Abstract: India and Russia have endorsed the importance of the ‘Special and Privileged Strategic’ partnership as a result of the historical foundation of the partnership, strategic cultures and also keeping in pace with the geopolitical and geo-economic developments. Given the contemporary geopolitical realities of international relations, India and Russia have pursued a pragmatic approach to promote their respective foreign policy interests. In the context of growing security and strategic concerns, the engagement of both India and Russia with other international actors such as India’s growing proximity with the US and Russia’s strengthening of relations with China has resulted in diversifying the foreign policy approach respectively. These developments call for an assessment of what the India-Russia strategic partnership holds in coming years.
Key Words: Special and privileged partnership, multi-alignment, strategic partnership, defence cooperation
Over the years, both India and Russia have carried forward the strategic vision bearing in mind the historical foundation of the partnership, strategic cultures and also keeping in pace with the geopolitical and geo-economic developments. Both the countries have endorsed the importance of the ‘Special and Privileged Strategic’ partnership through informal meetings, regular tri-services military exercises, joint ventures in defence production, nuclear and energy cooperation and participation in multilateral fora and collaboration on regional and international issues. The two countries have also reiterated the importance of continuing their strategic and security vision together on platforms such as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS), and G-20. While pursuing respective national goals, convergence of strategic interests has definitely played a pivotal role in strengthening the India-Russia bilateral partnership.
The strategic partnership between the two traditional partners over the 70 years continues to reflect mutual trust and understanding. Continuing the focus of enhancing India-Russia strategic partnership, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin are expected to meet many times in 2020. PM Modi is expected to participate at the celebrations on 09 May 2020 marking 75th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War in Moscow’s Red Square. The two leaders are also set to meet at the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summits under Russian Chairmanship including the format of Russia-India-China and the annual bilateral summit and Eastern Economic Forum.[i]
Given the contemporary geopolitical realities and dynamic nature of international relations, India and Russia have pursued a pragmatic approach to promote their respective foreign policy interests. In the context of growing security and strategic concerns, the engagement of both India and Russia with other international actors especially India’s growing proximity with the US and Russia’s strengthening of relations with China has resulted in diversifying the focus away from each other. These developments nonetheless call for an assessment of what the India-Russia strategic partnership holds in coming years.
Foundation of the Strategic Partnership
The unravelling of geopolitics and security threats in South Asia led both the countries to develop stronger partnership which evidently led to the signing of the 1971 treaty— “Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation”. Eventually, the Soviet Union turned out as one of the paramount partners in the international forum for India during the Cold War period. The Soviet Union also emerged as the largest supplier of military equipments, developing public sector industries and providing technology. The emergence of the axis of Washington-Beijing-Pakistan and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War was a crucial time for India’s national security. India received unqualified military support from Soviet leadership to neutralise the emerging Washington-Beijing–Islamabad axis against India. The treaty of 1971 therefore epitomised the strategic relationship between India and the Soviet Union.[ii]
The premise of the bilateral relations has since relied on mutual trust, mutual interests and mutual understanding. In 1985 and 1986, and again in 1988, India and Russia signed pacts to boost bilateral trade and provide Soviet investment and technical assistance for Indian industrial, telecommunications, and transportation projects. Protocols for scientific cooperation, signed in 1985 and 1987, provided the framework for joint research and projects in space science and other high-technology areas such as biotechnology, computers, and lasers. The flow of advanced Soviet military equipment continued to remain strong.[iii]
But the period post-Soviet disintegration was undeniably a litmus test for India and Russia as there was vacillation in foreign policy priorities that moved away from serving the interests of each other in the new world order. While India adopted the New Economic Policy in 1990s that looked largely towards the West through globalisation, Russia’s foreign policy on the other hand adopted a pro-Western foreign policy while China remained the most sought after country for Russia during this period.
