Relations between Moscow and Delhi have long been taken for granted by policymakers on both sides. It is now time to take active steps to ensure the partnership does not follow a downward path.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for a photo after their meeting with Russian and Indian officials and businessmen in the Kremlin in Moscow, 2015. Photo: AP

On June 29, experts from Carnegie Moscow Center welcomed their colleagues from Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a leading think tank in India. Together they discussed the current state of Russia-India relations and proposed potential ways to boost ties between the two longstanding partners.

“This is, in my view, a relationship that is not given its due, in terms of the breadth and depth of its discussion. Most people feel complacent about the relationship, take it for granted,” Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow Center and chair of its Foreign and Security Policy Program, said while opening the panel.

According to him, the general trend is that a lot of people, including those at a high level, find the relationship essentially non-controversial, learning to live with this excellent relationship without properly appreciating it. “This is a major issue, that unless we tackle it could lead us downward not upward,” he said.

Transforming the nature of economic cooperation

Russia has been a reliable partner for India in a variety of areas, and high-ranking state officials in Delhi regard Russia as one of the allies that will help India, no matter what happens, said Manoj Joshi, head of the National Security Program at ORF.  

Looking at Russia’s potential competition on the Indian market from countries like the U.S, France or Israel, Petr Topychkanov, associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, believes that there is nothing to worry about yet. With numerous examples of cooperation in defense and nuclear energy, Russia enjoys a unique position and it is unlikely that the U.S. or any other country may offer more attractive opportunities.

For instance, in nuclear energy, Moscow not only participates in active plant construction and localization of nuclear technologies in India, but also offers India post-Fukushima technologies to ensure safety of the nuclear technologies that are already used at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. No one else, including the U.S., can offer this. What’s more, only Moscow is ready to talk with Delhi about joint cooperation in construction and development of power plants in countries outside of Russia or India, the expert explained.

The countries’ traditional cooperation in defense allowed India to benefit from technologies and military products developed in Russia. However, in order to move forward, it is necessary to transform the nature of economic cooperation between the two countries, moving to cooperation in other industries, argues Joshi. Here the key difficulty is logistical, the expert pointed out. Indian products become more expensive by the time they get to Russia and this is an urgent issue that businesses need to address.  

Exploring the potential behind the big initiatives, such as the One Belt One Road project (the plan to connect the Asian, European, and African continents through transport and infrastructure development in Eurasia) and the International North-South Transport Corridor (linking the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea via Iran, then connecting to St. Petersburg and North Europe), Joshi argues that if successfully implemented, they might significantly increase trade flows within the region and benefit Russia-India cooperation. “If this healthy potential is developed into a smoothly functioning rail and road corridor, there will be an access from India via Iran to Central Asia and Russia,” he said.

Domestic problems lead to international collaboration

According to Nandan Unnikrishnan, vice president of the ORF, placing the Moscow-Delhi relationship in the context of wider economic and political changes is also quite important. The current shift towards multipolarity brings more instability, with different powers becoming more suspicious of each other. Addressing problems in the Russia-India relationship in this regard is very important, he said.

“India is going through tremendous internal challenges which, if India wants to be a major power, it has to resolve in a reasonably tight time frame,” Unnikrishnan argued. Touching upon these problems, most importantly, social and economic ones, the expert believes that even though the Indian economy can be best described as “functional anarchy” the growth will eventually occur as a result of reforms.

In order to successfully resolve domestic problems, the country needs good relations with everyone. “If India wants to develop it needs everyone else to ride along on its development story,” the expert argued.

Such issues, like the lack of public access to healthcare, require India to cooperate with external assistance, whether in building infrastructure or providing technologies to deal with the effects of climate change, and the country is willing to pay for this help.

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Russia’s pivot to China worries Delhi

Another point is that the world is continually changing and it is not going to wait for India, so it has to make quick decisions without necessarily being ready to do that. In this context, Russia is important, said Unnikrishnan. Moscow’s shift in focus from the West towards more cooperation with China worries Delhi, which has a quite unique relationship with Beijing. The two countries have strong economic but poor political ties and it doesn’t help that China is growing phenomenally, turning into the locomotive of world development. At the same time, China occasionally flexes its military muscles, which makes India quite nervous.

“In that context, Delhi is also very nervous about how close is Russia with China. There is a doubt which naturally results in India seeking a more permanent and solid balancer and there is, therefore, a natural motivation for an improvement of relations with the U.S.,” Unnikrishnan explained. He warned that this could potentially affect all aspects of Delhi-Moscow cooperation.

Focus on the future

India owes a lot to Russia dating back to the 1960s, but given the changing geopolitical situation, this longstanding partnership might be at risk. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand that it is not enough to bring just specialists on Indo-Russia relations to discuss the future of the relationship, but also to bring together a widest spectrum number of experts and specialists in a range of fields (science, technology, innovation and international affairs) and create a multitasking working group to give a some kind of a roadmap for the future of the strategic partnership, believes Unnikrishnan.

“Unless this is done very quickly, the relationship is going to stagnate, the difference between us is going to grow,” the expert believes. Warning against focusing on the historical nostalgia of the relationship that distracts from resolving current problems, he called for more discussion of the present and the future that is at risk.

Topychkanov agrees that the vision for the long-term is missing. Even though there are two commissions – on trade and defense cooperation – there is no instrument to discuss the strategy for the relationship. “For example, with Pakistan we have a working group on strategic stability and this group meets every year in Moscow and Islamabad, but we don’t have the same working group with India,” the expert said. Such a group could be useful to discuss a range of urgent questions, such as such as Delhi’s concern regarding China, Moscow’s tensions with the West, or the situation in Afghanistan.

G. Balasubramanian, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of India in Russia, adds to this point, noting that the needs and opportunities for cooperation are vast, but the long-term vision is absent. According to him, more government supported programs and professional exchanges are needed.

Similarly, Topychkanov raises a concern over the humanitarian field in general. In the period of important geopolitical and domestic changes – when greater humanitarian cooperation to understand each other’s interests and goals is key – the area of soft power seems to be in a poor state, Topychkanov said. For instance, in the field of media, one of the recent events was the closure of Russian state-owned media company Sputnik International’s websites in Urdu and Hindi. In a situation when virtually no Indian mass media are working in Russia, this raises serious questions.

“My feeling, frankly, is that no one is in charge. No one is looking at the relationship as an integral relationship that has different aspects to it and that the relationship itself has a strategic significance to Russia,” Trenin said, pointing out once again that focusing on historical nostalgia is bound to be unproductive.

The cooperation between Moscow and Delhi lacks the kind of high-level support that is present in the Sino-Russian relationship. What might be discussed as a potential way out is a possibility to form an Indo-Russian foundation to explore the potential and bring it to a strategic level. As he concluded, the question of the Delhi-Moscow relationship can no longer be taken for granted.

To avoid the risk that the partnership might turn into an “orphaned” one, leadership on both sides should take active action, for example, by creating a platform to discuss the strategy of Russia-India cooperation in the future, experts suggested.