. Two units of Kudankulam nuclear power plant of 1,000 MW each are already operational. Contracts for two more have already been signed. Contracts for units 5 and 6 as well as a further 6 to be established in Andhra Pradesh are yet to be signed. Talks are continuing. It is understood that India is going a little slow in entering into new deals because of delays in finalising its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Discussions on expediting India's membership of NSG by persuading China to adopt a "merit based approach" would be on the Agenda of the two leaders when they meet on 1 June.

Hydrocarbons is another area in which both the countries are collaborating effectively and efficiently. Several agreements totaling more than US$ 10 billion were signed over the last few years, many of these at the last summit.

Bilateral trade is the only area where state of bilateral cooperation is not reflected in the volume of two-way exchanges. Currently bilateral trade turnover stands at around US$ 8 billion having come down from about US$ 11 billion a few years ago. A target of US$ 30 billion by 2025 has been fixed. Going by current estimates it would be difficult to come anywhere close to this level. Private business in India has to step up to the plate. Russia also needs to proactively open its market and reduce the non-tariff barriers on India's exports of pharmaceuticals, services, agricultural products, chemicals and light engineering goods. Discussions are expected to take place on establishment of a Free Trade Area (FTA) between India and the Eurasian Economic Union. A study was initiated on this issue two years ago which has come out with a positive recommendation. This FTA could prove to be a shot in the arm for enhancing bilateral commercial ties as India could get preferential access to a large market comprising of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

Modi will address the 4,000 or so of businessmen from 60 countries assembled in St. Petersburg and will invite and exhort them to expand business and trade ties with India and increase their investment. He will, as in Germany, recount the huge advantages that India offers in the field of commerce and economy as it has embarked upon a number of reforms including the soon to be launched GST, introduction of the bankruptcy code, seriousness to deal with non-performing assets of banks, as well as its high growth rate, good projected monsoon which all go to make India an increasingly attractive investment destination.

Modi will address the 4,000 or so of businessmen from 60 countries assembled in St. Petersburg and will invite and exhort them to expand business and trade ties with India and increase their investment.

In addition to discussions on existing areas of cooperation mentioned above, the most significant aspect of bilateral parleys is likely to focus on the changing and rapidly evolving geopolitical situation. The tectonic shifts in the global order present different challenges to different nations. First is the uncertainty introduced by the Trump Presidency. His avowed determination to mend ties with Russia appears to be hitting roadblocks in the US political leviathan, and floundering. Positions that Trump has taken during his recent participation in the G-7 and NATO meetings have made the Europeans disillusioned and nervous. His pronouncements in Saudi Arabia and Israel about taking up cudgels against Iran would have made Russia and its Iranian and Syrian allies anxious and worried. Both India and Russia would need to share their appreciation of the unfolding situation with each other. Prime Minister Modi will be able to add more current and authentic information, having just interacted with the German Chancellor and Spanish Prime Minister as part of his four-nation European tour.

China would be another major subject of discussion. Russia's closeness to China has increased significantly over the last few years. As expected, Putin was an enthusiastic and active participant in the Belt Road Forum in Beijing in mid-May 2017. Modi will explain India's reasons for staying away from the Forum and will share India's perspective on China's increasing assertiveness. He will emphasise the need to ensure that China's rise is indeed peaceful and does not adversely impact the status quo. Discussions about growing presence and influence of China in Central Asian states could also come up.

A significant aspect of the bilateral dialogue is likely to focus on Russia's growing ties with Pakistan and Taliban. It is more than likely that the perpetrators of the heinous attack in Kabul on 31 May are from Taliban. Security in Afghanistan and peace in Central Asia cannot be achieved without crippling the infrastructural, financial and logistic support being provided by Pakistan's army and ISI to Taliban, Haqqani network and others. Prime Minster Modi can be expected to inform President Putin that growing and normalising of Russia-Pakistan ties will embolden Pakistan and give it confidence to continue with its vicious activities without danger of any backlash or repercussions from the international community. Moreover, any type of cooperation between Russia and Pakistan in the defence sector, be it military equipment or exercises, would be used against India.

A few crinkles have appeared of late in the fabric of India-Russia bilateral ties. These concerns and misgivings continue to fester. They need to be resolved and set to rest quickly so that they don't cause damage to the rapidly expanding bilateral partnership.

Meeting between PM Modi and President Putin in St. Petersburg is an ideal opportunity to reinforce understanding and confidence so that the two countries navigate the treacherous seas of geopolitics to ensure security, stability and prosperity for their people and the world.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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