Originally Published 2015-07-07 00:00:00 Published on Jul 07, 2015
Indian PM Narendra Modi this week makes his maiden visit as Prime Minister to Russia, one of India's closest strategic partners. This seeming delay in travelling to Russia may surprise some, given that the Prime Minister has travelled to almost all the major powers as well as most of India's immediate neighbourhood.
Finally, Modi goes to Russia

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week makes his maiden visit as Prime Minister to Russia, one of India's closest strategic partners. This seeming delay in travelling to Russia may surprise some, given that the Prime Minister has travelled to almost all the major powers—US, Germany, France, China, Japan, Australia and Brazil—as well as most of India's immediate neighbourhood.

But it is not a sign of flagging interest in Indo-Russia ties. In fact, President Vladimir Putin and Modi have met thrice since May 2014—at the BRICS Summit at Fortaleza, at the G20 Summit in Brisbane and at the Annual India-Russia Summit of the heads of Government in New Delhi in December 2014. This incidentally is the only such Annual Summit mechanism, which India has with any country. In addition to this, there have been visits by several high level delegations from both sides, including by President Pranab Mukherjee for Russia's Victory Day celebrations.

India, along with China, has had a special place in Russian foreign policy ever since the Ukraine crisis. They are the only two major powers, which have not been openly critical of Russia. India despite discomfort with referendums and the idea of hybrid wars, having faced the brunt of this strategy used by Pakistan for many years in Punjab and more recently in Jammu and Kashmir.

New Delhi and Moscow have a special relationship forged by their cooperation during the Cold War. For India, Russia continues to be a major source of arms and military technology and a strong supporter at multilateral forums. India has also expressed interest in cooperating with the Eurasian Union, a pet project of President Putin.

Moreover, there are striking similarities between Putin and Modi. Both are strong personalities. Both have appealed to nationalism in their electoral campaigns.

Finally, both have experience of Western attempts to isolate them.However, this is not to say that the all is well with the relationship. India watches with concern Russia's growing closeness with China, widely perceived in India as the main strategic challenge. New Delhi is particularly worried about their growing military cooperation. Earlier, Russia had adopted a discriminatory approach to military technology transfer to India and China, always ensuring that India got more advanced technology than China did. This policy now seems to be under pressure with the Russians reportedly selling the SU-35s and the S 400 air defence systems to Beijing.

Additionally, in the last couple of years, Russia has reinvigorated its relationship with Pakistan and has offered it Mi-35 Hind E heavy attack helicopters, apparently to fight against militants. A Russia-China-Pakistan triangle could mean India's complete geostrategic encirclement.

Russia, on its part, views with concern India's diversification of its arms imports. Russia has slipped from being the undisputed leader in arms exports to India. In the last few years, Russia has lost a few high-profile military contracts to France and the US for example. New Delhi's growing strategic closeness to Washington is also a cause for concern for Moscow.

Despite these geostrategic concerns on both sides, thorny issues in military-technical cooperation along with ways to boost trade are likely to come up in any bilateral talks has with Putin in Ufa. Modi is also likely to ask for Russian support for and involvement in his ambitious "Make in India" campaign, which is meant to revive the country's stagnating manufacturing sector. Russia, on the other hand, is looking for import substitution because of difficulties caused by the Western sanctions. This could be a unique opportunity for Indian business to enter the Russian market - both through trade and investment.

But, the real focus of the visit will be on the BRICS and SCO summits, which have been given pride of place by Russia. In Russia's view, the summits will prove both domestically and internationally that Russia is not isolated despite the Ukraine-linked efforts of the Euro-Atlantic bloc.

While some mistakenly see the BRICS as an anti-Western alliance, for India BRICS is primarily a forum whose members share views on the need to reform the global governance structures. China and Russia feel kept out of the economic structures of global governance like the IMF and World Bank. India, Brazil and South Africa are out of both the economic and political structures. BRICS wants an evolutionary change in the rules of global governance. It wants the world to reflect the realities of today's world. All five countries want to become norm setters instead of being just norm followers. India, in fact, could be one of many nations which could act as a bridge between the West and Russia.

As for the SCO summit from India's perspective, it will be of particular interest because it expects to finally be admitted as a member of the forum. Membership of the SCO will increase India's footprint and visibility in Central Asia and institutionalise its ties with the region. The race for influence in Central Asia is resulting in promises of many infrastructure and development projects. Many of these are likely to be undertaken under the aegis if the SCO and India, as a member, expects to benefit.

There is also a fortunate confluence of interest among the major powers about India's forays into Central Asia. As eminent Indian strategist, C Raja Mohan says, the US has openly expressed support for a more visible India presence in the region. China too does not want to push India into an anti-China coalition with the US and is open to cooperating with India regionally. Russia, on its part, feels that an active Indian presence can add to regional multipolarity. The Central Asian Republics also want a more active Indian presence as this gives them some limited strategic manoeuvrability.

India's participation in the SCO and BRICS summits as well as its attempts to energise its relationship with Russia is reflective of New Delhi's desire to maintain good relations with all major powers. India faces a number of challenging domestic tasks like providing millions of jobs to its youth, building modern infrastructure, and maintaining a high growth rate. It needs peace, stability, and cooperation of other countries, in terms of funds and technology, to achieve this. Any confrontation among the great powers could significantly impact India's development plans.

(Uma Purushothaman is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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