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Editorial Articles


Issue No 38, 18 December -24 December 2021

India-Russia Partnership In The Fast-Changing Global Order

Rishikesh Kumar

Russian President Vladimir Putin was on a brief working visit to New Delhi on 6 December to take part in the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was President Putin's only second visit out of Russia since March 2020. The only other visit he had undertaken during the time period was a brief visit to Geneva for the Russia-US Summit with President Joe Biden.

 "The fact that President Putin has decided to visit India for our annual summit exceptionally is an indication of the importance he attaches to the bilateral relationship," Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India's Foreign Secretary underlined, mentioning President Putin had conferred Russia's highest civilian award, "the Order of St Andrew the Apostle," on Prime Minister Modi in 2019. Last year, the annual Summit was not held because of the COVID pandemic.

The visit concluded in a joint statement titled 'India-Russia Partnership for Peace, Progress, and Prosperity.' Putin called India a “great power, a friendly nation, and a timetested friend.” Indian PM Modi stated that the India-Russia friendship had remained a constant amid all the geopolitical changes at the global level in the past decades.

In the 99-point joint statement issued after the Summit, India and Russia agreed to intensify consultations on complementarities between integration and development initiatives in greater Eurasian space and in the regions of Indian and Pacific Oceans. The joint statement, capturing the state and future potential of bilateral ties, mentioned signing a record number of 28 agreements or Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). These agreements were both government to government and business to business, covering various sectors including trade, energy, culture, intellectual property, accountancy, cyber-attacks in the banking sector, workforce, geological exploration survey, education, etc.

The two countries renewed the military-technical cooperation deal for 2021-31. Also, they signed an agreement for the joint production of 601,427 AK-203 assault rifles at a manufacturing facility in Uttar Pradesh's Amethi during the 20th meeting of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military and Military-Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-M&MTC). “Given a large number of platform holdings of Russian equipment with Indian armed forces, the extension of the 10-year agreement was inevitable. This is a major signal to Washington that despite CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sword in the background, India is not likely to reel back imports of Russian defence equipment in the near to midterm”, Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (Retired), a Delhi-based security analyst, assessed. CAATSA is a U.S. law passed in 2017 to prevent countries from buying weapons from Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shringla said that the two countries did not discuss CAATSA at all, emphasizing that the S-400 'Triumf' is a legacy contract from 2018. Supplies of the first column of the air missile defense system have begun this month, and the rest of four under the $5.43 billion contract will continue to happen until 2023.

"I do not think the military technical cooperation for the next decade that has been signed is going to change the India-Russia defence relationship trajectory fundamentally. I think this is largely an attempt to set the course for the next decade; to see what are the priority areas in which the two countries can collaborate and move from "buyer-seller" to "co-production and codeveloper" - something India has been prioritising in its defence engagements," ", Professor Harsh V. Pant, Director of Strategic Studies Programme at the New Delhibased think tank Observer Research Foundation noted.

India's former ambassador to Russia Bala Venkatesh Varma had pointed out ahead of the Summit that India-Russia bilateral defence contracts were only about US$ 2-3 Billion per year in 2018, which has scaled up to nearly US$ 9-10 billion per annum now.

Professor Pant reckoned that India's military diversification, at the same time, will also continue with the other countries coming into India's defence policy matrix, like the U.S., Western European countries like France, or even Israel.

Russia has recently begun manufacturing 1135.6 frigates for the Indian Navy at the Yantar shipyard in Kaliningrad. Under the contract, two frigates will be manufactured in Russia while Goa Shipyard Ltd in India will manufacture two others. India will also buy an additional Su 30-MKI fighter jet as well as additional MiG 29s and 400 more T-90 tanks. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has also informed that the two countries will soon sign the reciprocal military logistics support agreement (RELOS), which will provide access to each other's military facilities like ports, bases, and military installations.

Trade and Investment

One of the critical pillars of the old Indo-Soviet friendship was strong commercial ties. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) used to be India's largest trading partner. In comparison, the current expansion of the Indian economy is based on Asian markets and the West.

Enhancing bilateral trade and investments figured prominently during the talks between Indian Prime Minister Modi and Russian President Putin. Both the leaders have noticed an encouraging growth trend in bilateral trade compared to last year when there was a downturn due to the COVID pandemic. Aside from the traditional strengths of IndiaRussia relations: defence, nuclear, space, and energy, the two countries have been making efforts to enlarge the scope of relations. Both countries reiterated their pledge to increase bilateral trade by $30 billion and $50 billion in investment by 2025. To achieve the goal, the two "Special and Privileged Strategic Partners" are considering significant projects in the energy sector, long-term arrangements concerning coking coal and fertilizers.

The role of connectivity through the International NorthSouth Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the proposed Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor also figured in the discussions. "Trade and connectivity are linked. If trade turnover is limited, large connectivity projects may be of limited value. At the same time, connectivity can also lead to more trade. To a large extent, INSTC has not really taken off because India-Russia trade was supposed to provide volumes, which has not happened. It is good that now Chabahar port built by India in Iran has been added within the INSTC framework. The Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor has both commercial and geopolitical dimensions. It can provide opportunities for India to invest in Russia’s Far East. This can be linked with India's Indo-Pacific strategy as well. India can import crude and LNG from Russia through this route," Prof Gulshan Sachdeva, Coordinator, Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence; and Chairperson, Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University reckoned.

Assessing India's Economic Engagements in Russia's Far East Region

Russia and India are looking forward to exploring the opportunities of enhancing economic engagement in the Far East through investments, trade, and commerce. New Delhi seeks to tap the geoeconomic opportunity in Russia's new Far East region. India needs to look beyond oil and gas and explore new opportunities in farming, mineral exploration, manufacturing, and shipping. In the meantime, the Russian Far East can also become a manufacturing base for Indian exporters seeking to tap the markets of North-east Asia. Against this backdrop, New Delhi announced to grant $ 1 billion line of credit to Russia in the Eastern Economic Forum to attract and provide incentives to the Indian business community to invest in the Far East Region in 2019. "India needs to strengthen the potentials of business to business (B2B) cooperation to explore the opportunities in energy, forestry, timber, healthcare, agriculture and food processing, ceramics, tourism, and infrastructure," Dr. Sandeep Tripathi, Founder & President of the Forum for Global Studies, suggested.

Dr. Tripathi said that the Russian Far East Region is a win-win situation for the timetested partners because Moscow's resource-surplusbased economy and India's resource-deficit economy can be fertile ground for both countries. For instance, Moscow can explore Indian immigration. Similarly, New Delhi may emerge as a growing market for Russian exports. In this context, the Chennai-Vladivostok sea route, which covers a distance of approximately 5,600 nautical miles, or about 10,300 km, has been proposed. This link would facilitate cargo transfers between the two eastern ports of the two countries in 24 days compared to the 40 days that it now takes for ships that sail via Europe.

The Chennai-Vladivostok shipping route would become the backbone of the Indo-Pacific maritime link between India and the Far East as a whole. In addition, the geopolitical and security factors also play a crucial role behind India's orientation towards Russia's most untapped Far East Region. "China's presence as an investment source and the source of mass labour migration have influenced deeply the geopolitics of the Russian Far East and reach out to India. New Delhi, however, looks at Russia's Far East Region beyond pure economics," Dr Tripathi reckoned.

Energy Co-operation

The two countries have reaffirmed their commitment to increasing Russian crude oil production under long-term contracts at preferential prices, and increasing Liquid Natural Gas imports to India with the possible use of the Northern Sea Route for energy supplies. Northern Sea Route runs from the Barents Sea, near Russia's border with Norway, to the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska. It cuts distance between Asia and Europe by almost 40% compared to traditional maritime routes via Suez Canal. There is extensive cooperation between India and Russia on energy, including Indian companies' stakes in Russian upstream projects Sakhalin 1, Vankorneft, and Taas-Yuryakh. "The parties also agreed to consider prospects for expanding cooperation on hydro and thermal energy, energy efficiency, and the use of renewable energy sources," a Kremlin report about the Summit reads.

Since 2016, Indian companies (ONGC Videsh Ltd., Oil India Limited, Indian Oil Corporation and Bharat Petroresources) have been holding a 49.9% stake in Vankorneft Subsidiary. The Consortium of Indian companies (Oil India Limited, Indian Oil Corporation & Bharat Petroresources) also owns a 29.9% stake in Taas-Yuryakh Neftegazodo-bycha, which holds licenses for the Central Block of the Srednebotuobinskoye field and the Kurungsky license area (the other shareholders are Rosneft and British Petroleum). Since 2001, ONGC Videsh Ltd. has been a participant in the Sakhalin-1 project (the other shareholders are Rosneft, ExxonMobil, and Japanese Sodeco). In 2020, the project produced 124 lakh tons of oil and condensate, and supplied more than 2.4 billion cubic meters of gas to consumers. Meanwhile, Russia's biggest oil firm Rosneft owns a stake (49.13%) in the Indian company Nayara Energy, which has the second-largest refinery in the country in Vadinar with a throughput of 200 lakh tons per year. The two countries have agreed to further expand cooperation in this sector by developing gas infrastructure and distribution projects, the use of natural gas in transport, and emerging fuels, including hydrogen.

Cooperation in Space and Nuclear Energy

Cooperation in space and civil nuclear energy, as well as greater collaboration in cyber security, also figured during the official discussions in the Summit. Both sides expressed concern over the possibility of an arms race in outer space and outer space turning into an arena for military confrontation. They reaffirmed commitment to take efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space and its weaponization. Also, the two countries agreed to study the prospects of the development of mutually beneficial cooperation in the development of launch vehicles and use of outer space for peaceful purposes, including planetary exploration.

Gaganyaan program is India's first human-crewed space flight mission. A contract was signed between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Roscosmos' subsidiary Glavcosmos in June 2019 to train Indians who will be sent to space for seven days in 2023 aboard Gaganyaan. Training of the four Indian personnel began in February 2020 in Russia and was completed in March 2021. This crew capsule will be launched on India's heavy rocket Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The two nations have also agreed to strengthen cooperation within the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS), including the issues of the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.

On civil nuclear cooperation, the two countries noted the significant progress achieved in constructing the remaining nuclear power plant units at Kudankulam. India will also allot a second site for building nuclear reactors with the cooperation of Russia. Presently, India has 22 operational nuclear reactors with about 6,780 MW installed capacity for power generation. There are ten nuclear power reactors with 8000 MW capacity under construction.

Afghanistan and Counterterrorism

President Putin and Prime Minister Modi exchanged views on regional and international issues of common interest. According to Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the two leaders have decided to continue close consultation and coordination on the situation in Afghanistan, for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan with an inclusive government that represents all sections of the society. "Both sides were also very clear that Afghanistan territory should not be used for sheltering training or planning, financing any acts of terrorism including ISIS, Al Qaeda, LeT etc. There were, of course, concerns over the issue of drugs and other concerns that could emanate from Afghanistan. It was felt that humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan was important," Shringla said.

 To address the threat of chemical and biological terrorism, both sides emphasized the need to launch multilateral negotiations on an international convention to suppress acts of chemical and biological terrorism at the Conference on Disarmament. The two countries also discussed the ongoing military standoff between India and China in the eastern Ladakh region as well as the situation in Ukraine, among others.

Earlier this year, Russia had unveiled its National Security Strategy, which explicitly mentioned that expanding strategic cooperation with India and China remained Moscow's foreign policy priorities. Russia expressed its strong support for India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Inaugural 2+2 Summit

India and Russia have started the 2+2 defence and foreign ministries level dialogue, coinciding with the Annual Summit on 6th December 2021. With this, India has a 2+2 format dialogue mechanism on strategic and defence-related issues with four of its key strategic partners — Russia, Australia, the U.S., and Japan.

During the inaugural dialogue, India made it clear to Russia how it views the IndoPacific strategy and how it aligns with Moscow's vision of a non-aligned Asia Pacific. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that maritime security and safety are another area of shared concern. "We both have a common interest in ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-driven platforms," Jaishankar said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conveyed Russia's "serious concerns" about activities taking place in the Asia-Pacific Region. "We expressed our concern about the activities taking place in this region under the slogan of Indo-Pacific strategies where we see non-inclusive blocs like AUKUS," Lavrov said.

"The 2+2 foreign and defence ministerial dialogue fuels a new impetus to the institutional mechanism of 'Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership' between New Delhi and Moscow. This newly established institutional mechanism 2+2 talk will dilute the existing hurdles and hedges between Russia and India that evolved under the new geopolitical clout, i.e. India's alignment with the QUAD and Moscow's closer ties with Beijing. In addition, this dialogue reiterates that our defence ties are more than the speculative assumptions that evolved over the years," Dr. Sandeep Tripathi assessed.

Experts in inter-national relations agreed that for Russia, it is very important that India remains one of its most important defence buyers while working on expanding commercial ties to deepen the relationship like it has with China. Russia and China have a bilateral trade of over $40 billion, while India-Russia bilateral trade has only hovered around $10 billion.

"For India, it is most important that Russia engages with India and does not really abandon its relationship with India in favour of China. So, for both countries it is important that the defence relationship is embedded in the larger foreign policy assessment where the two countries need each other for maintaining their own strategic autonomies," Professor Harsh V. Pant of Observer Research Foundation emphasized.

(The author is Correspondent, Sputnik International – Russian stateowned multi-media agency. He can be reached at rishikeshjourno@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal