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India-Russia Bilateral: New Order and New Issues

  May 26, 2020

India-Russia Bilateral: New Order and New Issues

What were the pillars of India-Russia relationship traditionally?

Traditionally, the Indo-Russian strategic partnership has been built on five major components: 

1.  Politics (anti-imperialism, anti-aparthied etc till the 1980’s)

2.  Defence,

3.  Civil nuclear energy,

4.  Anti-terrorism co-operation and

5.  Space.

However, in recent years a sixth, economic component has grown in importance, with both countries setting a target of reaching US$30 billion in bilateral trade by 2025 from about US$9.4 billion in the year 2017. In order to meet this goal, both countries are looking to develop a free trade agreement.

What is IRIGC?

IRIGC (India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission) is the main body that conducts affairs at the governmental level between both countries. 

Are there other factors that bind us?

Both countries are members of many international bodies where they collaborate closely on matters of shared national interest. Important examples include the UN, BRICS, G20and SCO. Russia has stated publicly that it supports India receiving a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Russia has vocally backed India joining the NSG and APEC.

In addition, Russia has expressed interest in joining SAARC with observer status in which India is a founding member.

India is the second largest market for the Russian defence industry. In 2017, approximately 68% of the Indian Military's hardware import came from Russia, making Russia the chief supplier of defence equipment.

What is the importance of Sochi informal summit?

In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin for an informal summit in Sochi, Russia where the two leaders upgraded the traditionally close relationship to a “special privileged strategic partnership.” 

Despite this announcement, there are some issues that are causing tension in the bilateral relation as we will see later.

How is the changing global power structure impacting the bilateral?

The India-Russia bilateral relationship has a long history and a broad international context, amid the evolution from a unipolar order to a possible multipolar structure. When there was cold war, the two countries had a strong relation as India had to balance against USA. At that time, China did not emerge as a great economy and so there were no uncertainties in the India-Russia relation. 

With the deconstruction of USSR in 1991 and the USA coming up as a sole superpower (hyper power) thereafter and India embracing globalisation, India’s foreign relations were significantly impacted and the role of Russia reduced.

In recent years, many developments took place that introduced basic changes in the global order and changed the earlier equation. This transition is resulting in all great powers, including India and Russia, attempting to hedge and prepare for all possibilities. Given this international context, the changing India-Russia relationship is not only affecting bilateral ties but also India’s relationships with the United States, China, Afghanistan, and other countries.

The India-Russia relationship has been under some strain in the last few years. There was a growing perception in the Russian establishment that India was growing closer to the United States. The informal summit in Sochi was an attempt to address this perception. On the other hand, it is not just Russia that is worried about the India-U.S. relationship. India too has concerns about Russia’s growing relationships with China and Pakistan, and its contentious relationship with Washington.

Why are China and Russia coming closer?

After the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the Russia-China relationship has become stronger, with important implications for India and other rising powers. Both Russia and China are being challenged by the United States, politically, economically, and strategically. While China has been able to sustain competition with the United States, a weak Russian economy is increasingly making Russia dependent on China for economic cooperation. This dependency can further extend to political and strategic domains over time. Also tied to Russia’s growing relationship with China is its increasingly close relationship with Pakistan, causing concern in the Indian strategic community. India is most concerned about the open hostility between United States and Russia on various issues.

How much closer can the Russia-China relation come?

There are clear limits to this partnership. Both Russia and China are also independently trying to frame their responses to the Trump administration. China’s primary interest is in stabilizing its economic relations with the United States at a time when its economy is beginning to face the adverse effects of tariffs. It has little interest in expanding the ambit of its disputes with the United States by supporting Russia on its confrontation with NATO. Russia too is cognizant of the limits of its power. It is the junior partner in this Sino-Russian entente and would want limited exposure to the South China Sea dispute, for example. In Central Asia too Chinese ambitions can be pushed back by Russia.

Is India concerned?

For India, this poses a challenge. Russia is no longer available to balance China as it was. Russia will supply state of art defence equipment to China. Russia is also reaching out to Pakistan despite Indian reservations and is changing its stand on the Afghanistan issue. It now supports negotiating with the Taliban and has shown insensitivity to Indian reservations in this regard. Russia has been at the forefont of advising India not to challenge China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Given the challenge China poses to India on multiple fronts, we need to respond well.