Context:  PM’s visit to Vladivostok and its importance in shaping the India-Russia relationship and the challenges in the ties between the two countries

Relations between India and Russia are rooted in history, mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation. This is a strategic partnership that has withstood the test of time, and which enjoys the support of the people of both countries. 

Diplomatic relations between India and Russia began even before India achieved independence, on April 13th 1947 through an exchange of diplomatic notes between their envoys in China. This method was resorted to because of the reluctance of the United Kingdom, which was still the colonial power in India, to endorse the decision of India’s Interim Government to establish diplomatic relations between India and the Soviet Union. In the period immediately following independence, the goal for India was attaining economic self-sufficiency through investment in heavy industry.  The Soviet Union invested in several new enterprises in the areas of heavy machine-building, mining, energy production and steel plants.  During India’s second Five Year Plan, of the sixteen heavy industry projects set up, eight were initiated with the help of the Soviet Union.  This included the establishment of the world-famous IIT Bombay. 

 Recent developments:

  • PM Narendra Modi was in Vladivostok, to participate in the 20th India-Russia annual summit and the fifth meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF).
  • The EEF is a forum which, since 2015, has been trying to push for the development of business and investment opportunities in the Russian Far East Region and Modi’s presence there as chief guest underscores the role this region can play in enhancing cooperation between India and Russia in the region and beyond.
  • PM Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit the Russian Far East Region, Modi’s visit is intended to give “a new direction, new energy and new speed” to relations between India and Russia.

Significance of Russia’s Far East

  • Russia’s Far East is a huge landmass which is rich in resources but is sparsely populated and underdeveloped. Till now, its development has primarily revolved around Chinese dominance and so Russia wants to diversify with the help of other Asian powers to lessen Russia’s growing dependence on China.
  • It provides an opportunity for the Indian investors to look at Russian Far East and explore investment opportunities there. Modi’s visit has resulted in a proposal for a maritime route between Chennai and Vladivostok, bypassing Europe, which would enable to transfer cargo between Chennai and Vladivostok in 24 days in comparison to over 40 days currently taken to transport goods from India to Far East Russia via Europe.
  • With the possible shift in the centre of power to Asia in the 21 century, Russia’s far East has an important role to play. So, India’s enhanced presence in the region is strongly desired.

Recent Developments in India-Russia Relations and the possibilities ahead:

  • India’s economic ties with Russia have been struggling with bilateral trade hovering around $10 billion mark. Energy is one area which has the potential to provide ballast to their ties.
  • Indian energy companies are keen to invest in Russia’s upstream sector.
  • Russia’s Rosneft in 2017 completed a $12.9-billion acquisition of Essar Oil to enter India, the world’s fastest-growing energy market.
  • Russia and India are also becoming more ambitious by pursuing projects in third countries such as the Rooppur nuclear power project of Bangladesh.

Defence ties still makes most of India-Russia bilateral engagements.

  • India wants Russia to take advantage of the low production cost in India to produce military equipment under the joint venture framework at cheaper rates for the third-world nations.
  • New Delhi’s decision to go ahead with the purchase of S-400 missile defence system, worth over $5 billion, despite the threat of US sanctions, underscores the importance India continues to attach to its defence engagement with Russia.
  • Agreement on Reciprocal Logistics Support (ARLS), aimed at facilitating access to each others’ military facilities, is supposed to be agreed in the present visit.

Depth in the relationship:

  • Russia stood by India on the issue of (Art 370) Jammu and Kashmir arguing that “India’s decision is a sovereign decision which is as per its Constitution”.
  • Russia recognises that India’s involvement in Afghanistan remains necessary if the war-torn nation is to see long term stability.
  • It supports India in its bid for permanent membership to UNSC and to get entry into the NSG (Nuclear Supplier Group) membership.

Concerns in India-Russia Relations:

India’s growing proximity to the US:

  • India’s joining in the Quad Group with USA, Japan and Australia led to a strategic shift in Russia’s foreign policy.
  • Increase in defence and strategic partnership between India and USA.

Russia’s growing proximity to Pakistan and China:

  • Pakistan: Russia in 2014 lifted the arms embargo on Pakistan. Russia and Pakistan st 2/3 conducted a military exercise in September 2016. In 2017, a military-technical cooperation agreement was signed which deals with arms supply and weapon development. All these factors raised concerns in India.
  • China: Increasing strategic and military relations between Russia-China and Russia’s endorsements to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a major concern for India.

Defence partnership:

  • India has been recently diversifying its defence relations with the US, Israel etc. Russia’s share of Indian defence imports fell from 79% between 2008-2012 to 62% between 2013-2017.

Trade relations:

  • India-Russia trade has been one-dimensional i.e. defence based.
  • Trade between the two nations is around $10 billion which is far below potential in comparison to India’s trade with China ($89.7 billion) and the United States ($74.5 billion)

Positives about the future:

  • India and Russia need to transform a 20th-century partnership to make it fit for the 21 century. Both nations should build on the “historical trust” to carve out a modern, broad-based partnership more in sync with contemporary realities.
  • India and Russia have converging interests across various sectors that can be leveraged to balance the differences.

PM Modi is right when he argues that the greatest achievement of the last 20 years in India-Russia ties is “trust.” Both nations should build on this trust to carve out a modern, broad-based partnership more in sync with contemporary realities.