The topic relates to a major pillar of contemporary India’s strategic engagement. I will outline some of the salient aspects of the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia, using these aspects to illustrate new directions for this relationship.
It is worth noting that in the long period of recorded interaction between India and Russia, there has been no friction between the people of our two countries. Instead, there was curiosity about each other’s civilization and culture, and the outcomes of this mutual curiosity are today immortalized in the works of prominent Russian and Indian writers and artists.
The work of the first Russian Indologist Gerasim Lebedev, the writer Leo Tolstoy and the artists Vasily Vereschagin, Nikolai and Svetoslav Roerich speak for themselves. As does the correspondence between Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore’s writings on Russia. Household names of Indian literature, like Subramania Bharati, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Munshi Prem Chand have references to Russia in their writings.
Rukmini Devi Arundale, India’s famous Bharatanatyam dance teacher, who founded the cultural and educational centre Kalakshetra in 1938, acknowledged the influence of Russia’s legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova on her as a “spiritual teacher” and inspiration. Raj Kapoor’s films are probably the best example of a living bridge between the peoples and aspirations of India and Russia.
Through the centuries after Afanasiy Nikitin’s visit to India, contacts between the peoples of the two countries continued. The Silk Road provided the infrastructure for the flow of people and idea. Astrakhan’s Indian Quarter is a good example of this, including historical records of the lives of the Indian community settled there from the 18th century. The expansion of Tsarist Russia into Central Asia in the mid-19th century, and the subsequent creation of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor as a buffer between the Russian and British Empires, did little to prevent determined individuals from both sides from interacting with each other. The Great Game preoccupied strategic thinkers of the time, and motivated expeditions into the heart of Asia. During the tumultuous second decade of the 20th century marked by the First World War, a short-lived “government-in-exile” of India was formed in 1915 in Kabul with Raja Mahendra Pratap as its President and Maulvi Barkatullah as Prime Minister. Under M.N. Roy’s guidance, the Communist Party of India was founded on 17 October 1920 in Tashkent.
India and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations on 13 April 1947, some months before India’s formal independence in August that year, through an exchange of diplomatic notes between their envoys in China. This method was resorted to because of the reluctance of the United Kingdom, which was still the colonial power in India, to endorse the decision of India’s Interim Government to establish diplomatic relations between India and the Soviet Union.
1955 was a critical year for India-Soviet Union relations, marking the first exchange of “summit” level interaction between the two countries. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Moscow as the leader of independent India in June that year. This was reciprocated by the visit of the top Soviet leadership of First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Communist Party and Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin to India in November. The visits laid the early foundations for the modern strategic partnership between India and Russia. They provide the backdrop to our current cooperation in key areas including defence production, industry, agriculture and the development of educational and scientific institutions.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, India played a supportive role in sustaining and then reviving independent Russia’s economic and strategic sectors. Indian defence purchases from Russia ensured that Russian manufacturing enterprises were able to continue to employ their workers. On her part, India acquired modern technology and know-how from such cooperation. The BrahMos missile and the Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft are perhaps the most well-known examples of this process. In Russia, the impact of Indian private entrepreneurs in supporting Russia’s modern healthcare and education infrastructure has been equally significant, with Indian pharmaceuticals and Indian students visible across the country.
This was the backdrop to the historic first state visit to India by President Vladimir Putin in October 2000. In his address to India’s parliament President Putin said that “Russia and India are ancient civilizations, but at the same time they are living democracies”. During that visit, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had asserted “as traditional friends, we wish to see Russia as a strong and confident state, an important constituent of a multi-polar world order.”
These two statements highlight the core values that lie at the heart of the formal India-Russia strategic partnership launched during that visit, which was elevated to a “special and privileged strategic partnership” in 2010. This vision forms the basis for the trust and understanding that anchors the India-Russia special and privileged and strategic partnership today.
Four pillars were identified for developing this strategic partnership through the annual Summit mechanism, which was conceptualized by President Putin and endorsed by Prime Minister Vajpayee in October 2000. These were:
India-Russia Annual Summits have been held regularly every year so far. The outcome for each of the four pillars over the past twenty years has been uneven. This has been due to both obstacles within the domestic jurisdiction of India and Russia, as well as a steadily deteriorating international environment that has put unexpected pressures on the development of normal relations between the two partners. While India and Russia have identified ways to overcome the existing gaps in their domestic structures to enable greater bilateral cooperation, the biggest external obstacle faced by their partnership today is from the growing confrontation between the United States and China. This confrontation, driven by aggressive unilateral measures based on the narrow domestic priorities of the two powers, has an impact on the India-Russia strategic partnership.
Taking cognizance of this ground reality, the political leaders of the two countries took the decision in early 2018 to introduce a flexible mechanism into the India-Russia strategic partnership. This is today known as the “informal Summit mechanism”. The mechanism allows the leaders of the two countries to meet and interact informally to discuss and decide on the main issues facing the partnership, including those issues that are on the agenda of the more structured Annual Summit mechanism.