President Boris Yeltsin, during his visit to Delhi in 1993, tried to reinvigorate the spirit of old friendship but failed in his intentions as the renewed Indo- Soviet Treaty of 1971 underwent a significant change. The new draft of Indo- Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation 1993 clarified that the Russians for instance were not willing to make any defence commitments.[iv]
Despite these developments, the signing of the ‘Declaration on Strategic Partnership between Russia and India’ in 2000 imparted new impulse in the strategic partnership having realised that the two countries share common interests and concerns to carry forward the vision, aspirations and national goals in the international arena. India and Russia share a common vision with regards to Eurasia as the region is complex but too important to be ignored. Some of the vital interests and concerns between India and Russia include regional economic integration and connectivity, establishment of a polycentric world system, combat rise of Islamist terrorism, multilateral engagements, combat nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism, cyber security, and other non traditional threats.
Given the growing realities of global politics, India has diversified its foreign policy interests especially its growing proximity with the US. India’s strategy includes the conscious embracing of multi-alignment approach in its attempt to balance the two major players- Russia and the US to execute its national goals and maximise its strategic pay offs.
As a growing player in international relations, India is aware of its limitations and that the partnership relations with Russia and the US is fundamental in its bid to address some of its domestic and international needs such as strengthening its military strength, economic progress, countering unfriendly overtures by hostile neighbours (Pakistan and China) and the aspiration to emerge as an influential global player.
In the past decade and a half, the most prominent development in India’s foreign policy relations has been its efforts to align with all major global powers. India’s progress as a political, economic, defence and strategic actor in 21st century international relations has drawn attention of many global players. In today’s context, India has carefully managed to proximate its re-alignment with two most important countries— Russia and the United States (US). With these developments, the strategic vision between India and Russia is visibly undergoing a transition, i.e., the interests and concerns have moved away from mutual and have become more of a ‘shared diversified’ one in approach.
From Mutual to Shared Diversified Interests?
While it is a tried and tested partnership, there also exist hiccups in the strategic engagement. In 2014, Russia announced its ‘pivot to Asia strategy’[v] to re-enhance its relations with Asian countries. While Russia’s re-focus to Asian region is positively welcomed by India, the strategic cooperation has also become a subject to litmus test. The diversification of Russia’s interests in the South Asian region in recent times for instance has countries such as Pakistan featuring in the foreign policy interests of Russia given its revived interest in Asian geopolitics.
The move is seen by many in Indian academic community as an attempt by Russia to strengthen its ‘pivot to Asia strategy’ in which Pakistan is seen as a crucial factor such as Russia’s focus towards stability and security of Afghanistan. Apart from Russia-Pakistan relations, a greater shift can also be witnessed in Russia-China strategic relations especially since 2014. The two countries have emerged as crucial political, economic, defence, and strategic actors in world politics. In contemporary international relations, convergence of interests, inter-dependence and mutual concerns have strengthened the ties between the two countries. The biggest beneficiary of the thaw in the bilateral relations between Pakistan and Russia is seemingly China. On the one hand it has its all-weather friend- Pakistan and Russia with which its relations today have reached a historical apex.
Some argue that the mutual interests and concerns of both India and Russia no longer correspond to the ones that the two countries shared during the Cold War period, for instance, the defence cooperation. With Russia’s military diplomacy gaining momentum, the transition in the strategic cooperation between the two countries is fading away from ‘exceptionalism’ that India once enjoyed with its engagement with Russia in defence engagement. For India, Russia’s revived military diplomacy and defence cooperation with China is a major concern. The sale of 24 Su-35 fighter aircraft, S-400 air-defence missiles, and Russia agreeing to ‘help’ its Chinese partners create a missile attack warning system is an indicator of revamped defence cooperation between the two countries.
The revamping of defence cooperation between Russia and Pakistan however is likely to remain limited in scope but the political signalling of Russia’s engagement with Pakistan is seen as an outcome of the new synergies in the face of India’s drift towards the US especially in defence sphere.
