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Home > News > Columnists > Rajiv Sikri

Why Russia and India matter to each other

January 23, 2007

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With the focus of public attention on the foreign policy front over the last year or so having been on India's relations with the United States, it is easy to miss the significance of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit this week.

Yet, it is anything but a routine one.

For the first time ever, a Russian head of State has been invited as chief guest for India's Republic Day celebrations, the most prestigious and visible event on India's diplomatic calendar, one whose significance goes beyond State-to-State diplomacy.

The public exposure that the chief guest and the country he represents get is an integral part of the importance and significance of the visit. It sends a powerful message not only to the country being honoured and to the rest of the world, but, equally importantly, to the people of India.

Considerable thought therefore goes into selecting the chief guest. In Putin's case, the decision was taken about a year ago and accepted without much delay. This clearly brings out the mutual keenness of both countries to elevate the India-Russia relationship to a higher level.

It is important for the people of India to be aware of the importance of the relationship with Russia because it is as close as it comes to being a true strategic partnership, yet one about which the general public remains somewhat ignorant.

In the absence of widespread people-to-people contacts -- trade, economic projects in the private sector, flow of tourists and students, a large and influential Indian Diaspora -- and given the handicaps of language, Russia does not affect most ordinary people's lives as does, say, the US or the Gulf region.

At the government level, however, successive Indian leaders have taken special care to nurture this relationship, which has survived political vicissitudes, neglect and drift during the Boris Yeltsin era, pressures and attempts by outside powers to create rifts, and occasional misunderstandings over Pakistan.

On relations with Russia there is a consensus across the Indian political establishment. It is noteworthy that Russia is one of the few foreign countries that Sonia Gandhi has visited after the present government came to power.

The close ties of friendship, cooperation, mutual trust and understanding have deep roots. This is no mere rhetoric because India has received, earlier from the Soviet Union and thereafter from its successor State Russia, extremely valuable political, diplomatic and strategic support on vital issues affecting India's national interests.

At crucial times, it was this country that consistently stood by us in international forums on vital issues like Kashmir and other matters affecting our territorial integrity and sovereignty.

It was Soviet diplomatic backing and material support, and the confidence provided by the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which enabled us to successfully undertake the Bangladesh operations in 1971.

This excellent political understanding was underpinned by a strong economic and strategic relationship reflected in the unmatched assistance India received from the Soviet Union/Russia in the development of our economy as well as in the sensitive areas of defence, space and atomic energy.

India was offered cheap economic credits for infrastructure projects, gratefully accepted and repaid in rupees because we neither had the capital, nor the technological know-how to develop them on our own, nor the foreign exchange to pay for them; reliable, affordable and good quality military supplies, also on credit; and large-scale supply of crucial products like oil (mostly via a swap deal with Iraq), fertilizers, metals, etc.

With steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal in the limelight today, few people may care to recall that India's first steel plant, Bhilai, was set up with Soviet assistance after the West refused to do so, or that some of today's globally competitive public sector companies like BHEL, ONGC and HAL were set up with Soviet cooperation.

In Soviet times it was a truly strategic, if somewhat unequal, partnership.

As the Soviet Union broke up, the whole edifice of trade and economic relations built up over decades came crashing down. Both sides scrambled to adjust to the new realities. While Russia struggled to cope with the wrenching shift from a State-controlled economy to a free market economy and from a centralized authoritarian regime to a multi-party democracy, India too embarked on a process of economic reforms.

The business communities in both Russia and India focused their energy and attention on the West, which was seen as the source of technology, capital and management. Neither Russia nor India could devote much time to learning how to deal with the other in the vastly changed circumstances. A decade or so was lost in this period of transition and re-adjustment.

Maybe this was inescapable.

Political relations too reached a nadir during the Yeltsin era because the Russian leadership was too obsessed with the West and did not consider relations with India a sufficiently important priority.

At a time when India-Russia relations were at an important crossroads, it was Putin who revived and steered the relationship in the right direction.

The relationship is today a more equal one, since Russia is no longer a superpower and India no longer a mere developing country. The days of cheap credits are over, oil flows have stopped, and rupee trade is sputtering to its end.

