In September 2019, Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Russia’s Far East. He travelled to Vladivostok to give the keynote at the Eastern Economic Forum and participate in the annual India-Russia leaders’ level summit—the 20th of its kind. The premier’s visit was designed to 1) revitalize India’s Russia relationship so that country remains part of Delhi’s diversified portfolio of partners, 2) diversify India’s Russia relationship so it is more relevant to Delhi’s domestic and regional priorities, 3) reinforce that India, Russia and the region have changed and India-Russia ties needed to be updated to reflect that change, and 4) encourage a rethink in Russia about the Indo-Pacific and make Moscow a partner in achieving Delhi’s objectives in that region—which could, in turn, benefit India-Russia ties and make them more sustainable.
India’s Russia relationship
To contextualize Modi’s trip to Vladivostok and its objectives, it is important to understand the factors that have driven India’s relationship with Russia forward, as well as those that have limited it. In recent years, Delhi has seen a partnership with Moscow as important to achieve certain domestic, regional, and global objectives. Russia remains a crucial partner as India tries to enhance its defense capabilities. This is partly for legacy reasons. Russia was India’s main supplier of military equipment during the second half of the Cold War, and Russian equipment is found across the Indian armed forces. This, in turn, has made spare parts supply from Russia critical.
Beyond that, Moscow has traditionally been more willing than other suppliers to co-produce equipment with Indian companies, as well as to share certain kinds of defense technology (nuclear-powered submarines are the example most frequently cited).1 Both of these elements have been significant for India, which has been trying to improve not just its defense capabilities, but also its own defense industrial base. As an energy-hungry country with limited domestic hydrocarbons, India has also seen Moscow as a partner in this sphere, with Russia setting up nuclear reactors in India, as well as offering Indian companies a chance to invest in its oil and gas industry.2
Strategically, Delhi has seen Moscow as a key part of its strategy to balance China, both as a supplier of military equipment and potentially as a counterweight. A Russia that perceives and treats China as a rival helps shape the regional balance of power in a way that benefits India—it means one more power that could prevent a unipolar Beijing-dominated Asia.
Historically, India also saw Moscow as protecting Indian interests in international forums, particularly the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) where it wields a veto. Russia has also sponsored Indian membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.3 In recent years, Russia’s backing of India has not been as vociferous or forthcoming as it was in the past. Nonetheless, Delhi sees Russia’s presence in multilateral institutions and role in regional issues such as Afghanistan as giving Moscow an ability to play supporter or spoiler vis-à-vis Indian interests.
But, contrary to Modi’s assertion in Vladivostok that India-Russia relations have “grown rapidly and gone a long way” since his 2001 visit as Gujarat chief minister to Moscow,4 the relationship is not what it used to be in the Cold War. Given India’s evolving profile and needs, Delhi often sees other countries as more important or relevant in achieving its domestic objectives, particularly economic growth. Strategically, deepening partnerships with other major powers has given India more options. The US, in particular, has been seen as a—perhaps even the—critical partner to balance China, as well as enhance India’s role on the global stage (for example, supporting its membership in global nonproliferation and export control regimes, and—along with France—being helpful to India at the UNSC and the Financial Action Task Force when recent issues related to Pakistan have arisen).
India also has more options in terms of defense suppliers. Russia’s share of Indian defense imports went from 76% in 2009-13 to 58% in 2014-18. Countries like France, Israel, and the US have all benefited from Delhi’s attempt to diversify its supplier base.5 India-Russia defense cooperation has hit a few other bumps in the road as well. The Indian military has run into problems sourcing spare parts from Russia, which a former government official called “a major irritant in ties.”6 Delhi, on its part, has taken its time signing certain defense deals.7 Concerns about delays, costs, technology transfer, and other terms also led to India’s withdrawal from Russia’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft project.8 And this is in the sphere where cooperation has been closest since the end of the Cold War—“the one area that keeps us bonded,” as Nandan Unnikrishnan has put it.9
Progress in other areas has been relatively limited. Over the last few years, this has led analysts like Srinath Raghavan, Dhruva Jaishankar and Gurmeet Kanwal to label the India-Russia relationship a largely “transactional” one.10 In 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin indeed lamented the one-dimensional nature of ties, and called for their diversification.11 At $8 billion in 2018-19, (non-defense) trade in goods, for instance, has fallen short of the target of $20 billion by 2015 set by the two countries.12 It also pales in comparison with India’s trade relationships with the US ($88 billion) and even relatively new economic partner China ($87 billion). This also largely remains a government-to-government relationship. There have been efforts in recent years to facilitate and encourage increased engagement between the two countries’ private sectors and civil societies,13 but they have borne limited fruit thus far. Moreover, Russia is not the country of choice for Indian students or tourists looking abroad, and it does not have the diaspora links that give India’s relationships with countries like Australia or the US an added dimension.
