After a period of seemingly diminished mutual commitment, India-Russia relations have once more assumed their rightful priority and been strongly reaffirmed by the two countries.
The immediate occasion for this demonstration was the formal one of making suitable acknowledgement of seventy years of diplomatic relations, which in other circumstances might have been not much more than a calendar event, but this time it brought the two countries to revisit and reiterate the main features of what they consider to be a key international relationship.
To mark the occasion, President Putin himself put his signature to an article in a leading Indian newspaper on the value attached to bilateral ties, and to celebrate what the two countries have been able to do together. It came as a reminder of the Soviet, later the Russian, role in India’s economic development, especially in setting up centres of advanced technology that had to be built from scratch after Independence.
And to drive home the point that there is a special link between the two, Prime Minister Modi has just been to Russia on what has become an annual meeting of the top leaders, to work together in identifying new areas of cooperation for the future. The emphasis in these recent exchanges has been on matters of practical significance, economic and trade issues, supply of defence equipment, and other high-tech products.
These are indeed the most striking current areas of mutual interest, but a longer view of the relationship shows many other elements that need to be taken into account.
Most significant over the years has been the strategic convergence that created a community of interest between the two countries at the time of the Cold War, when Western countries were active at the UN to stand in the way of legitimate Indian interests in Kashmir.
The Security Council, weighted in favour of the West, was especially active in this regard, so that Soviet intervention became a greatly valued balancing factor on India’s behalf.
Strategic coordination with the then Soviet Union emerged as a pillar of Indian policy, and despite the vast changes since then this remains the bedrock.
The 70th anniversary and all that went with it can be regarded as a useful reminder of the essential features of the relationship.
One of the most valuable aspects of the relationship is in the supply of defence equipment, with Russia established as India’s most important source. This grew out of Soviet readiness to meet India’s defence needs at a time when Cold War pressures had severely constrained access and attached unacceptable conditions to alternative sources of supply, especially those from the West.
It is only recently that changing international realities have permitted India to look to alternative sources of supply, and until now Russian arms are the staple equipment of India’s armed services.
Apart from being able to purchase what it needs from an advanced and reliable supplier, India has now entered into joint ventures with Russia for design and manufacture of new systems, the most important of them being the Brahmos missile system which has proved to be a success and has opened up a new range of possible collaboration between the two countries.
No less striking is the progress they have shared in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Here, too, Russia stepped in when other major powers were keen to impose sanctions and impede India’s progress on account of the PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Experiment) of 1974, and the nuclear tests of more than two decades later in 1998.
Russia refused to be swayed, and having already entered into an agreement with India, maintained its commitment and went ahead with its partnership offer.
This led to the setting up of a nuclear reactor and power plant at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, to be followed by several others, which serve an important purpose in meeting the energy requirements of that region. Interestingly, arrangements for the first collaborative nuclear power plant in India were in train at a time when Russia itself was in the throes of the post-Soviet financial crisis, making it necessary for special payment arrangements to be made for the project.
Thus at important moments the two countries have been able to provide mutual support and understanding in order to sustain their elevated expectations of each other. Shifting international priorities have now brought new challenges, and some of the consequences of change have raised unexpected questions in India-Russia ties.
Over the last few years, India’s almost automatic turn to Russia for defence supplies has been under challenge by the opening up of the hitherto closed supply routes from other sources, especially USA. Already defence purchases worth a great deal of money have been acquired from there and more are in the pipeline. Other contenders have also entered a scene that was once in many respects more or less reserved for Russia.
And, so far as India is concerned, development of relations between Russia and Pakistan has upset quite a few assumptions: New Delhi has been surprised by reports of Russian defence supplies to Pakistan, as part of a general warming of relations between these two countries.
Coming at a time when Indo-Pak ties are at a particularly low point this has led to considerable speculation about what it may portend.
Russian involvement in Asian affairs is on the increase and seems set to advance further. In its Near eastern environs Russia has become a potent, perhaps even a decisive, force in the unfolding of the Syrian civil war where its military forces have become actively engaged.
In other parts of Asia, too, the Russian role has expanded considerably: in his statement to Indian readers Putin commended the cooperation between the two countries in multilateral bodies like BRICS and SCO, and he was happy to note that India was set to become a full member of SCO, where China and Russia have emerged as the twin pillars. Russia is widening its Asian horizons, and as India engages in the same endeavour, the two can jointly play a full part in redesigning the regional strategic architecture.
Postscript: This is a moment to recall the signal services to India-Russia friendship of the late Ambassador Kadakin of Russia. He became a fixture in the Russian Mission in New Delhi, always at hand during major state events from the era of Indira Gandhi, and eventually rising to the top as his country’s Ambassador. During the unpredictable days of transformation and rebuilding in both countries, he was instrumental in maintaining bilateral stability and friendship. He is owed a great debt of gratitude by both India and Russia.
The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.