A tested partnership

At a time of churn in Af-Pak,Russia and India cannot lose confidence in each other.

Published: October 25, 2013 12:32 am

At a time of churn in Af-Pak,Russia and India cannot lose confidence in each other.

There are many levels of engagements between India and Russia,ranging from the bilateral to the regional and international,covering components from defence,security,economy and politics. These are ongoing processes,with roots stretching into India’s deep past. It is important that the engagement in each area deepens. Currently,progress in some of these areas has stalled. Has the prime minister’s trip to Moscow earlier this week brought new clarity to the relationship?

The strength of India-Russia relations lay in their common understanding that even while there were elements of anarchy in the international system,states could and should collectively construct a more law- and norm-based international system that enables states like India and others from the global South to exercise independent foreign policies linked to their national development,unhampered by the hegemonic interests of any great power. The idea of non-alignment and multipolarity flow from this conceptualisation.

Domestic churn on several fronts,including the nuclear issue,and external exigencies,especially the deal-making between the US and the Taliban,where Pakistan will again be a key player,are changing the geo-strategic scenario for India. Russia is again an important,if not indispensable,ally,since Russia,India and Iran have the most to lose from the Af-Pak situation. This is where this visit has been most crucial.

Clearly,the terms of engagement between Moscow and Delhi have elements of both continuity and change,and their history is not going to repeat itself in the same way. All status quoist,re-emerging and emerging powers have multiple interfaces with each other. So Russia and India should not lose confidence in each other,a point driven home by the PM in his address as he received an honorary doctorate.

At the bilateral level,India continues to acquire defence technology and is likely to lease a second nuclear submarine that will cost round Rs 6,000 crore to replace the earlier Russian-made submarine,INS Sindhurakshak,which exploded recently. India has added Sukhoi aircraft worth $2.9 billion to its existing contract of 230 fighter jets in defence deals signed in 2012,and integrated defence deals with imports,joint manufacturing,technology transfers remain at the core of ties with Russia.

Despite a 30 per cent jump in trade in 2012 between the two,facilitated by the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade,Economic,Scientific,Technological and Cultural Cooperation,it is still under-performing. Russia-China trade was $83 billion in 2012,with part of it transacted in the yuan and rouble since 2010. India and Russia need to switch back to at least partial trading in their local currencies. This can work if they synchronise their national banking laws.

Energy security received a boost after ONGC Videsh acquired a 20 per cent stake in Sakhalin I and the Russian investment in the Bay of Bengal gas project,but has stagnated since. Now India and Russia are proposing a direct pipeline,but much will depend on whether Russia can secure it,given the conflict-ridden neighbourhood through which the pipeline must pass. India’s quest for nuclear energy faced setbacks as public opposition to nuclear plants increased after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Moreover,the nuclear liability bill has placed fences around the ambitions of the nuclear establishment regarding new plants. Thus,the deal to add two new units to the Kudankulam plant,which just went into operation,still has to cross Russian legal and insurance barriers. The North-South Corridor is also at a standstill.

Since India and Russia have made a clear statement on the problem of terrorism,they need to follow it up with joint bilateral and international coordination. The proposal for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that would formulate what terrorism means should be part of the common agenda,as well as the push for a regional solution to Afghanistan after 2014.

But all this can happen only if the grand narrative around Indian foreign policy,which sees itself as being in a state of transition,is articulated clearly. India’s status can change only if old conflicts are settled,and it reconciles to the idea that tested partnerships like those with Russia should be prioritised,and new partnerships that support India’s strategic autonomy developed. In this context,the visits to Russia and China are a small step forward.

The writer is with the School of International Studies,JNU

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