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The way ahead in Indo-Russian ties

Pallavi Pal is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 20, 2010


    Russia is one country that India cannot afford to sideline, as it is the only trusted partner with whom India has mutual compatibility and a close political, military and economic partnership for decades. Russia (and the Soviet Union) contributed to creating India’s key strengths and capabilities in the nuclear, defence, space and heavy industry sectors when no other country was willing to support India’s endeavours to modernise. Even today, despite the hype surrounding the visits of other members of the P-5, India’s relationship with Russia has brought it greater benefit than its ties with other major countries. With hopes high the questions now are: What has been achieved so far? What are the priorities? What we can expect from our trusted friend? What should we do to further consolidate this relationship?

    The Path Covered

    The Indo-Russian relationship has evolved over time. Russian foreign and security policy is based on the concept of a "multipolar" world, first formulated by former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov. It is in this context that Russia has its interest in the South Asian region where it gives primary importance to India.1 In October 2000 the “Declaration of Strategic Partnership between India and the Russian Federation” was signed in New Delhi since when there has been an all-round development in bilateral cooperation. In this declaration the system of Annual Summits was institutionalized. The previous or tenth summit was held in Moscow in December 2009 between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. This year would be a very important stage in the development of bilateral relations, as it marks the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on Strategic Partnership between India and Russia.2

    During Prime Minister Putin's visit in March 2010, deals worth US $10 billion were signed to further strengthen defence and economic relations. In addition, five agreements were also signed. Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Putin held comprehensive and in-depth discussions on bilateral, regional and global issues. Cooperation in the area of atomic energy production for peaceful purposes and a roadmap for the construction of Russian designed nuclear power plants was agreed upon. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the production of satellite navigation equipment and services for civilian use and cooperation in the mineral fertilisers sector, 14 supplementary pacts on the Gorshkov aircraft carrier deal, and an additional agreement on military aviation ties were also signed. During Putin’s visit, Information technology and telecommunications were also identified as focus areas for future economic cooperation between New Delhi and Moscow.3

    According to Indian Defence Minister Mr. A.K. Antony, Indo-Russian relationship has moved beyond buyer-seller to co-producer in the field of design development and scientific research. Almost 70 per cent of Indian military hardware is of Soviet/Russian origin. Russia is the only country with which India has established an institutionalized defence cooperation mechanism operating at the Defence Ministers level. In 2008 India and Russia agreed to extend the terms of the Indo-Russian Inter Governmental Commission for Military Technical Cooperation for another ten years till 2020.4 India and Russia are all set to sign their biggest ever defence deal pegged at $30 billion with the Cabinet Committee on Security giving a go ahead to a mega proposal for joint development and production of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA).

    In the field of Nuclear Energy, Russia is a long standing partner for India. Currently two nuclear power reactors are being supplied by Russia in Kudankulam and two more are planned. In 2009, India designated Haripur (West Bengal) as an additional site for the construction of nuclear power plants with Russian cooperation. An Inter-Governmental Agreement on broad based cooperation (cooperation in the field of use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes) and a Road Map for future cooperation was signed during the visit of Prime Minister Putin to India in March 2010.

    Russia is the second most potent space power in the world. Russia's cooperation in India's Unmanned Space Flight project (Chandrayaan 2), the Human Space Flight Project and the development of Youthsat to be launched by India's GSLV are ongoing projects. In March 2010, a new area involving the joint manufacture of satellite navigation equipment for civilian users based on the Russian GLONASS system, commenced.5

    The sixteenth session of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) held in New Delhi on 18 November 2010 expressed satisfaction at the continuation of high level bilateral contacts. They welcomed the holding of the first-ever India-Russia Business Dialogue within the framework of the prestigious St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2010 and expressed confidence that the MoU entered into by CII and SPIEF Foundation would pave the way for regular institutionalized B2B interactions and exchanges.6

    The Working Group on Science and Technology (S&T) under the aegis of IRIGC-TEC, and the “Integrated Long Term Program (ILTP) are the two principal institutional mechanisms for S&T cooperation with Russia. The ILTP was recently extended for a further ten years beyond 2009 with a renewed mandate for “Innovation led technology growth”. The 'Working Group' focuses on collaboration activities in mutually agreed priority areas. The ILTP programme focuses on collaborative research in basic sciences and in Inter-Academy exchange programmes.

    There is great interest in Indian studies, dance, yoga and music in Russia. An India Cultural Festival will be held in Russia in 2011 and a Russian Cultural Festival will be held in India in 2012. The Russian side has also suggested timing the event with the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore which are scheduled for 2011.7

    The Priorities

    With Chinese defence procurements on the decline following the creation of its strong defence industrial base, India constitutes a major portion of Russian defence exports. Russia is also ready to supply India strategic platforms and technology that no other country will - such as nuclear submarine on lease.8

    India and Russia have intensified their R & D collaboration and joint production. It is important that this spills over into other economic sectors in order to assist economic development and technological upgradation in both countries.

    Trade and investment ties also need to be enhanced as these are very low. While India's imports from Russia in 2010 are US$ 1.642 billion, its exports are $0.399 billion (State Customs Committee of the Russian Federation: first quarter of 2010). There is a need to diversify the trade basket, both import and export. The business community in both countries is sceptical about its counterpart. The combination of Russian potential in high technology and availability of 30 per cent of world resources with India's standing in the fields of industry and engineering could result in major achievements. Economic cooperation is extremely important which if not strong would weaken the mutually beneficial ties.

    Space exploration is another major priority area for India since it is a long term and ambitious endeavour and no state can embark upon it alone. The geopolitics of the 21st century dictate that there is a need to take Indo-Russian collaboration to greater heights and space collaboration could play a key role towards this end. Civil Nuclear Cooperation is another area of importance where there is vast scope for India-Russia cooperation.

    Russia is not happy about India diversifying its sources of arms procurement. The issue of timely delivery of orders placed by India (for instance, aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya or Gorshkov) is being addressed. Russia would have to resolve the internal issues that arise from its military industrial exports centring on Rosoboronexport. The two sides need to deepen their cooperation in this area and expand it to the more dynamic civilian sector.

    India should participate in the Russian initiative to create a counterpart to Silicon Valley in Skolkovo, outside Moscow. The Russian IT and innovation sector is competitive and Russia enjoys enormous depth in scientific studies. India should enter into collaborative arrangements which would help the cause of innovation in both countries and their translation into concrete economic benefits.

    India and Russia need to discuss how to enhance India’s participation in Central Asia and benefit from the China-India-Russia initiative. Russia has reached out to Pakistan at the Sochi Summit and strengthened its relations with China. India’s participation in forums like SCO, RIC and BRIC needs to be strengthened, through which India and Russia can work to maintain regional security as well as enhance cooperation in the sector of environment and disaster management, in pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, biotechnology as well as in tourism.9

    India should promote a greater focus on Russia, and launch initiatives for the study of Russia in India. There should be greater effort in publicising the benefits of bilateral cooperation in both countries, for which there is very little visibility.

    Final Analysis

    The Russian President's visit is very important. India needs to keep in mind the fact that in this changing and complex global order preserving the trust of a consistent supporter is very important to meet the challenges that may arise in the future.