Follow Us:
Saturday, January 22, 2022

Putin’s visit must be used to realise the potential of India-Russia ties

🔴 C Raja Mohan writes: Great power politics puts limits on the bilateral relationship. But Delhi and Moscow have no reason to be satisfied with the poor state of their commercial ties.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: December 7, 2021 7:41:40 am
Russia is acutely conscious of the huge imbalance in its great power relations. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the visiting Russian president, Vladimir Putin, try to reset their relationship today amidst a series of recent differences ranging from Af-Pak to the Indo-Pacific, two factors will continue to limit the possibilities for the bilateral partnership. One is the continuing conflict between the Kremlin and the West. The other is the absence of a thriving commercial relationship between India and Russia.

The recent story of India-Russia relations is about keeping an old romance alive as Delhi and Moscow align with more attractive partners. If Delhi’s love affair with Washington has never been as intense as it is today, Moscow’s embrace of Beijing is tighter than ever. That the US and China are now at each other’s throats makes the great power dynamic a lot more complicated for India and Russia.

This would not have mattered if Russia had a sensible relationship with America and India’s ties with China were peaceful and stable. That Delhi and Moscow have problems with the best friend of the other would have been more manageable if business ties between India and Russia were solid. Intensifying the strategic side of the relationship — as Modi and Putin are expected to do this week — is not enough to lift the bilateral relationship out of the stasis it finds itself in.

Monday’s summit will see the institution of a new “two plus two” mechanism that brings the foreign and defence ministers from both sides into a single forum. There is speculation about a new 10-year defence pact between the two countries. The two leaders are also expected to preside over the signing of an agreement on mutual logistical support for each other’s armed forces. India has such agreements only with a select few partners like the US and France.

Russia is pleased that the S-400 missile sale has gone through despite strong US opposition. For it signals Delhi’s commitment not to let Washington roll back India’s longstanding defence ties with Russia.

For now, Delhi has certainly dodged the US sanctions on the purchase of S-400 missiles. But India’s deepening defence ties with Russia will continue to raise political eyebrows in Washington and Beijing. Delhi remains wary of the growing military partnership between Russia and China and their shared opposition to the Indo-Pacific framework.

The structural constraints posed by the great power dynamic and vastly different appreciation of the regional security environment could be reduced if matters improve between Washington and Moscow. But few international observers of US-Russia relations are willing to bet on that prospect. But against the grain of conventional wisdom, Washington and Moscow are looking to ease some of these tensions and find the basis for a sustainable engagement.

In Washington, the Biden administration recognises the importance of ending this permanent crisis in US-Russian relations. Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama made repeated attempts at resetting bilateral relations only to see them getting worse. President Donald Trump sought to break the paradigm of the Russia relationship, but found himself confronting the entire political and security establishment. Given the Democratic Party’s conviction that Russia stole the election from Hillary Clinton to install Trump in the White House, there was little chance of a reset.

President Biden, however, has begun a new effort to improve ties with Russia. He opted for an early meeting with Putin — at the end of his trip to Europe in June. After four years of intense hostility from the Democratic Party, Biden offered respect for Russia, and signalled his willingness to treat it as a great power. His Democratic predecessor, Obama, used to dismiss Russia as a declining power.

The Biden administration, which is focused on winning the intensifying strategic competition with China, values a stable relationship with Russia. For all its denunciation of the US, Moscow has always been eager for political accommodation with Washington. Nothing pleases Moscow more than the image of being Washington’s equal on the global stage. For Moscow, the American problem was never about an ideological principle, but the terms of accommodation.

If the Geneva summit between Biden and Putin laid out a broad framework for engagement on a range of issues, the two leaders are expected to have a virtual summit on Tuesday to review bilateral ties and prevent the escalation of the current military crisis on Russia’s border with Ukraine.

A less conflictual relationship between Washington and Moscow will be a huge relief for India; but Delhi can’t nudge them closer to each other. Moscow too would love to see better relations between Delhi and Beijing but is in no position to engineer that outcome.

Where India and Russia have greater freedom is in the economic domain, but their failure to boost the commercial relationship has been stark. During the last 20 summits with Putin, the two sides have repeatedly affirmed the importance of enhancing trade and investment ties; but progress has been hard to come by.

India-Russia annual trade in goods is stuck at about $10 billion. In contrast, Moscow’s annual commerce with China is a little more than $100 billion. India’s goods trade with the US and China is at the level of $100 billion.

Despite political tensions, India’s China trade continues to grow, while Delhi’s commercial ties with Moscow are stagnant despite good political relations. The problem clearly can’t be fixed at the level of governments. The Russian business elites gravitate to Europe and China. The Indian corporations are focused on America and China.

Russia is acutely conscious of the huge imbalance in its great power relations. Persistent conflict with the US, Europe, and Japan have moved Moscow ever closer to Beijing. But Moscow knows the dangers of relying solely on a neighbour which has risen to greatness — the Chinese economy at nearly $15 trillion today is nearly 10 times larger than that of Russia. While resetting Russia’s relations with the West is hard, sustaining the traditional partnership with Delhi is of some political value to Moscow. Delhi hopes that Washington appreciates its assessment that Russian neutrality, if not support, is critical in balancing China in the east.

Russia knows India’s strategic cooperation with the US has acquired an unstoppable momentum; and Delhi knows it has no veto over the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Moscow and Delhi are learning to live with this uncomfortable unreality and stabilising their political ties within that context.

But Delhi and Moscow have no reason to be satisfied with the poor state of their commercial ties. The success of Monday’s summit lies not in squeezing more out of bilateral defence ties, but in laying a clear path for expansive economic cooperation, and generating a better understanding of each other’s imperatives on Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 6, 2021 under the title ‘Resetting Putin’s red carpet’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App.

  • Newsguard
  • The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.
  • Newsguard
0 Comment(s) *
* The moderation of comments is automated and not cleared manually by