Prior to the first informal India-Russia summit in Sochi held on 21 May 2018, I had publicly proposed action in five priority areas to re-energize India-Russia relations. These were:
Today it is of interest to note that four of these five priorities are on the path of implementation.
The Sochi informal summit resulted in several key understandings, including the decision to continue with the informal summit mechanism in addition to the Annual Summit structure. The discussions reaffirmed the common commitment of India and Russia to an open and equitable world order. The summit recognized the respective roles of India and Russia as “major powers with common responsibilities for maintaining global peace and stability”.
Interestingly, the Sochi summit also committed India and Russia to work together towards creating a “multipolar world order”, with a decision to “intensify consultation and coordination with each other, including on the Indo-Pacific region”. In a political attempt to reinvigorate economic cooperation between India and Russia, the Sochi summit established a Strategic Economic Dialogue to find greater synergy in trade and investment between the two countries.
The first meeting of the Strategic Economic Dialogue held in St Petersburg on 26 November 2018 identified five key areas to fulfil its mandate. These were:
Except for digital technologies, the other four identified areas were not new. The main impediment to implementing cooperation between India and Russia in these four areas continues to be the impact of unilateral Western financial sanctions on Russia and Iran.
The crown jewel of strategic partnership in the transport infrastructure sector is the International North South Transport Corridor project. This project had been agreed to between India, Iran and Russia in 2000, but challenges facing investors in implementing this project including due to United Nations sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2015 delayed its implementation. Despite the lifting of UN sanctions through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action endorsed by the Security Council in July 2015, a re-introduction of unilateral sanctions on both Iran and Russia by the United States and the European Union continues to be a major obstacle for market-driven investments in this project. These unilateral sanctions impose penalties in the United States and EU for Indian and third-country investors in Iran and Russia.
At the same time, the economic relevance of the North South Transport Corridor for both Europe and Asia, using the alignment of moving goods through Russia, Iran and India by reducing time and costs for transportation, cannot be understated. The aggressive pursuit of new East-West transportation infrastructure projects under China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has a negative implication for the national interests of India, Iran and Russia, since the major BRI transportation infrastructure projects seek to bypass Russia, Iran and India in attempting to connect Europe to Asia. The increasing awareness of the debt trap potential for countries partnering the BRI projects adds another dimension to this issue. This requires India and Russia to take a coordinated strategic position on the BRI projects.
In the other three areas of agriculture and agro-processing, support for small and medium businesses, and trade and investment cooperation in general, the main challenge faced by the India-Russia strategic partnership is to overcome restrictions on financing the activities of their national enterprises in implementing a large number of proposals that are otherwise viable on the ground.
Here, the need for a facilitating financing mechanism which is not subject to unilateral Western financial sanctions has emerged as a priority. The most practical framework for creating such a mechanism is in the context of proposals for economic cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and India, which in turn involves strategic coordination between Russia’s concept of Greater Eurasia and India’s espousal of an inclusive Indo-Pacific framework.
The digital technology domain is a new area with major implications for the India-Russia strategic partnership, especially in creating a multi-polar digital landscape. The first interface between India and Russia in this area occurred during the Sochi informal summit in May 2018, when President Putin took Prime Minister Modi to visit the SIRIUS Educational Centre in the city. This resulted in an institutional linkage between SIRIUS and the Atal Innovation Mission in India’s NITI Aayog, which successfully implemented an agreement for 50 Indian and Russian students to interact with each other in sharing best innovation practices in IT and Data Analysis, Clean Energy, Biotech, Remote Earth Sensing, Drones and Robotics.
The expansion of such interaction to include research, innovation and marketing activities between Indian and Russian enterprises and institutions in the digital technology area is a logical next step, which will add a new dimension to the strategic partnership between the two countries. As strategic partners, India and Russia need to support an international initiative to create a global framework which would uphold their freedom for research, innovation and application of digital technologies, especially those technologies that accelerate sustainable development.
The First Strategic Economic Dialogue held in St Petersburg agreed to “invest resources jointly in projects in the Far Eastern region of the Russian Federation”. India’s foray into the Russian Far East in 2019 is probably the most significant foreign policy initiative taken by Indian diplomacy to give new directions to the India-Russia strategic partnership.
The 20th Annual India-Russia Summit held in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok in September 2019 included the holding of the second informal summit between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi. The Summit supported interaction between the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Goa with the 11 provinces of Russia’s Far East to provide depth to this process. Prime Minister Modi mentioned the “coal industry, the diamond industry, the lumber industry, as well as agriculture and tourism” as the specific focus of this interaction, which could impact on “exploring cooperation on temporary placement of skilled manpower from India” in Russia’s Far East.
