The Way Ahead in Indo-Russian Ties

Dr Raj Kumar Sharma*

The Way Ahead in Indo-Russian Ties

The world order is facing turbulence as America’s fierce self-interest and nationalism tries to ‘Trump’ other countries and in such unpredictable times, it is important for India to take stock of its most important relationship in international politics – that with Russia. India-Russia relations owe their traditional warmth and bonhomie to the Cold War geopolitics of the 1950s but the multi-polar world of 2019 is different from the bipolar one that lasted from late 1940s to 1991.

India’s policy of non-alignment which had ideological undertones seems to be giving way to a policy where New Delhi is moving towards ‘issue-based’ alignments. In a sense, India is multi-aligned with countries like the US, Russia, China, France, Japan and others depending on its national interest. Compared to the Cold War era, India’s relations may have vastly improved with the US but New Delhi-Moscow ties have shown a great amount of stability and resilience in the changing geopolitical environment. For Eurasia to be truly multi-polar, a strong relationship between India and Russia is a given.

There was a crisis in India-Russia relationship in 1991 when the mighty Soviet Union disintegrated and both countries were trying to adjust to the realities of new world order. The relationship has stabilised, especially after President Vladimir Putin assumed office in 2000. There have been minor hiccups but they have not disturbed the overall fabric of this bond. Despite the looming threat of US sanctions, defenceties are steady as is evident by recent military agreements between the two sides.

In the contemporary context, there are two notable issues in India-Russia ties when compared to their Cold War relationship – lack of depth in economic and cultural spheres. Hence, the way ahead for India-Russia relations has to focus on these two areas. As India hopes to be a $ 5 trillion economy by 2024, India-Russia trade links should further expand so that both the sides benefit. In recent years, trade between the two countries has been around $ 10 billion, India’s least with a P-5 country. In comparison, India-US trade is over $ 100 billion. Both countries are absent in their respective list of top 15 trading partners. They account for a meagre 1 percent of each other’s total trade volume.

A strategic bilateral relationship between major powers cannot be sustained without a strong economic content and it is the economics that brings strategic character to the relationship in most cases. The good political ties between India and Russia are not reflected in their economic links. Even with a country like China that is India’s foremost security concern, New Delhi has more to trade than with a ‘time-tested’ friend like Russia. The Western sanctions have, to some extent, made Russia dependent on China which has strategic implications for India. Expansion of India Russia trade could lessen Moscow’s dependence on Beijing to an extent. Russia too, under its Greater Eurasian Partnership believes that China should not become a hegemon in Eurasia and cooperation with India allows Russia to achieve this aim.

Connectivity is one of the main problems that hinder India-Russia trade. Russian firms import goods from China or Europe as transport takes one or two weeks compared to 40-50 days from India. This could change as the two sides are working to solve the connectivity issue mainly through the Interna North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that is 40 per cent shorter and 30 per cent cheaper than the present Suez route. There is a need to expedite the free trade negotiations between India and Russia steered Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Once finalized, the FTA with EEU aided by INSTC could increase India-EEU trade from $9 billion to anything between $ 37-62 billion. Indian policymakers are also looking for the feasibility of Chennai-Vladivostok sea route that could allow India to access Russia’s Far East. This route would potentially add required balance to peace and prosperity in the South China Sea and could open new vistas for India, like India-Russia-Vietnam trilateral cooperation and energy imports from the Arctic. With its investment friendly approach and vast reserves of natural resources, Far East has the potential to strengthen India-Russia economic partnership in areas like energy, tourism, agriculture, fisheries, education, hospitality, pharmaceuticals, diamond mining, cutting and polishing and alternative energy etc. 32 percent of all the investments in Russia are in the Far East region and 17 countries have already invested in this upcoming market. For India, there is immense potential for mid-sized and small businesses who should be assisted to overcome language and cultural barriers so that they successfully adopt local business practices.

Vladivostok, where the Soviet Navy’s Pacific Fleet was based has a special place in India-Soviet relations as this fleet was ready to take on any American misadventure against India during the India-Pakistan war in 1971. After collapse of Soviet Union, India became the first country to have a resident Consulate in Vladivostok in 1992. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok, first by an Indian PM, as the chief guest of Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) was not an event in isolation. New Delhi and Moscow have been drawing up the plan to cooperate in Far East since last few years. Russia-India business dialogue was included in the business program of EEF in 2017. India’s former Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj visited the third EEF in 2017 leading a delegation which was the biggest in this forum’s history. In 2018, India was one of the 18 countries for which Russia simplified electronic visas to encourage tourism in its Far East District. This district is Russia’s opening to countries in Asia-Pacific and India has expanded the scope of its Act East policy to include Russia under its Act Far East policy, as announced by PM Modi in Vladivostok. India will also provide an annual grant of $ 10,000 to fund the study of Indology at the Centre of Regional and International Studies at Far East Federal University. PM Modi has also given due importance to ‘paradiplomacy’ where Indian states are being encouraged to develop relations with foreign countries. Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana and Goa would be collaborating with Russian provinces to increase trade and investments. A meeting between the heads of the regions of Russia and various Chief Ministers from Indian states may soon take place and this should become a regular feature for a lasting relationship.

There is another possibility that INSTC could help in connecting Far East to the Indian Ocean. INSTC passes through Aktau on Kazakh side of the Caspian Sea. One branch of the Trans-Siberian railway from Omsk oblast could be connected to Aktau in Kazakhstan. Such a possibility is not difficult as Aktau is already well connected by road and rail network. Hence, INSTC would give Far East an outlet in southern direction. The Indian labour is known to be efficient and hence can play a role in the development of the region. Even Indian professionals like doctors, engineers and teachers too could go and help in the development of Russia’s Far East. Presence of Indian manpower will also help in balancing Russian concerns over Chinese migration into the region. India, one of the largest importers of timber can also import timber from Far East as the region has abundant timber resources. Fresh water is available in abundance in Far East and India may import it to tide over its scarcity of water. Japan and South Korea have been investing in the region and New Delhi may explore areas of cooperation with both for joint collaboration. India, Japan and Russia should do some brainstorming over how to extend the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) to the Far East.

In the cultural aspects, India and Russia need to further strengthen their links by student and youth exchanges, university, think tank and media collaboration and film and cultural festivals. India-Russia should have an institutionalized Track II dialogue which would not only give momentum to their ties but would also help to dispel the notion that India-Russia relations are mainly conducted at the government to government level. Both countries would also do well to encourage the role of the private sector and enhance banking links. In times, where Trump is interested in deglobalization while China is promoting globalization 2.0 with Chinese characteristics, it makes sense for India and Russia to increase trade in order to hedge against disruptive forces and make their ties sustainable in the long run.

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