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Surprisingly, Narendra Modi held off a visit to Russia, a country most hold to be India’s most vital international partner, for 18 months after taking office. Of course, there had been earlier opportunities to meet with his Russian counterpart, in Fortaleza in July 2014 during the BRICS summit, in Ufa in July 2015 during the BRICS and SCO conferences, and in Brisbane in November 2014 during the G20 meeting, but an official bilateral trip to Moscow has come slower than expected. In the same time, the Indian prime minister visited France and the United States twice, indicating what many see as India’s changed priorities and the newfound friends that come with it.

On the surface of it, India-Russia relations appear to be cooling: the United States and Israel have dramatically increased weapons sales to India, Delhi has been keen on joint military exercises with Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo of late, and France is emerging as an important partner in defence, energy, and industry. Meanwhile, Russian weapons sales to India have dropped and the only bright spot is the joint development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) between the two countries but even that has seen several setbacks of late. Russian failure to meet delivery schedules, their tendency to increase costs, and the reluctance to transfer technology and supply spares has a long history that is conveniently omitted from the Indian public narrative. In November 2014, Russia agreed to sell Pakistan its Mi-35 attack helicopters and planned to hold its first joint military exercise with the Islamic state. Moscow’s relations with Beijing, too, have seen an upsurge in the wake of its rapidly deteriorating relations with the West over the conflict in Crimea. Of particular concern to India is the Russian sale of the S-400 Triumf and the advanced Su-35 air superiority fighter to China.

Modi’s visit seems to have changed all that. Reports suggest that the total value of the deals and Memoranda of Understanding signed between the two countries could be in the vicinity of a staggering $150 billion, probably making the prime ministerial trip the most valuable bilateral summit ever. The agreements included a second site for Russian six Russian nuclear reactors in Andhra Pradesh and the manufacture of Russia’s Kamov Ka-226T light helicopters under Modi’s ‘Make in India’ programme; negotiations are apparently on for India to seal the deal on the lease of another Akula II class nuclear submarine, the acquisition of the S-400 air defence system, an order for three more Krivak III class stealth frigates, and the FGFA. Just a couple of days before the prime minister’s visit, Reliance Defence announced a partnership with Almaz-Antey to manufacture air defence systems for the Indian military. There is also talk of a sale to India of 48 Mi-17V-5 helicopters and a partnership between Sukhoi and Tata to manufacture spare parts for the former’s jets in India. Modi praised Putin, saying, “Despite the various global problems, despite the confrontation against Russia, you have raised your country, your state to a qualitatively new level,” and assured him that “Russia remain[ed] India’s principal partner,” in defence.

However, the importance of Russia to India is far greater than a few arms sales. A pale shadow of the Soviet Union, Russia today still possesses enviable diplomatic clout, an excellent yet severely underfunded military-industrial technological complex, large deposits of natural resources, and a formidable military. The successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran would not have been possible without Moscow’s cooperation and it looks increasingly the same way in Syria. Of particular value to India is Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council, which Delhi has lobbied for before on thorny issues like Kashmir. The Kremlin’s support for Indian entry into several technology regimes and political and economic groupings – MTCR, NSG, UNSC, SCO – is also something India counts on. While it may not look it in the aftermath of Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukrainian situation, Russia and India need each other in the long term to balance the rise of China.

Russia’s vast hydrocarbon reserves are of great interest to India and the two countries are cooperating on exploring the Russian offshore Arctic. More immediately, the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC) and the construction of gas pipelines from Russia and Central Asia to Chabahar and beyond hold the key to an energy bonanza not just for the two countries but other states en route as well. Russia’s historic ties and influence in Central Asia can be a mutually beneficial asset.

It is keeping this in mind that Modi does not discard the Russian relationship as readily as a superficial glance at recent headlines might warrant. Delhi has refrained from criticising Moscow in Ukraine or in Syria – in fact, it is not difficult to read silent support in between the diplomatic lines. Additionally, it is not possible for India to distance itself from Russia even if it so desires because of the dependencies it has built: 70 per cent of the Indian military uses Russian hardware and Delhi relies on Moscow to supply spare parts and other services. Were ties to precipitously wither, India would have serious complications in its already ailing defence preparedness. Modi understands this and his visit was partly an attempt to ameliorate the situation via the ‘Make in India’ programme. Still, the importance of Russia to Indian defence cannot be overstated.

Yet left at this largely military level, ties are bound to be regularly strained. Arms exports are essential to Russia as some scholars have pointed out. Russia’s military-industrial complex stands at approximately three million workers, accounting for some 20 per cent of all manufacturing in the country. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a weak economy, and Western sanctions have made domestic purchase of military equipment a luxury for the Russian Armed Forces and exports are intended to make up for the domestic order deficit. Each Indian defence order that goes to Israel, France, or the United States is acutely felt by Moscow. It is widely assumed that Moscow’s military flirtation with Pakistan is driven solely by economic necessity than any strategic realignment based on recent Indian policies. Similarly, China represents a vital market for energy and defence sales that Russia finds difficult to spurn in the face of the loss of Indian defence orders and Western sanctions even if there will be price to pay in the longer term.

The single greatest transformation in India-Russia relations is an expansion of Indian trade from defence, and perhaps energy, to other sectors of the economy. Trade between the two countries stands at less than $10 billion today. So far, this has been because the Russian market was notoriously difficult to access for Indian firms but now, with Western sanctions against Russia and Russian sanctions against Turkey, there is an opening for aggressive Indian corporations to move into the space vacated by Western and Turkish firms in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food products, fertilisers, textiles, furniture, and other areas. Not only will this create a healthier basis for relations but it buffer Russia from the effect of not winning an arms contract. India lost an opportunity to become a major player in the Russian market when the Cold War ended and again when European and American sanctions forced a Russian pivot to Asia. China has been the biggest beneficiary of Russia’s discovery of Asia, primarily because of their deep pockets and thirst for advanced technology and energy. India can still make inroads if economic ties are seriously pursued.

Unfortunately, all attention in India-Russia relations is focused around big ticket items like fighter jets and nuclear reactors. Economic opportunities apart, a Moscow-Delhi dyad can reap the rewards of playing the Sino-American rivalry just as the United States had a rapprochement with China during the Cold War to throw the Soviet Union off balance. This allows Delhi to maintain its independence of action while recreating the multipolar world a la the Concert of Europe that many political scientists only dream about in the Age of Non-State Actor Terror. Modi’s visit has certainly shored up Russian insecurities in the short term, but a truly transformative manoeuvre is still awaited.


This post appeared on FirstPost on December 25, 2015.

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