The Return of Putin and Indo-Russian Relations
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

The Boris Yeltsin era, that is the decade of 1990s, had led to the decline of Russian power not only at the global level but also in its near periphery. The economic dividend which Russia expected due to its accommodation with the West never materialised.

Yeltsin’s reign had coincided with a decline in Moscow’s economic, military and political strength. There was a time in 1999 when oil had reached its lowest price of US$10 per barrel, adversely affecting Russian revenues. After President Putin appeared on the scene he embarked on the process of internal balancing and he exhibited a certain degree of assertion in Russia’s foreign and security policies. And fortunately, the oil prices also started climbing generating adequate resources for internal balancing.

In his years of power from 2000 to 2008 Putin consolidated his power at home and at the international level became a votary of a polycentric world order with multilateralism as his favourite theme. India and China also identified with a multipolar nature of the global system rather than a unilateral world order that was being promoted by the U.S and its allies. His policies were also pragmatic since he did not object to the US intervention in Afghanistan. India and China too welcomed the American Operation Enduring Freedom because of their own strategic reasons. Sometime back the Russian-led Collective Security Organisation’s Russian Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha stated that foreign troops needed to stay in Afghanistan.

However, in the long term Putin is not in favour of the US maintaining its bases in Central Asia and he has articulated this again after taking over as president again. Russia continues to have differences over NATO’s eastward expansion, the US plans for ballistic missile defence in Europe and inadequate adherence to the terms of Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

In a sense the Putin’s continuity at the helm of Russian affairs was never interrupted as he continued to be the Premier while Medvedev was the President for last four years. With the extension of President’s tenure from four to six years and a limit of two terms Putin could be on the Russian scene for next one dozen years. Past and current trends indicate that Putin would follow the same path which he has traversed before.

Because of its geo-strategic location and geo-politics Russia is almost equally attracted to the West as well as to the Asian powers where China and India are the engines of growth with further impetus given by the other Asian economies. At the Munich Security Conference and other world forums he has expressed his vehement opposition the unilateral policies of the U.S and the West in utter disregard of the UN. He has supported BRICS, SCO and RIC groupings where the West does not find any representation. He has also maintained good bilateral relationships with not only many important nations of the NATO and EU but also all across the globe.

It is expected that the return of Putin is going to have a positive impact on Indo-Russian relations. Russia has been consistently supporting India’s bid for becoming a full member of the SCO even though China continues to be reluctant to grant this status to India because of a number of geo-political reasons. Russia-China-India (RIC) dialogue and BRICS forum would also find more resonance. Evidently, these non-western groupings are seen with some suspicion by the U.S and NATO.

Afghanistan imbroglio is another on-going issue where both India and Russia have a great degree of convergence. The post-2014 scenario is being viewed with consternation by both the countries where both feel that a regional solution would be more conducive rather than the one imposed by the U.S and the West. Though, in the last few years Russia has been advancing some regional groupings like Russia-Tajikistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan quadrilateral to address the needs of Afghanistan and other members. And India is not a member of such groupings. Off and on Russia does tend to advance its engagement with Pakistan in the field of defence and security sector. Some analysts observe that this may be due to India’s growing ties to the U.S. especially after 2005. Pakistan’s Army Chief had also visited Russia in 2009 and President Zardari visited Russia last year in April end a few days before elimination of Osama bin Laden. While Russia welcomed the American operation against OBL the Pakistanis were critical of the operation.

Another area of cooperation between India and Russia has been in the hydro carbon sector. Sakhalin-1 and Imperial Energy assets have been the primary acquisitions of India in Russia. And India is looking forward to build more hydro-carbon assets in Russia. Similarly, Central Asian region is a resource rich area where Russian cooperation with India would be quite useful for both the countries. Russia and Central Asia remain important for India’s energy security. Russia is also keen to participate in the consortium that would build the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline but then there are complex geopolitics and questions of security involved in the construction of the pipeline. Putin is also in favour of an enhanced presence of India in Central Asian region.

Further, there is also a view that Indo-Russian relations have been adrift and devoid of substance since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In early 1990s while the nascent Russian State under Boris Yeltsin was beset with its own problems there was an economic crunch in India. The erstwhile strategic relationship had suffered a severe downturn. It was only in the late 1990’s and the return of Putin that a modicum of strategic relationship was restored.

Meanwhile India had also commenced its relationship with the U.S in a major way. Yet, engagement with Russia continued especially at political level and in defence and security fields. Russia remained a major supplier of the defence equipment even as Israel and some other nations from the West provided military equipment to India. Even now, despite many hiccups Russia is largely seen as an important and reliable supplier of military equipment. Yes, Russia’s image as a defence supplier has had a negative impact because of delays and escalation of costs, for instance in the case of Aircraft Carrier Groshkov.

However, some of the joint projects like Brahmos Cruise Missile have received accolades. Joint development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and the Multi Transport Aircraft (MTA), as well as the licensed production in India of SU-30 aircraft and T-90 tanks, are some of the other examples of the close defence relationship between the nations. It also needs to be noted that the India-Russia Inter Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) was formed when Putin had become President for the first time. Eleven meetings of this forum have taken place and the next one is due towards the end of this year.

Further, no country would lease its nuclear powered submarine like Russia has done unless there was a high level of strategic understanding. Training of Indian naval crews on the submarine would add strength to our soon to be operationalized nuclear submarine as part of the nuclear triad. In addition, Russia has been the first off the block to offer civil nuclear cooperation to India. The construction of two nuclear power reactors stands approved and it may commence this year. Russia has also supported India’s case for full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other multilateral export control regimes like the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangements. Recently, India expressed its intention to join the Missile Technology Control Regime.

There has also been cooperation in the space arena; Russia and India are cooperating on projects such as Chandrayan-2 and in the launching and joint development of the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system.

One important component of strategic relationship is the volume of trade and the strength of economic relationship between two nations. Here, given the respective sizes of both nations’ economies and economic complementarities the full potential of economic relationship has not been exploited as yet. The total trade volume with Russia in 2011 was around US dollars 9 billion which is planned to be raised to 20 billion USD by 2015. Compared to two-way trade between China and India this figure is not very significant. Even with a country like Indonesia the trade was 20 billion USD last year and the projections for 2015 stand at a robust 45 billion USD.

With the return of Putin all the strategic components of India-Russia need to be further consolidated and enhanced. Celebrating the 65th year of establishment of relationship in April this year our minister for External Affairs SM Krishna observed that “India-Russia 'special & privileged' strategic partnership is today a model of depth and understanding for any two nation states'. As emerging and responsible stakeholders in an ever-changing international system, our close relations serve as an anchor and as pivot of durable peace, a just global order and of multilateral stability”.

Russia has consistently supported India in its core national interests and it is time to impart more substance to the strategic relationship and take it to a new level. Putin’s return could be a major catalyst in imparting impetus and strength to the Indo-Russian strategic relationship.

(Courtesy: India Strategic, June 2012)

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