India-Russia relations are unique in terms of mutual trust and affinity, said the Russian Ambassador to India, Mr. Nikolai Kudashev, in his opening speech at the India-Russia bilateral conference held at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi on 19 January 2018. The conference was titled: New Trends in Indo-Russian Relations: The Way Forward.
The ambassador, however, continued by saying that the trade turnover between the two countries has been lagging behind compared to the level of political dialogue. He was hopeful about the $30 billion trade and $15 billion investment target set for 2025 and identified some key areas that could become “true growth drivers,” such as the energy sector. Specifically in the area of nuclear energy cooperation, he noted Rosatom’s sharing of cutting-edge technology with India, a planned second site for the construction of a power plant and the potential for joint projects in other countries. Rosneft’s acquisition of Essar Oil Limited in 2017 for $12.9 billion was cited as a milestone, but he added there is a need to diversify investment baskets and encourage smaller investments as well. The investment protection agreement between the two countries, now back in place, will improve investor confidence and encourage large-scale and long-term investments.
He also pointed out the potential for cooperation among Indian and Russian regions. Russia is enthusiastic about the many regional investment forums held in the various states of India, such as ‘Vibrant Gujarat’. The full operationalisation of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the launch of the Green Corridor will no doubt improve ties between the countries. The Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok also produced the idea of a Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor which would considerably shorten the transportation time for goods and commodities.
He acknowledged that military and technical cooperation has been moving away from a ‘buyer-seller’ approach towards more mutually beneficial mechanisms, such as the joint research, development and production of advanced defence systems and platforms. ‘Make in India’ offers tremendous opportunities for cooperation between private defence manufacturers — Brahmos being a successful example of this.
Ambassador Kudashev discussed India and Russia’s efforts to promote shared principles and their responsibility to maintain international stability by working together in various multilateral fora. He stressed the need to strengthen the central role of the United Nations, international law and global governance. Interference into domestic affairs of other countries, an end to double standards and unilateral approaches to solving problems — including by unlawful sanctions — need to be curbed.
As for Eurasian connectivity and cooperation, he pointed to the need for a peaceful settlement of Afghanistan and an elimination of the threats emanating from the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and other organisations such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and ASEAN will provide the basis for a greater Eurasian partnership. The Belt and Road Initiative is promising as it involves almost everyone in the SCO and Russia, although not a member, believes in its economic potential.
The ambassador then went on to emphasise the fact that India-China trust is a core factor of Eurasian stability and that it can be improved through trilateral cooperation in fora such as RIC. Russia is also supportive of India playing a bigger role in regional affairs through multilateral organisations such as APEC. Russia-India cooperation should prioritise a collective approach to regional issues as the region becomes an epicentre of world political and economic activity. Dialogue should be promoted as a way to solve its various problems in the most efficient way. The intention is to find collective solutions to common threats and challenges and raise awareness of certain sensitive interests of all countries involved, while avoiding antagonising or alienating any one country.
S. Raghavan, former Indian ambassador to Russia and current convener of India’s National Security Advisory Board, said that perceptions of Indo-Russian relations are trapped in history; although history is important, he felt it tends to perceptions. As for the present, he noted how the upgradation, maintenance and renovation of defence equipment is going to require extensive cooperation with Russia over decades. Although efforts have been made to diversify defence acquisitions, Russia will continue to be India’s primary supplier for the foreseeable future. He noted the chemistry between the two leaders of the countries which allows the frank discussion of sensitive international and bilateral issues.
He said that Russia’s relations with the West have caused it to re-evaluate its global options, a resurgent Russia-China relationship being an example of this. Russia’s involvement in West Asia will have political and economic implications for India, as will Afghanistan. India’s strengthening strategic partnership with the United States will not only impact Indo-Russian defence ties, but also possibly India’s broader geopolitical perspectives. Strains in Sino-Indian relations and the consonance of Indo-US perspectives in the Indo-Pacific have added to this mix, leading some Russian analysts to recommend counteractions in South Asia.
He stressed the need for frank discussions on how Indo-Russian relations can develop with this backdrop in mind while being responsive to mutual interests and put forward certain considerations. First, he said, there needs to be a better mutual understanding of perspectives. Although this exists at an official level, it needs to be reflected on a broader platform comprising the public sphere and political, academic, business, and media circles. At present, the analyses tend to be based on pre-conceived notions based on Western perspectives. Then, these insights need to be factored into practical decisions.
Each side should continue to respect the core strategic concerns and political sensitivities of the other. For India, these include Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chinese actions that impinge on their interests. Whereas for Russia, they include its strategic interests in Crimea and in West Asia, particularly Syria. And although asymmetry exists in every bilateral relationship, the ambassador cautioned against the tendency to over or under-estimate it. For example, there is a need for wider recognition in Russia of the fact that India has acquired an international political and economic presence that has enhanced its room for strategic manoeuvring. It is equally important for India to recognise the range and strength of Russia’s global profile. Finally, he stressed that both sides should work towards expanding the basis of their relationship by strengthening the economic and cultural pillars so it does not rest disproportionately on defence and political ties. The information gap between the Russian and Indian business communities needs to be overcome; ties have been frozen since Indo-Soviet days. Educational institutions, third-country cooperation, the INSTC, servicing Russian military equipment from third countries in Indian facilities — all these efforts can ensure the enduring relevance of the partnership.
The former ambassador concluded by saying that that there is a political recognition of the convergence of India-Russia strategic interests. In the event of a US-China G2 developing, Russia-India dialogue should develop in response. Both should start looking at Europe as a separate entity from the US. China figures hugely in the calculations and consciousness of each country but in different ways, and these issues need to be confronted, not ignored, he said.