The annual India-Russia summit meeting later this week on December 24-25 promises to elevate the strategic partnership to a qualitatively new level.


The two solid pillars of the relationship will continue to be cooperation in the military and energy fields. But the alchemy of cooperation is undergoing change, as Russia adjusts itself to Modi’s ‘Make in India’ doctrine in the country’s national priorities.

To be sure, Russia is ploughing virgin soil here, because no matter the flourishing rhetoric in India’s relations with the western countries, including the United States, these partners show reluctance to provide advanced technology to India, be it due to political considerations or as a matter of attitude and established policies.

An Indian defence correspondent recently recounted a conversation between a senior Indian defense official and his Russian counterpart where the latter apparently advised the Indian interlocutor, “Whatever you want, let your Prime Minister discuss it one-on-one with our President. It will happen”.

The snippet speaks volumes about the quality of the relationship, which is based on deep trust and mutuality of interests as well as its rare contemporaneity.

The plain truth is that the hullabaloo aside over Modi’s two visits to the United States – and President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January – Washington shows reluctance to transfer advanced technologies to India for political reasons. The US often also prevails upon its western allies to adopt similar attitude.

After all, notwithstanding the halcyon days of the ‘defining partnership of the 21st century between’ the US and India, New Delhi opted for the Russian-operated GLONASS satellite navigation system rather than America’s GPS system (despite the latter being more efficient).

India made a hugely strategic choice here. Simply put, Russia remains India’s principal, if not sole, source to build a high-technology military industrial complex.

The two key decisions that will be watched with much interest relate, first, to the scope for Russian participation in India’s ambitious plan to lease a cutting-edge Yasen class nuclear-powered attack submarine that would provide India with an invaluable peep into the technical know-how that goes into the making of one of the most advanced military systems in the world.

The Indian expectation is to gain expertise for an indigenous project to design and manufacture nuclear-powered attack submarines, over which the Modi government recently approved a $15 billion master plan.

Second, while India is set to offer a site in the state of Andhra Pradesh to build two 1200 MW nuclear power plants by Russia, New Delhi’s expectation is that the agreement will contain provisions for the involvement of Indian private-sector companies in the project including in the supply of various components.

Simply put, India-Russia cooperation in the field of nuclear energy is entering the portals of Modi’s ‘Make in India’ dream house. Russia is supplying its most advanced VVER technology for the nuclear reactors.

It has already built two 1200 MW power plants in India and has signed agreement to build two more similar plants in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. At last year’s India-Russia summit, Modi and Putin took a big decision that through the year 2035, Russia will cooperate in the construction of 12 nuclear power plants in India.

Conceivably, the pattern of cooperation with Russia would enable India to effectively negotiate with the nuclear vendors in the West with a view to ‘Make in India’ an integral platform of cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.

Yet another development that is awaited could be a policy decision by Putin that henceforth Indian armed forces may directly interact with Russian arms manufacturers, bypassing the leviathan state firm Rosoboronexport handling arms exports and providing the downstream servicing.

Both sides realize the need to reduce bureaucratic red tape and speed up the serviceability of military hardware sourced from Russia.

An Indian analyst with deep experience in defence negotiations wrote recently: “The past 25 years have seen growing difficulties on price, quality, delivery schedule, technology transfer, upgrades and other related issues… Of all these, sustaining the life-cycle support for an equipment supplied by Russia would be the most pressing issue for India… So is there a case for creating a new de-bureaucratized single-window mechanism that functions on commercial lines.”

Having said that, there is no gainsaying the fact that the India-Russia military ties are a far cry from the heady days of the Soviet-era cooperation. They have evolved in realistic terms and the best evidence of it is that it is the United States, which is emerging as the largest arms supplier to India, a vendor who is Russia’s number one adversary in world politics.

To be sure, while fighting hard to retain its big presence in the Indian market, Russia has also begun exploring new markets. This is inevitable since the military-industrial complex in Russia supports a work force exceeding 2 million people.

Thus, the offer to sell to Pakistan Sukhoi-35 Flanker-E fighters and Mi-35 Hind-E attack helicopters (or to accept China as its very first customer for the formidable S-400 missile defence system) needs to be seen in perspective, much as it may cause angst to the Indian mind.

But then, Russia’s traditional primacy in India’s arms bazaar will continue for the foreseeable future, taking into account the reality that the Russian-origin platforms will remain in service with Indian armed forces for three or four decades to come.

To be sure, arms deals will dominate the India-Russia summit in Moscow this week. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, deals worth $7 billion are in the pipeline.

However, the Achilles’ heel of the India-Russia partnership continues to be that trade and economic ties remain by far sub-optimal. How far the Modi touch can make a difference here remains to be seen.

Without doubt, the Moscow summit is taking place against a profound backdrop of regional and international security. Today’s Russia is almost unrecognizable in comparison with a year ago – or even the Russia that Modi visited in July to attend the BRICS summit.

Russia has surged on the global scene as a great power whose voice, stance and actions are viewed seriously by the ‘lone superpower’. (The US Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov 20 times this year.)

From the Indian viewpoint, what is of utmost significance is that there is no conflict of interests with Russia. It can be predicted with immaculate accuracy that India and Russia will come out this week with a major declaration on fighting terrorism.

On the other hand, India also has a dynamic strategic partnership with the US that is steadily deepening and expanding. Suffice it to say, an international climate is available for India for the pursuit of independent foreign policies that strengthen the country’s strategic autonomy, while also creating favorable conditions for accelerating its development agenda.

India is uniquely placed in this respect insofar as there is ‘bipartisan consensus’ in the country for strengthening its strategic partnerships with both Russia and the US. And, more importantly, these big powers are also reconciled to the reality that it is not in India’s DNA to be a junior partner to either of them.

A ‘tilt’ here, or a ‘tilt’ there apart, while coping with the vicissitudes of day-to-day life, this geostrategic reality cannot fundamentally change. Russia respects this fully and the strategic partnership with India is denuded of any vacuous rhetoric.

The onus is really on the Indian diplomacy to extract the best results out of such an advantageous situation. But is India up to the mark? That is the troubling question. Relatively speaking, although placed in far more complex circumstances and running into strong headwinds, China nonetheless seems to be doing vastly better as a non-aligned country.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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