Rekindling India-Russia Relations

Spearhead Analysis – 06.06.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the 18th annual India-Russia summit in St Petersburg on Thursday where leaders of both countries unveiled the ‘joint vision document’ outlining the agenda for economic cooperation between the two nations for the coming decades. PM Modi and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin reaffirmed their “special and privileged strategic partnership” and signed five pacts covering nuclear energy, railways, gems and jewelry, traditional knowledge and cultural exchanges, including a crucial agreement on setting up atomic power plants at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. The two nations also discussed ways to enhance the bilateral relationship during this summit.

Earlier last month, both nations invested in a range of areas to improve bilateral cooperation, including trade, investments, and civil nuclear cooperation during the meeting of India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC).

Traditionally, Russia and India are known to have had a longstanding and resilient friendship. Up until recently however there have been some signs of brewing political tensions in the India-Russia relationship. Russia is visibly warming up to Pakistan as there seems to be a reversal in Russia’s South Asia policy, as a result of which political analysts in New Delhi and Moscow fear the two nations may be drifting apart.

Vladimir Putin, intent on viewing international relations through the prism of Russia’s geopolitical struggle with the West, it seems may have decided that it is time for Russia to join the China-Pakistan axis. Russia has been apprehensive of the rapidly warming ties between America and India, and the signing of the US-India military logistics agreement signaling deeper security cooperation between the two nations. US-Pakistan ties however remain on shaky grounds as the Trump administration continues to show isolationist tendencies, and the Trump team continues to tackle several crises at home.

India is fairly concerned about Russia’s decision to align itself with China, and the impact this may have on New Delhi’s designs for Pakistan’s ‘global isolation’. China and Russia have found a common ground to unite under and subsequently challenge Western objectives. Forgoing its traditional stance on the Taliban, India’s long-time close partner in Afghanistan, Russia is now willing more than ever to negotiate with the Taliban amid the growing threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan. And Pakistan has emerged an important player in this context.

Russia in recognizing Pakistan’s significance in the matter has made efforts to deepen the Pak-Russia relationship. At the 2016 BRICS summit in Goa, Russia despite pressure from its long-term ally refused to back India’s demand to name two Pakistan-based terror groups as perpetrators of terrorism against India, essentially protecting Pakistan from international censure. Moscow and Islamabad held their first joint military exercise in September 2016 and their first bilateral consultation on regional issues in the following December. Having lifted the arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014, Russia is also planning to send four Mi-35M attack helicopters this year to Pakistan. Russia’s military troops have participated in this year’s Pakistan Day military parade which has been another important milestone in the relationship. It is also likely that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) may be linked with the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Anxiousness within political circles in India regarding the notable shift in Moscow’s stance on Afghanistan and Pak-Russia closeness hence is not entirely unfounded. Especially after India chose to boycott the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing earlier this month it has become even more important for India to strengthen existing relationships. To many the June 1 summit was a way to revitalize the India-Russia partnership and bring the two nations closer together. As Trump is known to be very pro-Russia India can only hope that the US-Russia relationship may help reorient Russian priorities realigning them with India in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it is important for India to re-think its existing foreign policy approach towards Pakistan and China; it is likely that India’s relationship with these two countries will continue to have an impact on the future of India-Russia relations in the region. How India chooses to pursue these relationships will determine the limits of India’s footprint in the region.