Why Russia remains important for India?
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

India pursues an independent foreign policy. But given the pulls and pressures of geopolitical realities, it is not an easy task. There is often a tendency in India to focus on US and Japan while ignoring Russia. This will be counter-productive. India cannot ignore the fact that Russia remains, and will remain a pre-eminent nuclear and energy power and a permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council, for a long time to come. India’s dependence on Russia for its defence and energy needs will continue well into the future. Since the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, maintaining close and strategic relations with Russia and the US at the same time is indispensable for India. Strong partnership with Russia provides India leverages to deal with other countries.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Indo-Russian relations drifted for a few years under President Yeltsin. However, it goes to the credit of President Putin and Indian Prime Ministers that the relationship has been upgraded to a ‘special and privileged partnership’. This speaks volumes for the strength of Indo-Russian ties which have survived the vicissitudes of global politics. What is needed is to give content to this special and privileged strategic partnership between the two countries.

It is an unfortunate reality that despite the keen desire on both sides to deepen the bilateral ties, they remain below par in many areas. Indo-Russian economic and commercial ties are far below their true potential despite efforts on both sides. As a result, Indo-Russian relations remain narrowly based on defence and energy only. Further, rapid changes in the global situation have compiled both countries to look for new partnerships. This has sometimes created mutual suspicion and strains in Indo-Russian relations.

The increasing hostility between Russia and the West has pushed the former closer to China. Both countries insist on multi-polarity to resist US hegemony. That is why they insist on RIC (Russia-India-China), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Russia also feels that India, because of its growing links with the US, is not fully committed to these Forums. Further, the ‘Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’, or the CATSAA, and Iran sanctions restrict and adversely impact Indo-Russia relations. India has to find a way of navigating through the Russia-US tension. Hopefully, with Mueller finding that Russia had not interfaced in US presidential elections would ease Russia-US relations. This would be beneficial for Indo-Russian relations as well.

Russia is turning out to be a junior partner in Russia-China balance. It is supplying natural gas, minerals, defence technologies to China and providing investment opportunities to Chinese companies, thus strengthening the Chinese economy. This has created huge problems for India considering that India-China relations remain difficult and marked by an undercurrent of rivalry and competition. This is further complicated by the fact that China has shielded Pakistan in every which possible way. This has emboldened Pakistan to continue with its enmity with India. Pakistan has been a recipient of massive Chinese nuclear, missile, military and economic aid. China has not hesitated to transfer modern technologies that it in the first place had received from Russian. RD-93 engines, fitted into JF series of Chinese fighters have been supplied to Pakistan.

The growing strategic partnership between India and the US has also caused concerns in Russia where the perception is that India is surely and steadily going into the Western camp. Russia has sought to keep India on its side by inviting it to join the BRICS and the SCO. But it remains concerned that strengthening of Indo US partnership will impact Russia adversely.

Thus, India has a dilemma. How to navigate between Russia, China, and the US?

India has no option but to have a close relationship both with the US and Russia and to manage its difficult relationship with China. Similarly, Russia cannot afford to lose India because India is a big market for its defence equipment and technologies, nuclear reactors and diamonds. Moreover, India is on a growth path and a huge market which Russia can take advantage of. Further, Russia cannot be happy on its growing dependency on China and its junior partner status in the China-Russia partnership. India provides the necessary balance for Russia.

Russia’s growing relationship with Pakistan, which now includes military supplies and joint military exercises, is beginning to cause concern in India. Although Russia has given assurances to India at the highest levels that relations with China and Pakistan will not be at the expense of India, Indian concerns have not been totally assuaged. There are clear differences in the Indian and the Russian views on Afghanistan as well. Russia’s reluctance to criticise Pakistan for cross-border terrorism against India is also noticed in India. Russia has also been openly critical of the concept of Indo-Pacific and the ‘Quad’ which is becoming a centerpiece of India’s foreign policy.

Russia is also aware of its growing dependence on China and would like to diversify its relations. That is why India is important for Russia as well. Russia is promoting the concept of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) which appeals to India, but as yet there is not much headway in this regard. For India, both Indo-Pacific and Eurasia are important for security reasons. India should pay greater attention to the EEU which is important for Russia.

Overall, these trends are likely to continue into the future. Some discordance in Indo-Russian relations are inevitable due to the very nature of evolving geo-politics. So long as Russia’s relationship with the West remains strained, Russia will look towards China. So long as Sino-Indian relations remain troubled, Russia’s going into the Chinese sphere of influence will not suit India.

India and Russia need to look for areas of cooperation in which they are shielded to the extent possible from the factors which are not in their control. Russia can help India build its technological potential by providing access to its technologies. India can provide market to Russian goods and technologies. Russia need not be over-sensitive to India’s growing relationship with the US because the technologies it receives from the US are not going to be used in any way against Russia. Similarly, India should not give in to US pressure to curtail its relationship with Russia.

India is being wooed by both Russia and the US at the same time. This is an opportunity for India to remain sincerely engaged with both sides without being pulled in one direction or the other. Besides, India should develop its own capabilities to ensure that it has the necessary leverages to deal with US, Russia as well as China at the same time.

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