India, Russia and the fulcrum of hard and soft power

Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam
August 04, 2019
IMage Courtest: The Statesman

India-Russia strategic partnership and more than seventy-years of the establishment of diplomatic relations since 1947 have served as a historical benchmark and time-tested partnership in global peace and security. India and Russia, as strategic and special partners, have reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate bilaterally and also at various multilateral forums. In the spirit of India’s foreign policy of Panch Sheel ( ‘Five Principles’) that has been the hallmark since the 1950s, this bilateral relationship is geared towards the establishment of a stable and predictable multi-polar and just world order based on sovereign equality of all States, territorial integrity and non-interference in their internal affairs and for a win-win proposition on both sides. Two interesting historical coincidences are worth noting: (a). In 1972, US President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to Beijing and meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai paved the way for normalisation of relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and then Soviet Union, while   the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation the year before in 1971 cemented the bond between Russia and India.  (b). Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 in China led to the deterioration of US-China relations during 1989-90, and around the same time, the unfolding of the end of Cold War and disintegration of the former Soviet Union took place and this period also heralded the rise of China and India as significant economic powers.

In international relations, particularly in the conduct of bilateral relations and foreign policy and in the shaping of decision-making, personal chemistry among top leaders does play a pivotal role. In the context of India and China, Prime Minister Nehru’s equation with Premier Zhou Enlai and in more recent times between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping has been remarkable in its informality and candor. Similarly, Indira Gandhi-Brezhnev, Manmohan Singh-Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi-Putin equations have been marked by extreme cordiality and frankness with regular exchange of views encompassing a wide range of issues. As indicators, Russia-India Special, Privileged, Strategic Partnership (Narendra Modi-Vladimir Putin, 2018) can be taken as culmination of personal chemistry and camaraderie among top leaders.

At the bilateral level between Russia and India, the annual summit-level meeting between the Prime Minister of India and the President of the Russian Federation is the highest institutionalized dialogue mechanism that has been set up under the Strategic Partnership Dialogue between the two countries. So far, nineteen Annual Summit meetings have taken place alternatively in India and Russia. At the Delhi Summit between Prime minister Modi and President Putin that was held on October 5, 2018, major agreements were signed, worth billions of dollars, in sectors including defense, energy, trade and investment, space and smart cities.   This was further followed up by summit level meetings at Bishkek Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO meeting) and Osaka G-20 meeting, in June 2019.

Important deals have included various aspects of bilateral defense cooperation: Inter-Governmental Agreements (IGAs) for five S-400 ‘Triumf’ air defense missile systems, four Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 11356) guided-missile stealth frigates and a share-holders agreement for a joint venture (JV) to manufacture 200 ‘Kamov’-226 helicopters. In keeping with India and Russia’s longstanding and wide-ranging cooperation, India-Russia military-technical cooperation has evolved into one involving joint research, development, and production of advanced defense technologies and systems. In order to accelerate military-technical cooperation within the fulcrum of India-Russia Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership, both countries have reaffirmed their strong commitment to continue their cooperation in this field. In this context, the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation is noteworthy.  India-Russia military exercises INDRA involving ground forces in Russia’s Far East in 2016 was another step in that direction. Apart from regular high-level visits, both sides have underlined the need to expand training, joint exercises, and institutionalized interactions between the Armed Forces of both countries. Collaborative design, development, and production of high-technology military equipment and the establishment of the Joint Venture for production of Ka-226T helicopters in India are some of the examples of proactive engagement. Similarly, BrahMos Missile System, Joint design and development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, as well as the licensed production in India of SU-30 aircraft and T-90 tanks, and a Russian aircraft carrier refurbished as the Indian Navy’s INS Vikramaditya are examples of such flagship cooperation.

Comparatively small and yet vibrant, the Indian diasporic Community in Russia that is estimated at about 30,000 including in major cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, Sochi, Kazan, etc., have been extremely proactive in its engagement with the Russian public and its government for enhancing the relationship with India.  The Indian diaspora is a crucial component for leveraging and projecting of India’s soft power. As per information available on the web site of Embassy of India, about 1,500 Afghan nationals of Indian origin also live in Russia. About 500 Indian businessmen reside in Russia out of which around 200 work in Moscow itself. An estimated 300 registered Indian companies operate in Russia. Majority of Indian businessmen/companies in Russia are involved in trading various items that have a huge demand among Russian consumers, while some represent Indian banks, pharmaceuticals, hydrocarbon, and engineering companies. Tea, coffee, textiles, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, rice, spices, leather footwear, granite, IT, and garments are amongst the products being imported by these companies from India. There are approximately 4,500 Indian students, with most of them pursuing medical studies, enrolled in medical and technical institutions spread throughout Russia. Hindustani Samaj is the oldest Indian organization in Russia functioning since 1957 with activities being organized all year long. Other Indian organizations in Moscow include, Indian Business Alliance, Overseas Bihar Association, All Moscow Malayalee Association (AMMA), DISHA (Indian-Russian Friendship Society), AMRIT India Cultural Center of Tarusa City, Textile Business Alliance, Bhartiya Sanskritik Samaj, and Ramakrishna Society Vedanta Centre that showcase Indian culture in its myriad forms to Russian national and public on a regular basis. Embassy of India School in Moscow is affiliated to CBSE Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan in New Delhi with teachers deputed from India. The School has classes from I to XII and caters to the educational needs of over 350 students.

India and  Russia are committed to widen and strengthen the framework of the existing cooperation in different areas and to consolidate their strategic partnership by taking it to a higher level in the years to come. However, some dark clouds hover over the state of uncertainty on the part of Russia on the issue of annexation of Crimea, controlling part of eastern Ukraine with the assistance of proxy rebels, access to military facilities in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Russia’s offer of support to Taliban and ISIS in the shaping of future Afghanistan.  Moreover, concerns remain with Russia demonstrating a military relationship, albeit in a limited way, by agreeing to sell four attack helicopters to Pakistan as well as a possible divergence of interest between India and Russia over evolving power contestation in the Indo-Pacific security arena. Nevertheless, irrespective of geo-political and geo-economic imperatives, it is very likely that India-Russia relations will weather these challenges and will endure towards a more durable world order in which both countries will find areas of commonalities to work on and take the momentum forward.

*** The author is Professor, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. ***

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