Russia In The Frame

Perceptions that the Modi government has moved Westwards are misplaced.

Written by Kanwal Sibal | Published:January 12, 2016 12:04 am
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a meeting with Russian and Indian officials and businessmen in the Kremlin in Moscow, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin) Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a meeting with Russian and Indian officials and businessmen in the Kremlin in Moscow. (Source: AP)

India’s foreign policy has to respond to its rising stature and development needs. A new balance has to be forged to ensure the optimal advancement of its interests.

The perception that the Modi government has moved Westwards, especially towards the US, and has neglected Russia, is misplaced. Russia has its own place in our foreign policy, underpinned by elements our other relationships, even as they grow stronger for pragmatic reasons, lack to the same degree.

That India-Russia engagement since Narendra Modi assumed power has been fitful isn’t true. Modi has met Vladimir Putin at the BRICS, G-20 and SCO summits. President Pranab Mukherjee participated in the Moscow celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory in World War II. Russia’s speaker, deputy prime minister, defence and interior ministers, have visited India. Our external affairs and defence ministers have been to Russia. Modi visited Russia in December last year for the 16th India-Russia summit. The regularity of these summits ever since Putin assumed power testifies to the value attached to them as occasions to take stock, in a bid to keep cementing ties and building on them.

Defence remains the most important pillar. But even if it provides an enduring base to our privileged strategic partnership, it’s also a serious shortcoming — particularly as the expansion of our defence ties with the US becomes a source of Russian misgivings. In December, Modi mentioned specifically only the inter-governmental agreement on manufacturing the Kamov 226 helicopter. Before Modi’s visit, the defence ministry approved the purchase of the potent S-400 air defence system. It couldn’t be identified as a summit deliverable as much negotiating work lies ahead. The contract for four additional frigates is also on track.

Nuclear power cooperation is the second strategic pillar. It was expected the second site for six additional reactor units — already decided — would be announced.

This wasn’t done for procedural reasons. India is keen that, as Russia proceeds to construct 12 nuclear reactors, there should be progressive transfer of technology. Localisation will eventually be determined on a practical basis. The finalisation of the programme of action for localisation between RosAtom and the DAE is a step in this direction. It was expected the general framework agreement on Kudankulam 5 and 6 would be announced. Intensive work on this prior to the summit couldn’t be completed. It’s understood all ends will be tied up in the next few months.

India has long pressed for greater access to Russia’s abundant oil and gas resources. It’s only in recent years, because of sanctions, that Russia has become more responsive. Russia will expand LNG supplies to India by the Gazprom Group from the Arctic fields through joint projects. ONGC Videsh has acquired a 15 per cent stake in the coveted Vankorneft oil field. Rosneft and Oil India have “concluded some details of a deal”, under which the latter will pick up 10 million tonnes of crude from Roseneft. Indian Oil and Oil India have signed a memorandum with Rosneft, which paves the way for the acquisition of 10 per cent stakes in the Taas-Yuriakh oil assets.

At $10bn, bilateral trade is abysmally low. The target of raising the trade turnover to $30bn by 2025 seems ambitious. With opportunities opened up by the breakdown of Russia-Turkey trade relations, the finalising of market access for our agricultural and processed food products is important.

The joint statement removes Russia’s ambiguity on UN Security Council reform and India’s permanent membership, with Moscow calling India a deserving and strong candidate. On terrorism, Russia has always been less forthcoming on our Pakistan problem. But the joint statement calls for the elimination, once and for all, of all “safe havens” for terrorists. There’s no reference to the trial of the 26/11 accused. Russia has supported the early completion of negotiations on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

On Afghanistan, the two sides have recognised that terrorism and extremism pose the main threat.

In Moscow, Modi noted the high degree of convergence on global issues with Putin, apart from being deeply convinced about the strategic partnership. According to Putin, Modi’s visit was very timely and would make it possible to “synchronise watches” on the main areas of cooperation.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.