Revitalising India-Russia ties

Tried and tested ties: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the BRIC leaders’ summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Yekaterinburg on June 16, 2009. Photo: AFP

Tried and tested ties: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the BRIC leaders’ summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Yekaterinburg on June 16, 2009. Photo: AFP  

After a period of drift in bilateral relations India and Russia are poised for re-energising their ties when the leaders of the two countries meet in Moscow for an annual summit next week.

Certain frostiness that clouded Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s previous visit to Russia two years ago is gone. Relations have been on the upswing ever since the maiden visit of President Dmitry Medvedev to India in December 2008, when the two c ountries signed an intergovernmental agreement for the construction of another four nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. This year, which is the Year of India in Russia, has seen a string of top-level contacts unprecedented in the post-Soviet history of Indo-Russian relations. In June Mr. Singh visited Russia for the summit meetings of the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Indian diplomats acknowledged that Mr. Singh’s participation in the SCO summit — the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister — was a special gesture towards Russia as the host country.

In September President Pratibha Patil paid a five-day state visit to Russia to assure the Kremlin that New Delhi’s ties with other countries (i.e. the United States) “would not be at the expense of our relationship with Russia.” Later the same month Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma brought a 70-member delegation of Indian leaders to a Russian-Indian Forum on Trade and Investment. This was followed in quick succession by the visits of External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Defence Minister A.K. Antony.

Indian diplomats have noted a perceptible warming towards India in the Kremlin as well. Moscow sent a strong signal of the importance it attaches to ties with India when it appointed a heavyweight, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Sobyanin, as the Russian co-chair for the Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission (IRIGC) on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation. In a remarkable departure from the established diplomatic tradition whereby preparations for bilateral summits are held in the host country Mr. Sobyanin undertook an unplanned trip to India in October to better prepare for the December visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Moscow.

In another sign of Moscow’s renewed focus on India President Medvedev in October appointed a new envoy to New Delhi, Alexander Kadakin. The Centre for Political Conjuncture, a Kremlin-connected think tank, described the appointment as a “strategic move” aimed at revitalising ties with India. It was during Ambassador Kadakin’s previous tenure in New Delhi in 1999-2004 that India and Russia declared strategic partnership.

Today the two countries are rediscovering the values of their traditional friendship in the face of ongoing shifts in global political and economic equations.

“Indian elites have awakened to the fact that the Pax Americana is a thing of the past and they should not put all their eggs in the U.S. basket,” says Andrei Volodin of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies.

“Russian leaders, for their part, have realised that global power is fast gravitating to the Asia-Pacific region, where India is an increasingly important player,” the expert opined. Economic ties with the Asian region are instrumental for the success of Russian plans to redevelop Siberia and the Far East.

The challenges of dealing with China’s rising power are further encouraging India and Russia to reach out to each other, Prof. Volodin said.

The global economic crisis has also played a role pushing India and Russia closer to each other. Defying a world trade slump, Indo-Russian commerce has grown more than 10 per cent this year and is well on track to attain the target of $10 billion the two countries set for 2010. This shows the potential for growth that is yet to be tapped. At its annual session in October the Inter-Governmental Commission has set a new target for 2015 — $20 billion, which would still be a modest figure compared with either country’s trade with China, but would mark a huge leap from the past decade when bilateral trade stagnated at $2-3 billion a year.

To achieve this target the two countries must concentrate on diversifying their trade basket, away from commodities into advanced technologies. During Mr. Singh’s visit to Moscow the sides are expected to sign key accords in high-tech sectors — a new nuclear power deal to expand cooperation beyond the Kudankulam plant and a 10-year defence cooperation programme.

Experts, however, warn of pitfalls that may still mar the auspicious atmosphere for the coming summit. The most serious problem is the continuing standoff over the upward price revision for the refurbishment of the Gorshkov aircraft carrier.

“Absence of progress in the price talks is a worrying sign, especially in the context of a recent British offer to sell India an aircraft carrier,” said Ruslan Pukhov, a leading Russian defence analyst and director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “It could be a prelude to the cancellation of the deal. The Russian military would be only too happy to add the Gorshkov in their inventory. But such an outcome would deal a painful blow to our defence cooperation with India.”

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