There is also a growing geopolitical alignment between the US and India’s interests in the Indo-Pacific. China’s rise in Indo-Pacific region is seen as a common threat by both countries. China’s territorial claims in South Asia and South East Asia, inroads into Indian Ocean region, and robust expansive economic initiatives through its Belt Road Initiative have further led to growing proximity between the two countries. This changing geopolitical context has led India and the United States to work in tandem in the Indo-Pacific region by conducting trilateral and, perhaps, quadrilateral joint military exercises along with Japan and Australia.
In 2016, India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US and its engagement with the US in Indo-Pacific region has led to a strengthening of Indo-US strategic partnership. India being a crucial stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region, pushing China into a disadvantageous position is an important factor for India’s maritime interests and security given China’s growing muscle-flexing in the region. But at the same time, it is conscious not to see its threat perception through the US prism. The US idea of containment with India joining Quad and the Indian denial is a case in point.
India’s relations with the US are not without challenges and the recent developments have demonstrated it. The call for ‘America first’ policy and growing unilateralism of the US such as the imposition of Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) has caused displeasure among its long term partners like India. The signing of S-400 air missile defence system by India is a clear assertion of strategic autonomy of Indian decision-making on Russia despite warning of imposition of the CAATSA.
Consequently, while developing ties with the US, balanced distribution of interests with Russia was another challenge to India. It is evident that diversification of focus by India and Russia has allowed both the countries to forge deeper ties with other international players. But at the same time, Russia and India have maintained a durable partnership for decades, and India is a major buyer of Russian weapons. They share a long history, and their relations are based on goodwill and friendship. Also, what have continued to remain undamaged in the bilateral relation are mutual trust, mutual understanding and mutual concerns that have resulted in maturity and pragmatism in the partnership irrespective of the challenges and complexities that the two countries face.
Today, the two countries have focused into taking the bilateral engagement further as seen in their collaboration in the construction of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in Bangladesh. In 2018, India, Russia and Bangladesh signed a tripartite memorandum of understanding (MoU) for cooperation in the construction of the Rooppur nuclear power plant. Given the positive outcome of intergovernmental agreement by another country with India and Russia, the two countries may continue to commit in such endeavours. For instance, Uzbekistan has embarked on a range of reforms one of which is to build commercial nuclear power plants. Given that Uzbekistan has opened up opportunities in nuclear energy, India and Russia may explore the potentials of collaborating in Uzbekistan similar Rooppur nuclear power plant.
While defining the trends in the bilateral relations between India and Russia today, there is constant comparison of the degree of intense partnership it once shared during the Cold War period and in the post-Cold War era. What one fails to understand is that the conditions, circumstances and the international milieu have undergone a sea-change due to the dynamic nature of world politics. These factors have compelled both these countries to act accordingly in order to carry forward their respective goals, national interests and global aspirations.
There is a need for a long-term vision and realistic roadmap to address common interests and concerns such as regional and global security and geo-economic prospects that will pave the way for enhancing the strategic cooperation between India and Russia.
*Dr. Chandra Rekha, Research Fellow Indian Council of World Affairs
Views expressed is personal.
[i]Nikolay Kudashev, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to India on an interactive session with journalists, The Embassy of Russian Federation in India, 23 December 2019, , https://twitter.com/rusembindia?lang=en
[ii] Arun Mohanty, “Toasting Legacy of 1971 Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty”, Russia and India Report, August 09, 2011, http://indrus.in/articles/2011/08/09/toasting_legacy_of_1971_indo-soviet_friendship_treaty_12842.html, accessed on January 12, 2014.
[iii] James Heitzman and Robert L. Worden, Ed., India: A Country Study, (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1995), http://countrystudies.us/india/133.htm, Accessed on 17 November 2013.
[iv] J. A. Naik, “Russia's Policy towards India: From Stalin to Yeltsin”, (M.D. Publications, 1995), pp. 177-186.
[v]Gilbert Rozman, “The Russian Pivot to Asia,” The Asian Forum,” 01 December 2014. http://www.theasanforum.org/the-russian-pivot-to-asia/, accessed on?