Cracks have also appeared in India and Russia’s regional approaches. Traditionally, they had been on the same page on Afghanistan. However, in recent years, Delhi has been concerned about Moscow’s engagement with the Taliban at the expense of the Ghani government and India’s interests.14 Russia’s interests in Afghanistan have also partly led to engagement with Pakistan in recent years, a subject of even greater concern to India.15 Along with increased diplomatic and military engagements, Russia and Pakistan started a military exercise, and Moscow has also supplied attack helicopters to Rawalpindi.16 Other motivating factors for Russia’s outreach to Pakistan, as seen from India, have been the desire to sell military equipment and to remind an India partnering with others like the US that Russia has options too.
For Delhi, Russia’s position vis-à-vis India-Pakistan issues has been problematic recently. The first Russia-Pakistan military exercise in 2016, initially reportedly to be in territory disputed between India and Pakistan, continued even after an attack on an Indian military base for which Delhi blamed Pakistan. In February 2019, after an attack on Indian forces in Kashmir, Moscow declined to hold Pakistan responsible, as Delhi was doing, or call for it to act against terrorist groups operating from its territory. Moreover, Russia offered to mediate, despite India’s known aversion to such attempts.17 Its approach after India changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 was seen as wavering before it came down on India’s side.18
More significantly, given India’s preference for a not-too-close China-Russia relationship, Delhi has watched warily as those countries’ partnership has deepened. Moscow has sold advanced military technology to Beijing despite assuring India that it would not do so.19 It has endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, urging India to overcome its objections to it.20 And some have seen Moscow as leaning toward Beijing in forums like the BRICS.21
Concerned about Moscow’s engagement with Beijing and Islamabad, as well as a “drift” in India-Russia ties,22 Delhi has sought to re-energize the relationship over the last few years. There has been an uptick in high-level engagement, including an informal Modi-Putin summit in Sochi in May 2018.23 In the defense sphere, the countries have recently signed a number of agreements, most prominently the Indian acquisition of S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems despite the threat of US sanctions.24 In the energy sphere, a Rosneft-led consortium purchased private Indian energy refiner Essar for nearly $13 billion, giving a boost to bilateral investment figures.25 And even as the allure of the BRICS grouping has faded, India has worked to rejuvenate the Russia-India-China trilateral. In addition to its annual ministerial, there have now been leaders-level meetings at the sidelines of the East Asia Summit (November 2018) and the G20 summit (June 2019).
India Looks East…Far East
Modi’s Russia visit for the annual summit and the Eastern Economic Forum should be seen as part of this Indian effort to re-energize its Russia relationship. Greater global and regional flux and uncertainty about US reliability have made this task even more important from India’s perspective. Delhi sees these conditions as validating its long-standing diversification strategy—and believes Russia needs to remain part of its diversified portfolio of partners. Furthermore, it wants to keep Moscow onside and, like Japan, it is trying to limit Russia’s China relationship—in part by conveying to the Kremlin that China is not its only option. Thus, Modi made it a point to reassure Russia that it remained a priority for his government.
The Indian prime minister’s trip was also part of the attempt to give the relationship a strategic and economic framing and make it more relevant to a broader array of Indian interests. This requires diversifying the relationship, and, as Indrani Bagchi has noted, Modi’s visit was designed to move the relationship beyond just defense transactions—as Putin has called for in the past as well.26 Thus, while the two sides made clear that they would seek to deepen existing areas of cooperation like space and defense (India’s defense minister is due in Russia shortly), there were additional items on the agenda during this visit. 27
The countries announced a 5-year plan for cooperation in the energy sector, particularly in Russia’s Far East and in the Arctic (India’s petroleum and natural gas minister visited the region in late October to follow up on this aspect). India is also hoping to facilitate closer economic ties and generate two-way business interest through a potential investment protection agreement, the proposal for a trade agreement between India and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the continuation of the relatively new Strategic Economic Dialogue, and the announcement of a $1 billion line of credit. It is looking to expand the sectors involved from agriculture to aviation. Modi has also emphasized the need to get more actors involved in the relationship, particularly from the private sector and the state/regional level. Prior to his trip, four Indian chief ministers and a large business delegation indeed traveled with the Indian commerce minister to the region.
In Vladivostok, Modi particularly highlighted Indian companies’ existing and desired investments in the natural resources sector. But he also noted the potential for cooperation involving human resources. Without explicitly drawing a contrast to China, Modi mentioned that skilled Indian workers would be temporary and could help contribute to the development of Russia’s Far East. This would benefit a demographically challenged region, as well as an India whose workers are facing tougher immigration standards in countries like Australia, Singapore, the UK, and the US, as well as in the Middle East.
Beyond diversifying the relationship, Modi’s statements in Vladivostok also stressed the changed nature of the India-Russia relationship, as well as the importance for ties in the future to reflect this change to be sustainable. The $1 billion line of credit announced was perhaps the most visible indication of the change, given that it was historically Russia that provided loans and aid to India. In the defense sector, Modi emphasized the need to go beyond a “buyer-seller” relationship. And the two countries signed an agreement for establishing joint ventures in India to produce spare parts for Russian military equipment. This would help India deal with its concerns about sourcing them from Russia, as well as bolster indigenous capacity. Potentially, if the terms allow, these parts could also be exported to third countries. This attempt to localize was also evident in Modi’s mention of the desire to indigenize further, albeit collaboratively, the nuclear power plants that Russia has set up in India.
