As Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on his first state visit to Russia, the summit meeting in Moscow today assumes great significance in the context of a rapidly evolving global environment. Against the backdrop of Russia’s actions in the last three years—annexation of Crimea, conflict in Ukraine, and its firm stand in support of the Assad regime in Syria against US inspired civil war—the West had begun to mobilise world opinion towards isolating Vladimir Putin. Three years down the line, Russia is appearing to be recalibrating its strategic options. Not only has Putin stood firm against the economic sanctions and now appears to be overcoming its impact by letting Europe recognise the reverse impact on the continent of these sanctions, but his aggressive intervention in Syria has certainly put the US and its allies on the back-foot, effectively forcing them to collaborate with Russia against ISIS in the aftermath of the Paris bombings. The simmering political conflict between the West and Russia has raised fears of a second Cold War in the making. Clearly, Russia has recognised the need to strengthen its old and proven relationship with India, particularly in an international environment that is completely different from the days of the erstwhile USSR.
India-Russia partnership has been built on strong foundations of strategic interdependency and people-to-people friendship. Cold War dynamics ensured that the two countries would benefit from each other immensely. The former Soviet Union’s impact on India’s development was enormous—military equipment, defence manufacturing, atomic energy, steel and space. For the USSR, India’s support and friendship was a huge strategic asset. It also created a significant dependency. The end of the Cold War, and with it the demise of the USSR, brought a new Russia that was fascinated with the West. Its financial mess created a sort of dependency on the West till Putin transformed the Russian economy through his oil strategy. Although India’s Su-30MKI programme bailed out Sukhoi from bankruptcy, the Russian leadership took India for granted due to India’s huge dependency on Russia for military equipment. As India began its economic transformation, its attempts to diversify its sources of military equipment gave rise to the Russians demanding higher costs. Repeated upward revision of costs for the aircraft carrier was the classic irritant, while poor spares supply coupled with design and reliability issues on major products like Su-30 were prime reasons for India outsourcing most equipment from the West in recent times. Important programmes like the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) and multirole transport aircraft (MTA) have been stuck for years.
Over the last 18 months, Modi has transformed India’s global image significantly. His equations with all major powers have emerged strongly, projecting India as a country that is firm in its pursuance of national interests, while being cooperative and accommodative to international views in a balanced manner, as the recent Paris agreement showed. Modi has also made a strong showing for India at the BRICS summit. His success in energising India’s relations with the US, Japan, France and Germany demonstrates that India will not tie itself down on past preconceived ideas. The message would not have been lost on the Russians.
There is much at stake between the two countries in terms of strategic partnership, economics, defence, technology and trade. There is no denying that the Russians have helped India in many crucial areas. India-Russia collaboration in nuclear power, space and heavy industry is significant. The two countries have many defence related programmes of intense cooperation. With greater understanding and cooperation, the two countries have everything to gain through a strong partnership. Make-in-India is a great opportunity for both to raise cooperation to new levels. Until now, all defence cooperation between the two has been entirely in the public sector. The essence of Make-in-India is to energise the private sector into defence production, which then would bring capital and efficiency into the sector. It should galvanise both public and private sectors into becoming global players and part of the global supply chain. Also, Make-in-India is not about manufacturing for Indian consumption alone but for the global market. The Russian system, until now, has treated India as a market for licence production alone. This will need a major change on the part of the hugely complex Russian governmental apparatus.
Therefore, Russian industry has huge opportunities for collaboration and joint ventures that have been long held up. It is expected that the two sides will sign inter-governmental agreements, paving way for the manufacture of Kamov helicopters, armoured vehicles and naval vessels, besides opening doors for outsourcing manufacture of spares and repairs of major components to Indian industries. It should also resolve the impasse afflicting programmes such as FGFA and MTA, and space and nuclear power.
India and Russia are at the crossroads of a major transformation—with China’s growth slowing, India is going to be the bright spark, and it needs to leverage its position to gain technologically and strategically. For Russia, it makes sense to strengthen its relations with India more than ever before. The stakes for both are enormous.
The author was the deputy chief of Integrated Defence Staff at Integrated Defence HQ in the defence ministry. Views are personal