On April 13, 2017, the official commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Russia took place in New Delhi. Greetings and messages were exchanged between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as between their respective foreign ministers Sushma Swaraj and Sergei Lavrov. Simultaneously a flurry of other activities — roundtables, seminars, tele-conferences, musical performances — between the two countries and by representatives of India and Russia have taken place in both countries, all dedicated to the anniversary.
By itself this should not have come as a surprise — the USSR had been one of India’s staunchest allies during all the years of the Cold War and the greater part of India’s independence. It had been India’s largest defense supplier — a role its successor state the Russian Federation continues to play — and its best friend on the UN Security Council, using its veto power to India’s advantage on issues and during times critical for the country — on Kashmir, during the war of Goan liberation, and the 1971 war between India and Pakistan which led to the creation of Bangladesh during which ties between the two countries was cemented with the signing of the 1971 Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
However, recent geo-political realignments have put a spanner on bilateral relations and the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties seems to be an ideal opportunity for both sides to take a reality check and reset ties.
India-Russia ties had begun to drift following the dissolution of the USSR, and the end of the Cold War paved the way for better India-US relations. Simultaneously, Russian inability to promptly deliver defense supplies at a time when it was itself grappling with new realities nudged India to diversify its defense procurements. The US and Israel promptly stepped in where Russia once had a near total monopoly. The 2005 India-US civilian nuclear deal added momentum to bilateral relations. The war on terror, particularly Islamist terrorism, also drew the countries closer to each other. India expected that its concerns about cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan would be duly appreciated and taken into consideration by the US, especially after the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, India’s financial capital by terrorists armed and trained in Pakistan. Meanwhile, relations between Pakistan and the US, hitherto close, had begun fraying amidst growing allegations of the latter’s support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan where the US had spent billions of dollars and stationed thousands of troops to battle the militant group.
India-US relations further got a fillip under the current administration of Prime Minister Modi, the hallmark of whose foreign policy has been multi-polarity, with then-US President Barack Obama visiting India for a second time while in office and becoming the first US president to be a chief guest at India’s Republic Day function in 2016.
In August 2016, the US and India signed the landmark Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which gives access to both countries to designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refueling and replenishment — a cause for consternation in Russian strategic circles about India’s “strategic autonomy,” coming as the agreement did amidst deteriorating US-Russia relations, especially in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, including the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia.
Though India refused to recognize the sanctions and maintained diplomatic silence over the Crimean annexation, India-Russia ties came under a cloud. Multi-polarity seemed to be working both ways. While Western sanctions drew Russia into a closer Chinese embrace, the country also began cozying up to Pakistan, including supplying Pakistan with four Mi-35 assault helicopters. Of course, this was also due to low oil prices and the imperative for Russia to diversify its defense exports. But this came at a time when India was trying to diplomatically isolate Pakistan over numerous terror strikes that had emanated from that country over the last couple of years.
Another cause for worry in Indian strategic circles has been Russia injecting itself into the Afghan peace process, tending to take a lenient view of the Taliban while preferring to focus on the Islamic State which it views as a greater threat.
Russia held its first ever military exercise with Pakistan in last September soon after an attack in Indian Kashmir which Indian authorities believe originated from Pakistan and prompted India to conduct surgical strikes across the border in territory held by Pakistan. Worse, the exercises were originally slated to be held in an area of Kashmiri territory administered by Pakistan which India believes belongs to it and which is disputed territory under international law. It was rumored that the venue was changed under strong Indian pressure and displeasure was expressed to Russia.
“India considers the Russia-Pakistan military cooperation to be a wrong foreign policy approach which can bring problems in future,” Indian Ambassador to Moscow Pankaj Saran told RIA Novosti in an interview soon after. With tensions over a contested border rising with China — another nuclear-armed neighbor, with whom India fought a brief but humiliating war in 1962 — for India, a potential China-Russia-Pakistan axis taking shape is one of its worst strategic nightmares.
At the BRICS summit held in Goa in October 2016, Indians were left disappointed when President Putin made no references to India’s terror concerns regarding groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba which continue to be sheltered by the Pakistani state, despite India using the BRICS platform to highlight these concerns.
Another cause for worry in Indian strategic circles has been Russia injecting itself into the Afghan peace process, tending to take a lenient view of the Taliban while preferring to focus on the Islamic State which it views as a greater threat. In December 2015, the Moscow Times quoted an Interfax agency report quoting Russia’s Foreign Ministry department head Zamir Kabulov stating that Russia has established channels to exchange information with the Taliban. Earlier this April, Afghanistan’s TOLO News reported that Uruzgan police chief Ghulam Farooq Sangari had claimed that Russian military officers had met Taliban officials in Uruzgan.
For both Afghanstan and India, the Taliban remains the greatest threat in the region. Both countries blame Pakistan’s support for the Taliban for its resurgence and its renewed violence in Afghanistan. Russia even held its first conference on Afghanistan inviting only Pakistan and China to it, much to the chagrin of Kabul and New Delhi. It has since held two more conferences in which Afghanistan and India have both been included, and has announced that it is ready to host talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Meanwhile, last December, the US passed legislation recognizing India as a major defenses partner — “a status unique to India.”
Analysts, however, note that Russia continues to occupy the first place — almost 70 percent — in India’s multi-billion arms market. Defense relations have moved beyond the transactional phase to a partnership, with Russia engaged in defence collaboration and joint production with India, a bright example of which is the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. A host of countries like Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates have evinced interest in procuring them. India, which according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) remained the largest arms importer in 2012-16, will continue to rely on foreign arms for the foreseeable future in spite of Prime Minister Modi’s ambitious plans to indigenize Indian defense procurement. According to SIPRI data, India remains one of Russia’s largest arms market, accounting for 39 percent of Russian arms exports in 2011-15, and Russia offers India state-of-the-art equipment with few strings attached. India has also invested almost 6 billion dollars in Russia’s hydrocarbon sector.
It hence makes sense for both countries to reset their relations, keeping in mind their long history of cooperation and the long-term gains that can only accrue to bilateral relations. For both India and Russia, there is great potential in trade, connectivity, cooperation in the defense and hydrocarbon sectors, in counter-terrorism, and in forging a new security paradigm through participation in organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which India is set to join as a full-fledged member later this year. Moreover, India’s and Russia’s views on many global issues like the Syrian crisis often converge and Russia has been a constant champion of India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Russia also continues to be India’s greatest nuclear ally, and India provides a good market for Russian-built nuclear power plants with plans afoot for trilateral cooperation with Bangladesh.
There is considerable goodwill in India for Russia, and Indian soft-power has proved its mettle in Russia. India is a key ally for Russia in Asia. A strong India-Russia partnership can balance increasing Chinese clout in the region. The celebration of 70 years of bilateral relations is a good opportunity to reboot these relations.