India-Russia A time-tested partnership
At the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin visited India on December 6, 2021, for the 21st India–Russia Annual Summit. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the summit had been postponed once before and threats of the pandemic loomed large in December as well. However, President Putin, who is an original architect of these summits, chose to visit New Delhi. This was only the second time he had left his country in the last two years (during the pandemic), the first being to Geneva to meet US President Joe Biden. Hence, the visit was highly symbolic and greatly significant, pointing towards strengthening of the friendship between the two nations. This was the 19th time that the two leaders met since PM Modi took office in 2014.
In fact, since 2018, the two leaders have also instituted an informal summit mechanism as and when required. They have developed a great bonhomie and personal chemistry, which are hallmarks of a trusted, time-tested and privileged strategic partnership. But every diplomatic relationship, howsoever sound or solid it may be, faces geo-political churning and hence, needs to be renewed and rejuvenated from time to time at the highest level to move into a still higher orbit. Therefore, one-on-one meetings take precedence over delegation-level talks. This time around too the Modi-Putin tête-à-tête lasted over three and a half hours.
During the visit, India and Russia held their first 2+2 dialogue between the defence and foreign ministers, which will be the main driver and task monitoring mechanism to confront the newer geo-political and economic challenges. After the leadership summit, a 99-paragraph-long joint statement (one of the longest of its kind) was issued that laid down and touched upon nearly all areas of strategic engagement between the two nations. While defence and security cooperation has generally remained the hallmark of the relationship, economic engagement and trade have stayed on as the weakest link with barely USD 10 billion in bilateral trade. Hence, greater focus was laid on identifying and addressing the challenges while empowering and creating the new contours and drivers for shifting the gears.
This was evident in the attention to detail provided in a large part of the joint statement. A focussed and result-oriented emphasis was made on enhancing trade investments, Make in India and technology transfer as the trade and investment targets of USD 30 billion and USD 50 billion, respectively, by 2025, are being chased. Russia acknowledges India’s quest for becoming a part of the reliable value and supply chains, globally. Long term supplies of hydrocarbons, coking coal and fertilisers were ensured, as 28 MoUs and agreements were signed encompassing the whole spectrum. Greater collaboration in hydrocarbons and sunrise sectors has been envisaged. Transport and connectivity through the revival of the moribund International North-South Transport Corridor and Chabahar port in Iran have been re-emphasised. More importantly, to obviate the negative impact of sanctions by some countries, both sides agreed to work in their national currencies for which interbank and insurance systems, and RuPay and MIR cards, as well faster payment mechanisms have been agreed to.
Development of the Far East is a priority for Russia and it wants India to play a greater role. From India’s strategic and Indo-Pacific perspective, Far East has assumed greater importance. Hence, during the last visit of PM Modi in 2019 to Vladivostok, Russia, a USD 1 billion Line of Credit was advanced to promote Indian businesses and ventures, which are to be done on priority. This could also provide strategic leverage for Russia from the ingress of its biggest neighbour. In addition, the two sides are undertaking studies to start the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor, which will also enable India to jointly explore and participate in Arctic opportunities in accordance with India’s Act Far East Policy.
Defence, space and civil nuclear cooperation continue to strengthen and move forward as both countries exercise their strategic autonomy and multilateral approaches. The supply of the S-400 air defence system from Russia attest to the autonomy of national interest-driven decision-making. Manufacturing of the latest AK-203 rifles in India with 100 per cent transfer of technology is yet another example. Nuclear submarines, Kamov helicopters, new weapon systems, joint R&D and extension of Military-Technical Cooperation by another decade provide the requisite heft to further collaboration.
India wants Russia to play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific and certain alignment of views, including Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality, is explicit in various initiatives in the Far East. Russia finds India as a reliable partner both bilaterally and in the plethora of other regional platforms like Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS), Russia, India, China (RIC), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), G20 and United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, the collaboration between the two countries has been exemplary.
As India and Russia work for a partnership for peace, progress and prosperity, President Putin refers to India as a great power. Even though days of ‘Russi-Hindi bhai bhai’ may be passé, the trust-based and mutually-sustaining India-Russia relationship moves apace in a more realistic manner.