When Russian President Vladimir Putin returned from India earlier this month, he was asked publicly about his impressions from the visit. Putin answered, “Very hot, plus 34 [degrees Celsius].” One of his biggest impressions from India was of the “flying dogs,” as he labelled Indian flying foxes, also known as greater Indian fruit bats.
These touristic observations from Russia’s leader camouflage the sensational agenda of the bilateral summit that took place with India on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit. The most important agreements were about India leasing the second Akula-class submarine, the import of S-400 air defence systems, the delivery of 200 multirole helicopters Ka-226T to be partly built in India, the development of the BrahMos missile with a range exceeding 600 km, the manufacturing of four Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 11356) guided-missile stealth frigates (of which two will be made in India), and cooperation on information security.
Russian oil giant Rosneft agreed to buy a 49 per cent stake in Essar’s Vadinar Oil refinery and to supply crude oil to Essar over 10 years. Russia and India confirmed their ambitious program of nuclear energy development and the leaders launched phase two of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant.
This agenda revealed several misperceptions about relations between Russia and India. First, India is not ‘leaving Russia’ for the United States. India’s foreign policy still pursues a multi-vector course and is well balanced. Despite Russia’s problematic relations with the West, her close friendship with China and flirtations with Pakistan, India keeps developing a strategic partnership with Russia.
Second, India chooses not to exact revenge on Russia for her military cooperation with Pakistan. When Russia initially agreed to hold a military exercise with Pakistan in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and administrative territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Indian reaction was unambiguously negative. Yet this reaction had no impact on the subsequent reception of the Russian delegation in India and the bilateral agenda of Moscow and Delhi.
Third, Russia will remain an exclusive source of military technologies for India in the foreseeable future. The United States, France, and Israel cannot offer to India the technologies that Russia offers. Nuclear submarines, BrahMos missiles, and S-400 air defence system are all strategic offensive and defensive weapons. They impact the military balance not only in South Asia, but in the Asia-Pacific region as well.
The fourth and final misperception relates to the fact that until now Russia has not faced serious competition in the nuclear energy market. The Russian company Rosatom and its subsidiaries are the most active and influential external players in this market. After India’s introduction of the 2010 Nuclear Liability Act created serious obstacles for foreign nuclear companies, only Rosatom succeed in real expanding its footprint in India.
As well as demonstrating its strengths, the bilateral meeting in Goa simultaneously highlighted the weakness in relations between Russia and India. One of the biggest problems can be summarised in one word – “disconnectivity.”
There are many examples of the disconnections that exist in the strategic partnership between India and Russia. For instance, not a single journalist from the Indian mass media is permanently based in Russia. Russian authorities recently decided to stop radio-broadcasting for India in regional languages.
The military exchanges between Russia and India are almost non-existent, with the exception of short-term military exercises and a very limited number of India’s naval nuclear engineers being educated in Russia. There are no Indian cadets in Russian military schools, and vice versa. Nor are there any Russian visiting military lecturers or research fellows in India’s military institutes, and vice versa.
The number of Indian students in Russian high schools is unacceptably low at only 1,302 in 2014. Russia’s global quota for foreign students is only 15,000. Russia is very far from featuring in the top source countries for sending students to India.
For many years Russia and India have been unable to establish a thriving international North-South trade corridor. Without this corridor, the bilateral trade between the two countries remains shamefully low. In 2015 it amounted to just $7.83 billion, a drop of 17.74 per cent compared to 2014.
Cultural and religious contacts, as well as those with the younger generation, are limited to the activities sponsored by the embassies of India in Moscow and Russia in New Delhi. It is difficult to find independent and successful endeavours in these fields between the two countries.
For Indians, a wake-up call was Moscow’s decision to jump into full-scale military cooperation with Pakistan, including arms trade and military exercises. C. Raja Mohan, director of the international centre, Carnegie India, wrote that the Moscow’s move to Pakistan “nudged India towards a relationship with Russia that is founded in realism rather than inertia.” A realistic foundation for a new period of relations between Russia and India requires them each to take a fresh look at one another.
The first Indian impressions after the recent military exercises of Russian and Pakistani troops, and all the happenings around them, may look a bit like a wet blanket.
Indians could conclude that the decision-making process in Russian foreign policy has fallen apart, and the Russian president has ceased to be a key controller and operator of Russia’s policy in South Asia. Indians understood that the pro-Indian lobby, grown on the money that India sent to Russia in the 1990s and 2000s as part of the framework of arms trade and peaceful nuclear energy cooperation, ceased to be sufficiently consolidated to defend the interests of the strategic partnership between Russia and India. Indians could see that many in the Russian media and expert communities, who used to support the strategic partnership with India, kept silent and, with the exception of a few, were even supportive of Russia’s flirtation with Pakistan.
Disconnectivity is a growing problem in Russia and India’s strategic partnership. But it is not irreversible, as long as those Russian and Indian governmental and non-governmental organisations involved in bilateral relations, start appraising each other realistically, seriously, and strategically. In fact, despite a deepening military technology cooperation on strategic weapons, Russia and India still need to make their strategic partnership real, durable, and pervasive.