The broad vision behind India’s historic economic engagement at the highest level with Russia’s Far East was brought out by Prime Minister Modi at the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum at Vladivostok on 5 September 2019. He said:
“India will provide a $ 1 billion line of credit to further contribute to the development of the Far East. This is the first time that we are giving a line of credit to a particular region of a country. My Government’s Act East Policy has actively engaged with East Asia. Today’s announcement will prove to be the take-off point of the Act Far East Policy and it is my firm belief that this step adds a new dimension to our economic diplomacy. We will be active participants in the development of the regions of our friendly countries according to their priorities.”
In order to support greater economic cooperation, the Vladivostok Summit identified four supportive measures to increase the mutual participation of Indian and Russian businesses in each other’s economies. These included:
The key to the success of this approach lies in monitoring the implementation of the directions given by the Summit in a transparent and effective manner.
The first step towards an integrated approach combining defence and economic cooperation was taken by the Vladivostok Summit, which saw the signing of an agreement for manufacturing spares of Russian/Soviet-origin equipment in India. By upgrading India-Russia defence cooperation, opening the doors for joint development and production of military equipment, components, and spare parts, as well as after-sales service activities, a visible economic dimension has been added to defence cooperation. At the heart of this new activity will be Russian participation through investments in joint ventures and technology in the Make in India programme, with its “spin-off” benefits for employment and technology diffusion. This will be a major contribution of the India-Russia strategic partnership to expanding the production and employment capacity of India’s manufacturing sector.
Since India’s investment in the Sakhalin-1 Project in Russia in 2001, energy cooperation between India and Russia has become a critical component of their strategic partnership. Two-way investment in this sector has reached about $30 billion so far. The primary objective of India-Russia energy cooperation has been India’s quest for energy security, and Russia’s interest in exporting its huge energy reserves on a long-term predictable basis to India, one of the biggest importers of energy in the world.
The Vladivostok Summit discussed partnership in nuclear, oil and gas sectors within this framework, integrating it with the new thrust on economic cooperation. The bilateral agreement on Hydrocarbons cooperation for a five year period from 2019 to 2024 assumes significance in this context, supporting the ambitious plans for India’s access to Russia’s Siberian and Arctic energy deposits through the joint activity of India’s Consortium of Oil and Gas Public Sector Undertakings and Russia’s Rosneft, in addition to the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and Russia’s giant Gazprom.
Civil nuclear cooperation is today acknowledged as an “important component of (the) strategic partnership”. Prime Minister Modi emphasized the significance of “localization of nuclear power plants” with reference to the new reactors being constructed by Russia at Kudankulam, which will strengthen India’s nuclear reactor construction capabilities, including in manufacturing and in expanding her pool of skilled manpower. President Putin highlighted bilateral cooperation in Kudankulam as a “flagship joint project” and anticipated that “at least 12 Russian-designed nuclear power plants will be built within the next 20 years” in India. This would provide the basis for an increase in nuclear trade and technological cooperation between Russia and India, including in “joint manufacturing of equipment and fuel.”
Geo-politically, the reference to an “open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” in Prime Minister Modi’s address to the Eastern Economic Forum was accompanied by the announcement of a new maritime route between Chennai and Vladivostok to “increase connectivity between the regions”, which would traverse the South China Sea. The Summit declaration’s reference to consultations on “integration and development initiatives in the greater Eurasian space and in the regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” denotes an emerging strategic convergence between India and Russia on an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific regional strategy. This would incorporate not only maritime connectivity in the Pacific, but also critical maritime connectivity routes in the western Indo-Pacific such as the straits of Hormuz and the Red Sea, as well as connectivity projects such as Chabahar in Iran and emerging maritime routes using the Arctic.
This overview of the new directions in the India-Russia special and privileged strategic partnership would not be complete without suggesting a framework for expanding people-to-people contacts. This remains perhaps the biggest challenge for a reinvigorated India-Russia strategic partnership. The task of generating greater awareness of each other’s culture and civilization and placing the political structure of a special and privileged strategic partnership into this convergence between the peoples of India and Russia is a priority.
Studying India-Russia relations using archival and factual records will contribute significantly to expanding the pool of India’s younger generation of Russia experts. This broad approach will also serve as the foundation for a direct bridge of understanding and communication between the peoples of India and Russia. The ramifications of this approach for the future of the India-Russia strategic partnership cannot be understated, especially for policy makers who either do not have access to such direct sources of information, or whose views are colored by perspectives from third sources who may have their own agendas to pursue.
In January 2020, I was privileged to have curated the first Ganga-Volga Dialogue held in New Delhi under the patronage of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. The institutionalization of this Dialogue will help identify new proposals for the consideration of our leaders in expanding the special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia.
*Ambassador Asoke Mukerji
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] This ICWA Guest Column is based on Second Professor Arun Mohanty Memorial Lecture delivered by the author on 13 August 2020 in memory of Professor Arun Mohanty, an eminent Indian expert on Russia.