Breaking a prolonged standstill in the bilateral relationship, New Delhi and Moscow signed 20 agreements during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brief visit this week. These ranged from nuclear energy and defence to oil and natural gas, investments and mining to health. Russia will help in building at least 12 nuclear reactors and the supplement to the general framework agreement on Units 3 and 4 of the Kudankulam nuclear power project was also signed. Russia will also manufacture advanced military helicopters and defence spare parts in India. On the economic front, while the end-2013 trade turnover was a paltry $10 billion, a new target has been set of $30 billion by 2025, along with speeding up the transition to trading in national currencies and an invitation to Russian diamond-mining companies to trade directly with Indian processing firms. Whether or not a hydrocarbon pipeline connecting Russia and India is feasible in the near future, the anticipated Indian participation in Russian oil and gas fields and new avenues for petrochemical projects would add to the bilateral cooperation on energy, against the backdrop of potential gains to be made from the Eurasian Economic Union, effective from January.
While many at home and abroad may conceive of Delhi’s ties with Moscow in opposition to those with the US and Europe, India has no reason to accept the contrived choice between the two. The tensions over Ukraine make that difficult, since the farther Moscow drifts from the West and the more Delhi refuses to support sanctions against Russia, the greater the likelihood of India’s ties with the US and EU being affected. On the other hand, Moscow’s tussle with the West and warming-up to China and Pakistan could endanger its longstanding relationship with Delhi. In this scenario, it is reassuring that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled that India has the will and vision to calibrate its diplomatic manoeuvres.
But the real work with Russia remains to be done. Despite the number and range of agreements signed, much of the proposed nuclear and defence collaboration needs to be carefully translated into concrete outcomes. The prime minister wants Russia to adapt to the “Make in India” policy, but it remains to be seen whether it can do so. The key weakness in the relationship remains economic and without progress on that front, Russia’s presence in India’s strategic vision will continue to decline in comparison with Delhi’s growing engagement with Washington and Beijing.