Russia and India have changed enormously over the last 15 years since the break-up of the Soviet Union. After going through a difficult period in the early 1990s, both India and Russia have acquired a new self-confidence arising out of their rapid economic growth, large foreign exchange reserves, their respective strengths -- among others, of Russia as an 'energy superpower' and India as a 'knowledge superpower' -- and their sense of destiny.

In today's complicated and fast changing geopolitical situation, both countries have wisely diversified their foreign policy options, yet are careful not to undermine a mutually beneficial partnership of trust built up over decades.

What is the mutual interest that sustains the India-Russia relationship today? A strategic partnership cannot survive on nostalgia; it needs substance. The relationship survives and thrives because both Russia and India see the other as relevant to their respective national priorities. Both recognise that, as rising powers likely to play an increasingly larger role on the world stage in the coming decades, there is mutual gain in strengthening the edifice of a deep-rooted partnership that has survived the turbulence of the 1990s.

There is a shared interest in weakening US global hegemony and in creating a multipolar world. There is reciprocal support and understanding for each other's interests and policies in their respective strategic neighbourhoods -- South Asia in the case of India, and the former Soviet Union in the case of Russia.

There is a complementarity of interests in important fields of cooperation such as oil and gas, defence, nuclear, space, science and technology -- all areas that constitute Russia's core strength and globally competitiveness and, reciprocally, areas where India needs foreign assistance and collaboration.

Military cooperation is proceeding well because it is mutually profitable and beneficial. India finds Russian military equipment reliable and appreciates Russia's willingness to sell state-of-the-art equipment and engage in joint research and development of new products.

Considering the large volume of business, and India's record of timely payments and scrupulously settled Soviet-era debts, India is a valuable customer for Russia in military hardware, which it doesn't want to lose to competition from new sources like Israel, France and the US.

With synergies arising out of the fact that India is an energy-deficient country and Russia an energy-surplus one, energy is an increasingly important area for the future. Following up on the success of the Indian investment in the Sakhalin-I project (which itself would not have fructified without a strong political push at the highest level from both sides), India seeks more investments in Russia in the upstream oil and gas sector to ensure reliable long-term energy security, while Russia regards India as an important and growing market for Russian exports of oil and gas and wants a share in the downstream oil and gas business in India.

Russia, which is already helping India build the Kudankulam nuclear power plant and has recently supplied fuel for Tarapur, is also looking for a large share of the anticipated increase in nuclear energy projects in India if the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines are revised to accommodate India.

However, in order to give a sound foundation and impart long-term stability to Indo-Russian relations, trade and economic cooperation, currently at a worryingly low level, has to increase and diversify.

This is the most challenging task before the two leaders, because in both countries this is now a private sector-driven activity.

Governments can nudge and persuade, but cannot compel or direct business. One persistent and fundamental problem that has defied solution is the enormous difficulty that Indian businessmen face in getting visas for Russia.

One can expect progress on all these sectors during President Putin's visit.

Of course, there will be tough negotiations and no 'friendship' prices.

Bureaucratic indifference and rigidities on both sides also constitute formidable hurdles that will have to be overcome. But it is evident that both countries will make special efforts to bring back the vigour and dynamism in the relationship that has been missing for some time.

Putin's forthcoming visit to India will be his last one before he steps down as president. It would be in India's interest to firmly set a long-term direction to the relationship while Putin, who has proved to be a true friend of India, is in power.

Even though Putin, who currently enjoys widespread unprecedented popular support, is expected to continue to influence Russian politics, India needs to guard against possible uncertainties in a post-Putin era when India may have to deal with a new generation of Russian leaders who are not so familiar with India.

It is heartening therefore that Putin's last official visit to India is such a high-profile one.

This valuable exercise in public diplomacy, which will continue through the Year of Russia in India next year and the Year of India in Russia in 2009, will make an important contribution in creating better appreciation, particularly among the increasingly influential younger generation in both Russia and India, of the importance of India-Russia relations in the foreign policy and overall national interests of both countries.

It will undoubtedly generate the much-needed wider public interest, support and understanding in both countries that will serve to provide greater depth and long-term stability to this exceedingly important and mutually beneficial strategic partnership that has stood the test of time.

Rajiv Sikri recently retired as secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, after more than 36 years of service as a diplomat. He can be contacted at rajivsikri@gmail.com


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