On a trip to Moscow ahead of Modi’s trip, Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar also stressed that the world, Russia, and India had all changed. This, he asserted, required adjustments and “new thinking.” He highlighted India’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific concept in this context.28 It is this concept, and India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific that also underlay Modi’s Vladivostok visit. In the past, analysts have emphasized India and Russia’s shared continental interests and cooperation in Eurasia. Now, Delhi is hoping to draw Russia into cooperation in the Indo-Pacific maritime region as well. Delhi has not talked of an Indo-Pacific strategy, but rather a vision of a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” Its approach to achieve that objective is partly through collaboration with regional actors and major powers, and is encapsulated in policies such as Neighborhood First, SAGAR, and Act East.29 In this context, Delhi has expanded its cooperation in the Indo-Pacific with Australia, France, Japan, and the US, and it would like to do so with Russia as well.
Like Beijing, Moscow has been skeptical of the concept of the Indo-Pacific, which links or integrates the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Earlier this year in Vietnam, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized it as an “artificially imposed concept” designed by the US, Australia, and Japan, “with an apparent goal of containing China.” Echoing what Chinese analysts have said, he asserted that the Indo-Pacific would undermine ASEAN’s role. He reiterated this disapproval in July in Thailand, saying that countries’ developing Indo-Pacific strategies “are not inclusive and imply the region’s division into blocs.” Lavrov was careful not to criticize India, instead portraying it as a subject of major power machinations, dragged into others’ “military and political and maritime processes.”30 The Russian defense minister recently added that the strategies “pitt[ed] Asia Pacific states against each other” and would “lead to establishment of so-called interest alliances.”31
India would like Russia to reconsider this aversion to the Indo-Pacific concept. In Moscow, Jaishankar asked Russian officials and analysts to keep an open mind about it. He emphasized that the concept is neither an external imposition nor a recent phenomenon. The external affairs minister noted that the two oceanic regions have long been connected—and it is indeed the recent delinking of the regions that is the anomaly. Jaishankar also noted that India’s Indo-Pacific was not the same as those of others even while there might be overlap—and encouraged Russians to generate their own version of the concept. Countering Russian criticism, he noted that India’s vision of the broader region included a role for ASEAN and its approach was not designed to contain China. And he suggested that Russian analysts look beyond a US prism when considering developments in the region.
Modi’s visit to Vladivostok was designed to further this effort to assure Russia that it had a place in India’s Indo-Pacific approach and urge a rethink in Moscow about the concept. The prime minister noted that he discussed India’s Indo-Pacific concept with Putin. Beyond India’s “Act East” policy, he noted his presence as part of India’s “Act Far East” policy. Modi stressed that this could be mutually beneficial, outlining potential maritime connectivity between Vladivostok and the southern Indian city of Chennai that could help the two regions economically. Moreover, this connectivity could lay the basis for a stronger India-Russia relationship—“when Vladivostok will become India’s springboard in North East Asia market, India-Russia partnership will further deepen and flourish.” He emphasized that India’s Indo-Pacific concept and Russia’s EEU were complementary. And Modi encouraged Russia to embrace its Asian identity (Indian analysts believe that Russia sees itself more as a European country).
Delhi sees this inclusion of Russia in its regional strategy as serving multiple purposes. It recognizes that Moscow has important ties with a number of India’s partners in the region (for example, defense ties with Indonesia and Vietnam) and it can play a role in balancing China through those ties bilaterally and potentially in cooperation with India. The two countries have already worked together in Bangladesh to construct a nuclear power plant. And in Vladivostok, their joint statement made clear that they were looking to expand this cooperation to other countries. Delhi also hopes that a connection with Russia’s Far East will lay the ground for a more active Indian role in/on the Arctic, and Modi made clear that India was ready for an enhanced role in the Arctic Council. Finally, given that the Indo-Pacific region is critical for India, a Russian rethink on it could make it more relevant to India’s interests—and thus, make the relationship more sustainable.
India-Russia summits often generate ambitious announcements—this was the case at the EEF and their 20th summit as well. Whether they will result in an updated, diversified India-Russia relationship remains to be seen. Much will depend on implementation of the various agreements and on generating interest in India for Russia beyond the government. It will also depend on how the countries resolve their differences on issues like the Indo-Pacific. These differences were evident in Jaishankar’s interactions in Moscow. For example, India, unlike Russia, welcomes a US role in the region, sees the concept as re-linking—rather than dividing—the historically connected region, and welcomes issue-based alignments. There are broader regional differences, particularly with regard to China—India continues to have concerns about the BRI even as Moscow has found a way to reconcile that Chinese initiative with the EEU. And there is the big question of the future of the China-Russia partnership—if it persists, it could limit India-Russia progress, and potentially even harm those ties. After all, despite asserting in their joint statement that the India-Russia relationship “will not be susceptible to outside influence,” the reality is that the two countries’ relationships with China, Pakistan, and the US have affected their ties.