Event ReportsPublished on Sep 18, 2019
India-Russia partnership in the changing global dynamics of the 21st Century

The world is witnessing a significant flux along with rising uncertainty regarding the state of the world order. In the previous decades, the world has largely been unipolar. However, there is now a situation where although a country like the United States is still the preeminent power, it lacks the power to enforce its will on other parts of the world. Countries now have the power to influence the world order and be capable of resisting the United States. India is engaged in its dual role, of being a facilitator for its domestic development goals and at the same time, aspiring to play a greater role in the current world order. One of the fundamental challenges that India faces is poverty eradication. It has the mammoth task of dealing with a domestic challenge which requires international stability and peace at its border. Russia, on the other hand, is in an advantageous situation given the fact that it has successfully revived its economy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Observer Research Foundation organised a roundtable discussion led by Nandan Unnikrishnan, Distinguished Fellow at ORF on 11th September 2019. The discussion moderated by Dhaval Desai, Senior Fellow and Vice President at ORF, saw participation from Mumbai’s think-tank community and academia. It was organised to deliberate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Russia recently for the 20th India-Russia Summit and for the overview of India-Russia relations.

Mr. Unnikrishnan broadly categorised India-Russia relations under four pillars i.e. geopolitical, defence and space research, economic and cultural. India and Russia have historically been friends.

There had been congruence between the views of India and the then USSR on several global issues. However, following the collapse of the USSR, India and Russia have maintained differing perceptions on several issues. For instance, Russia is slightly wary about India’s growing closeness with United States. Similarly, on the issue of opening channels of communication with the Taliban, both India and Russia have differing viewpoints. While India insists on dealing with the civilian government that is in power in Afghanistan, the Russians have opened channels of communication with the Taliban. He highlighted the possibility of the reemergence of Taliban post the imminent US withdrawal from Afghanistan. If that happens, Russia is worried about any spillover effects it can have on its Central Asian neighbourhood. To preclude any possibility of radicalism and extremism from spreading into Central Asia and beyond, Russia wants to engage with the Taliban. It is precisely this rationale that has driven Russia to also open its channels of communications with Pakistan, he pointed out.

He added that changes in India-Russia ties are not only stirring bilateral ties, but also India’s relationship with other countries like the US, China and Afghanistan. India’s strengthening ties with the US has shaken the bilateral equilibrium and has led India to do a balancing act. Secondly, there is a growing gap between the Indian approach and the Chinese approach towards Russia. Global dynamics has rendered Russia as a close ally to China, though India cannot afford the same comfort level with China.

Regarding defence ties, Russia continues to remain India’s most trusted partner after independence. The trust was showcased explicitly when, in 1988, nuclear submarines were exchanged for the first time, at a time when this was not deemed to be a common phenomenon witnessed in global politics. Since the collapse of Soviet Union, India has been one of the largest importers of Russian arms and equipment. Almost 90 percent of the military arms by value in India come from Russia. This overdependence has also led India to diversify its arms market. While this was not well received by Russia initially; New Delhi was able to find common language and stabilise the relationship with Russia after the Sochi Summit 2018. This reflected in S-400 deal and also for other equipment, despite the US sanctions. Currently, Indian orders measure up to $14.5 billion which once again makes Russia the top arms supplier to India in the world surpassing the US. Russia also has a robust affiliation with India in terms of aeronautical space.

In terms of economic relationship, it was noted that despite USSR’s contribution to India’s oil and gas sector and atomic energy, the India-Russia ties were weak. Today, in a role reversal, India has begun investing heavily in Russia’s hydrocarbon sector. This development has ensured that the nature of energy relationship between the two countries has become two-way. Russia has been the biggest beneficiary of India’s NSG waiver and post the Indo-US nuclear deal, Russia since the latter have been invested in building nuclear reactors in India. However, bilateral trade remains abysmally low and the target of achieving $30 billion trade by 2024 seemed ambitious. While the current quantum of trade is largely confined to defense and energy, it is also largely public sector driven. India private companies are skeptical about investing in Russia in order to avoid the wrath of US sanctions. ollaboration must be explored in the fields of hi-tech, robotics and Artificial Intelligence to increase the quantum of bilateral trade.

The fourth pillar, which is cultural-tourist ties, has started to revive in the recent years. India-Russia cultural ties have a long history. There is a great demand for Indian music and cinema in Russia and Russian and Indian films are often exchanged. Institutions like the National Museum of Indian Cinema add to the growing tourism from Russia. The Government of India has given the relationship an impetus by providing translation services for Indian cinema and television. “Unfortunately, while academic traffic has increased on the surface, it has not really acquired the depth that it had earlier,” Unnikrishnan noted. The demand for Russian language by India has decreased since there is little employment in that area. However, the tourism industry has immensely benefited due to a weak Rouble.

The discussion continued with the reference of Indo-Pacific theme and Russia’s relationship with China. It was observed that some of the developments and steps by the US such as the renaming of their Pacific command as the Indo-Pacific command has made the Russians edgy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address in Singapore clearly enunciated India’s policy on Indo-Pacific, which as Mr. Unnikrishnan noted, was essentially very different from USA’s idea of the region. It is essential to for both countries to discuss such areas of strategic divergence. In terms of relations with China, Mr. Unnikrishnan gave the example of Russia, India and Vietnam’s growing trilateral energy and defence ties to discount the rising concerns over growing Russia-China ties. He mentioned how Russia’s presence is crucial to maintain the balance of a multipolar world order. “It is the presence of the Russians which is so far preventing the emergence of some kind of G2”, Unnikrishnan said. In that, Russia’s invitation to India to invest in the Far East was a significant step. Given United States’ attempts to isolate and corner Russia, the latter is motivated to strengthen relations with China for its sustenance but always with caution to come to be over-reliant on its stronger neighbour.

The discourse continued to examine the relationship between other nations with respect to Russia and India. While there has been an increasing uneasiness in Russia as India is drawing closer to the US, the recent joint military exercise between Pakistan and Russia had raised an alarm for India. However, Russian support for India on the recent Kashmir issue – recognising the same as India’s internal matter – at the United Nations, has underlined the continuing faith in the bilateral relations.

This report has been complied by Shruti Jain, a research intern at ORF in Mumbai.

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.