11 April 2017

Looking both ways - India's old ties with Russia should continue to be nurtured

Kanwal Sibal 

The deputy prime minister of Russia, Yury Trutnev, with Sushma Swaraj, New Delhi, March 2017

The perception that India under the Narendra Modi government has not been paying enough attention to relations with Russia has developed because the dynamic growth of our relations with the United States of America in recent years is contrasted with the lack of vigour in our Russia ties. Overcoming past differences with the US, some deeply strategic, and forging new understandings have dominated opinion. Our relationship with Russia has remained largely problem-free strategically and, consequently, attracts limited public attention. The sense of comfort in our relationship with Russia is juxtaposed with the sense of opportunity in our US ties.

Other factors account for the impression - largely unjustified - that we have neglected our relations with Russia. Our points of contact with the US today at government, business, academic and other levels are far more numerous than with Russia. The number of our bilateral dialogue mechanisms with the US - over 50 - far exceeds that with any other country. Our emerging strong defence relationship - an area traditionally dominated by Russia - has fed perceptions that India is now leaning towards the US at Russia's expense. India's purchases of defence equipment from the US have jumped from virtually nothing to over $13 billion in the last few years. Our numerous bilateral military exercises with the US contrast with the very limited number held with Russia, even though most of our equipment is of Russian origin. Our bilateral trade with Russia is under eight billion dollars, whereas that with the US, including services, exceeds $100 billion. The Indian private sector, especially in areas of the knowledge economy, has close links with the US - which is not the case with Russia. Our young entrepreneurial class is captivated by the US. We have 1,30,000 Indian students pursuing advanced studies in the US compared to about 5,000 in Russia. At the people-to-people level, the India-US relationship is far deeper than the India-Russia one, even if public attitudes in Russia are more favourable towards India than in America. The 3.5-million-plus strong Indian American community has become a force in promoting bilateral India-US relations, whereas no such lobby exists in Russia. All this gets translated into extensive links at the social level and voluminous media coverage of US affairs in India. Worse, from the viewpoint of India-Russia relations, the Indian media carry news about Russia obtained from the US and Western sources that reflects the political temperature of State-level relations between the West and Russia and, therefore, detracts from developing an objective understanding of Russian affairs in India. The coverage of Russia currently in major organs of the Western press can hardly be considered balanced.

If the Cold War created the conditions for a strong India-Russia political, defence and economic partnership, its end created conditions for a stronger India-US rapprochement, although divergences remain. The changing nature of our relations with both the US and Russia has little to do with undue courting of one or wilful neglect of the other. It is an outcome of changes in the international situation, the need for each country to adapt to them in the national interest, altered power equations, new security challenges, the phenomenon of globalization and the communication revolution, the changing aspirations of citizens and so on. What is important is optimal engagement with all partners, old and new, valuing established partnerships that remain a source of strength and exploring new ones that would add to the nation's development.

Russia cannot be neglected, notwithstanding its reduced status after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as it remains a formidable entity because of its size, resources and strategic capacities. Its permanent membership of the United Nations security council gives it a role in addressing issues of international peace and security that has to be taken into account. With its military intervention in the Syrian conflict, in defiance of Western economic sanctions and political pressures, it has re-emerged internationally as a more self-confident and assertive power, capable of standing up to the West to protect its core interests. With the US losing appetite for foreign military interventions and wanting to focus on domestic priorities and Europe debilitated by the euro crisis, slow economic growth, the refugee crisis and Brexit, Putin's Russia has begun to loom larger than life internationally. The Russian president is being seen as a master geostrategist, a ruthless leader who has outsmarted the Western world, one who has manipulated the US election process to facilitate a Trump win and will do so again in the German elections to control the result. India does not have to take such a melodramatic view of Putin's Russia to persuade itself that it must pay greater attention to a traditionally close partner.

Russia remains our biggest defence partner. A close defence relationship with any country is based on trust, which, in this sensitive area, takes time to build. A critical issue is whether in a conflict situation there is risk of interruption in supplies for political reasons. Russia has been a reliable partner in this regard. Russia is the only country currently building nuclear power plants in India and more will follow. Our participation in Russia's oil and gas resources has begun to expand. Unfortunately, the low level of bilateral trade detracts from the depth of our strategic ties and this problem requires imaginative solutions. We have a shared interest in combating religious fundamentalism and terrorism. Lately, however, some distance is developing between India and Russia on the role of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan's role in promoting peace there and Russia's military overtures to Pakistan.

Notwithstanding some discordant notes emerging, strong ties with Russia are necessary for maintaining a balance in our foreign policy. While much unites us to the US today, much continues to unite us to Russia too. Our views on international governance, non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, respect for sovereignty, forcing democracy on others and using human rights as a political tool are closer to those of Russia than of the US. In the case of American policies in West Asia, on Iran and on the geopolitical use of Islam in some instances, our interests diverge from those of the US, whereas with Russia we have more common ground. This is not a question of aligning our policies with Russia as an opportune choice but adhering to our own world view. Our experience with Russia over several decades has served our national interest. A weakened post-Soviet Union Russia has, today, to contend with challenges from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; it has developed mutually supportive strategic understandings with China; its economy, which needs modernization, is under strain and so is its demography. Russia has to shape its policies in accordance with these realities, and India has to factor them in while defining its international action. In an uncertain and fluid international environment, the India-Russia relationship retains its core value for us. If we believe in preserving our strategic autonomy, we must have both the US and Russia as close partners and work with both countries on issues where our respective interests coincide without undermining the legitimate interests of either country. Our aspiration to be a leading power requires this.

The author is former foreign secretary of India sibalkanwal@gmail.com 

No comments: