The Journey So Far

Amit Cowshish*


Strategic Contours of India’s Engagement in Russia’s

Beginnings of the journey
The foundations of this bond were laid on April 13, 1947, when India’s Congress-led interim government and the Soviet Union’s Communist Party opted to establish official missions in each other’s capitals.concerned.

The serious engagement, however, began in 1955 with the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru while visiting Moscow in June that year and the Soviet Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev arriving in New Delhi a few months later, overcoming the initial misgivings Moscow harboured about India.

One of the lasting outcomes of Khrushchev’s visit was the announcement of the Soviet Union’s support for India’s claim of sovereignty over the northern province of Kashmir. Sixty-four years later Russia has displayed the same consistency in endorsing New Delhi’s revocation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status.

In the spirit of ‘principled reciprocity’ that cemented the bilateral bond between Delhi and Moscow during the Cold War decades, India denounced Western colonial attitudes as the root cause of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis involving Israel, France and the UK. India also refrained from criticising the intervention by Russian troops in the Hungarian uprising in 1955 after Budapest joined the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact. Years later, India was to again break ranks with almost the entire world when it tacitly supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, which ultimately led to its collapse in 1991 and the outbreak of civil war and chaos that persists till today.

The most productive years
In the intervening years till the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, relations between India and Russia proliferated, with the former receiving invaluable Russian assistance in the field of science and technology and of course, materiel.

India’s steel plants in Bhilai and Bokaro, the thermal power plant in Neyveli, the antibiotics factory in Rishikesh, the Indian Institute of Technology at Mumbai and numerous other industrial, research and educational centres were established with Russian assistance. The first Indian satellite Aryabhata too was launched with Russian assistance in 1975 and Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian astronaut to travel into space, was a crew member of the Soviet spacecraft, Soyuz T-11 in 1984.

Meanwhile, as enduring Russian assistance in the field of science and technology strengthened India’s economic foundations, collaboration in the defence arena from the early 1960s significantly boosted India’s fledgling military capabilities.

Starting with MiG-21 ground attack fighters and T-55 Main Battle Tanks, India has, over decades built up a massive inventory of Russian-origin military equipment through a combination of direct purchase and local licensed-manufacturing via technology transfer.

It’s little wonder that over five decades later Russia continues to be India’s largest provider of arms and military technology transfer. During 2014-18, for instance, Russia accounted for 58 per cent of India’s total arms import, followed by Israel (15 per cent) and the USA (12 per cent). Bilateral defence ties received a boost under the August 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation. This pact was a critical factor that contributed to India’s victory in the conflict with Pakistan the same year, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh, a feat no other military had achieved- the creation of a new country. This treaty also proved beneficial to Russia then in the throes the Cold War; it helped Moscow checkmate the USA, other western powers, and China in establishing their footprint in South Asia by propping up Pakistan.

Thereafter, the follow-on phase of Indo-Russian cooperation, by now largely driven by defence commerce, survived the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. But the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 and India’s financial crisis two years later threw up new challenges for the two countries. Both survived, albeit somewhat bruised, and went on to ink a new Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in 1993 reaffirming their commitment to respecting each other’s sovereignty and interests, good neighbourliness and peaceful co-existence.

The 1993 Treaty was succeeded by the Declaration on Strategic Partnership in 2000 that committed both countries to closer coordination in ensuring international peace and security and resolving pressing global and regional issues. In December 2010, the strategic partnership between the two countries was elevated to the level of a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership”.

The present steering mechanism
The India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission (IRIGC), set up in the wake of the 2000 Declaration, is the overarching mechanism that presently steers bilateral relations between the two countries. It is assisted by two groups: one deals with economic, scientific, technological and cultural co-operation whilst the other is tasked with military-technical co-operation. Both groups meet annually alternating between the two capitals. The scope and importance of mutual defence cooperation between India and Russia can be gauged from the fact that there are two Working Groups and seven Sub-Groups under the overarching military-technical group.

In 2008, a High-Level Monitoring Committee (HLMC) was set up to steer the military-technical cooperation, that was revised a decade later to promote military-to-military interaction, revive lapsed defence programmes, promote reciprocal visits by senior military personnel, and organise joint military exercises.

Several more forums too exist to provide impetus to cooperation in other areas. These include the India-Russia Forum on Trade and Investment, India-Russia Business Council, India-Russia Trade, Investment and Technology Promotion Council, and the India-Russia Chamber of Commerce. In short, this history of mutual cooperation symbolises the synergy between the two countries on global issues, economic relations, defence cooperation, space, nuclear energy, and cultural exchange, amongst others.

The present state of cooperation
The political relations between the two countries are predicated on their convergence of interest at various international forums like the United Nations (UN), Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), the G20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). While Russia supports Delhi’s case for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India has been supportive of Moscow’s desire to secure observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The most consistent support for India from Russia, however, has come on the vexatious issue of Kashmir.

In recent years, trade and economic cooperation has been emerging as a high-priority area. Consequently, the overall investment target of USD 30 billion set for 2025 was achieved in 2017 itself, necessitating an upward revision to USD 50 billion for the same period. To achieve this, a single-window mechanism was set up by the Russian Ministry of Economic Development in 2018 to facilitate investment and mutual trade in sectors like hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, mining, fertilizers, heavy engineering, gems and jewellery, chemicals, fertilizers, agriculture and food processing and so far it seems to be progressing satisfactorily.

Cooperation in the energy sector, including nuclear energy, has been a cornerstone of the economic relations between the two countries. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has made a substantial investment in Russia and the Gas Authority of India (GAIL) is jointly developing a block in the Bay of Bengal along with the Russian company, Gazprom.

India’s largest nuclear power plant at Kundankulam in Tamil Nadu, built with Russian collaboration and financial assistance, is already generating 1000 MW of electricity through each of its two units. Another two units of the plant are under execution.

The Integrated Long-Term Programme of Co-operation (ILTP) in the field of science and technology covers a wide range of projects related to semiconductors, supercomputers, poly-vaccines, laser technology, seismology, high-purity materials, IT software, and Ayurveda. Both countries are now also exploring the possibility of cooperation in conducting a manned space flight.

In the decades following the Soviet Union’s collapse, bilateral cooperation in the defence field took a beating as a large proportion of Moscow’s military-industrial complex was scattered across the numerous Republics that had broken away. But, in recent years this slide has been arrested with India either acquiring or being in advanced negotiations for materiel worth around USD18 billion.

This includes the inking of the USD 5.4 billion deal for five Russian Almaz-Antei S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems, despite the looming threat of US sanctions, which above all reveals New Delhi’s resolve to sustain and expand defence ties with Moscow. The two countries have also concluded agreements for the procurement of two Grigorovich-class stealth frigates and the licensed production of an equal number in India, the licensed manufacturer of over 700,000 AK-203 7.62x45 mm assault rifles and the import of 464 T-90MS Main Battle Tanks in kit form for local assembly.

Furthermore, India has also signed an agreement with Moscow to lease its second Akula-class nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) and clinch a joint venture between Russian Helicopters and India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for 200 Ka-226T helicopters of which 140 will be built under a transfer of technology.

Negotiations are in an advanced stage for HAL to licence build another 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft in India after it completes construction of 272 similar fighters in 2020, up-gradation of a limited number of Su-30MKI aircraft and procurement of a squadron of 21 ‘mothballed’ MiG 29 combat aircraft in addition to an assorted other and varied ammunition.

Russian engineers and scientists are also closely involved in assisting India to build a series of nuclear-powered submarines, in an ongoing programme in which no other P-5 country would risk involvement. This level of classified and strategic collaboration is also the exclusive leitmotif that binds Moscow and Delhi closer.

Opportunities and Challenges
Both countries have travelled a long distance over the past seven decades, through numerous ups and downs, but eventually settling down to a mature and steady relationship underpinned by the spirit of partnership and mutual understanding.

The investment-trade target set for 2025 and the ‘single-window’ mechanism established by Moscow also provides an opportunity for Indian entrepreneurs to improve their share in Russia’s global trade, which accounted for a mere 1.6 per cent in 2017.

In the realm of military commerce, there is a need to replicate the BrahMos cruise missile model to jointly develop and manufacture defence equipment in India, not merely for domestic employment but also for export.

While future prospects for greater economic, military, commercial and technical engagement between India and Russia are promising, both have to contend with at least three serious challenges.

The first challenge emanates from the growing tension between Russia and the USA, both of which are ironically India’s critical defence partners. This is a trilateral challenge, which could slip out of hand if not met squarely and resolved soon.

Secondly, Russia needs to fix quality-control standards with regard to defence equipment, timely delivery and adequate transfer of technology. And thirdly, India needs to acknowledge that while the defence is the mainstay of mutual trade with Russia, the overall volume of trade has to be increased in substantial measure. Hence, greater attention will need to be paid to other sectors, for which India’s burgeoning private sector will perforce have to be roped in.

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