However, one meeting will not resolve the problems that will inevitably arise on account of difficulties in Russia’s relations with the US and Europe, and its search for its own interests in equations with Pakistan and China
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s one-day visit to Sochi on May 21, for an extended informal interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin, soon after Putin’s inauguration for a fourth term on May 7, was seen as an effort to keep India- Russia ties on an even keel amidst global reordering and rebalancing.
The India-Russia relationship has needed periodic tending, especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Post-Soviet Russia had initially focused on building economic and political convergence with the United States and Western Europe, perceived as victors in the Cold War competition of economic and political systems. Relations with India received lower priority, with impact on critical areas such as defence and space cooperation, also on account of disruption in production and research. Russia’s support to a Pakistan-sponsored resolution at UN on a South Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, and visit of its Vice-President Rutskoi to Pakistan in 1992, further fuelled anxieties.
In the second half of the 1990s, with the expansion of Nato and the European Union, which Russia saw as adversarial, it refocused on some of its earlier equations. Pakistan’s propping up of the Taliban, and links with anti-Russia Chechen extremists were national security threats to Russia and its interests in Central Asia. The election of Putin as president in 2000 consolidated the course correction in Russia’s foreign and security policy. The double-headed eagle in the Russian State emblem is seen as capturing also the contradictory European and Asian impulses in Russian State and society. Its policy on Pakistan has been buffeted by cold blooded pursuit of its own interests, and concerns for its equities in India.
In the Sochi meeting, Modi made extensive references to Putin’s 2000 visit and the Declaration on Strategic Partnership.
Earlier, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had visited in 1993, after several postponements. At that time, a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was worked out to define the relationship with the new post- Soviet Russia. While allaying some of India’s concerns, it was not quite its 1971 predecessor, and omitted provisions mandating consultation when any partner faced a security threat. The 2000 declaration described the 1993 treaty as a “continuation” of the one in 1971, spoke of support for a multipolar global structure and democratisation of international order, and committed each not to participate “in any military-political or other alliances or associations or armed conflict directed against the other”. The 2000 spirit has permeated subsequent declarations at summit-level meetings, and in December 2010 the relationship was upgraded to a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” during another Putin visit.
The economic relationship, with trade at about $8 billion, investment flows at about $15 billion in each direction, is broadly of same level as France; though lower than Britain and Germany. It pales in comparison with the $120 billion trade, civilian, high-tech and IT partnership with the US. The investments are also largely concentrated in the energy sector. The US, with an Indian origin diaspora of about 3.5 million and a university student population of about 200,000 again scores on some dimensions of comprehensive national interest.
However, the defence cooperation that Russia has historically provided, including of technologies not available elsewhere, has been unmatched. As has been the history of political support, including at the UN, on several issues vital to India. Today, despite our widening the sources of purchase, Russia is assessed as accounting for around 60% of our defence inventory.
As a result, Moscow’s recent overtures to Islamabad, involving supply of helicopters, military exercises, outreach to the Taliban, coordination on Afghanistan, have been watched with some anxiety. Its worsened relations with the US and Europe have forced Russia to strengthen economic and political cooperation with China, despite concerns about the potential Chinese dominance in the Russian Far East. It has been suggested that Russia is looking at widening its options even as India has exploited multipolarity by deepening relations with the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan.
There are additional challenges recently generated by unilateral US decisions, driven by its domestic politics. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal could create complications for some of India’s energy imports, and investments in the Chabahar port. US sanctions on Russia will require India to remain firm on its national security determined acquisitions.
The Sochi meeting reinforced India’s striving for multipolarity, even as it consolidates its traditional relationship with Russia. However, one meeting will not resolve the problems that will inevitably arise on account of difficulties in Russia’s relations with the US and Europe, and its search for its own interests in equations with Pakistan and China.
Arun K Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to the United States and has served as political counsellor in Russia