Coming of age: the 21st India-Russia Summit

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Coming of age: the 21st India-Russia Summit

Sunday, 05 December 2021 | Asoke Mukerji

Coming of age: the 21st India-Russia Summit

Both India and Russia seek a multi-polar world, where “no single country is able to impose its will through domination or through military force”. This will be the key takeaway of the 21st India-Russia Summit scheduled to be held on December 6, writes Asoke Mukerji

The 21st bilateral India-Russia Summit scheduled for December 6, 2021 marks the coming of age of the special and strategic privileged partnership between the two countries. This will be President Vladimir Putin’s second foreign visit after the onset of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, and his first to any country in Asia, signaling the salience and resilience of the India-Russia strategic partnership. The annual summit mechanism, proposed by Russia’s President during his first official visit to India in October 2000, has vindicated its role in steering the India-Russia strategic partnership through the momentous changes of the past two decades.


The 2019 India-Russia Summit at Vladivostok charted innovative approaches to sustain and broaden India-Russia relations. These included the long-term participation of both countries in each other’s strategic sectors such as defence, energy, and technology. The resource-rich Russian Far East was added as a new dimension for trade and economic cooperation between enterprises of India’s constituent states and Russia’s eastern regions, pushing cooperation in Asia as the new frontier of India-Russia relations. A $1 billion Indian line of credit was earmarked to implement this initiative, which would be sustained by a new maritime link between Vladivostok and Chennai through the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The Covid pandemic

The unexpected Covid pandemic created a barrier to the smooth implementation of these objectives, leading to the postponement of the 2020 India-Russia Summit. Despite this setback, the close personal interaction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Putin, who have met 19 times since 2014, bridged the physical gap by using digital communications technologies to maintain the momentum, trust, and dialogue that are the hallmarks of India-Russia strategic relations.

A phone conversation on March 25, 2020 between the two leaders resulted in an agreement on ways to maintain the progress and warmth of bilateral relations. A joint response to the pandemic began in April 2020, when India lifted its ban on export of medicines to Russia to mitigate Covid. By mid-2020, the Gamaleya Research Institute of Russia developed the Sputnik-V human adenovirus vector platform vaccine against Covid. In April 2021, after clinical trials in India, the Sputnik-V vaccine joined Covishield and Covaxin on the list of vaccines registered for emergency use in India. In May 2021, joint manufacturing of the Sputnik-V vaccine in India through the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) was initiated, adding to the pool of Indian manufactured vaccines against Covid for domestic and international use in third countries.

Defence and Foreign Policy Dialogue

President Putin and Prime Minister Modi agreed in a telephone conversation on April 28, 2021 to institutionalise a 2+2 Ministerial India-Russia Dialogue on foreign and defence cooperation to anchor the bilateral strategic partnership.The first India-Russia 2+2 Dialogue is expected to take place on the margins of the 21st Summit,

The ferocious border confrontation between India and China in May 2020 at Galwan caused another challenge for India-Russia relations, as Russia was chairing the trilateral Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping in 2020. However, by participating in the RIC videoconference meeting of foreign ministers on June 23, 2020, and subsequently in a physical ministerial meeting in Moscow on September 10, 2020, Indian and Chinese foreign ministers were able to hold a bilateral “frank and constructive discussion” and agree on the need for new confidence-building measures. India has acknowledged its appreciation for Russia’s regular arms supplies to India for Russian origin defence equipment during this period.

The focus on long-term India-Russia defence cooperation benefited from regular interaction between India’s Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh and Russian Defence Minister General Sergei Shoigu during the past two years. The Raksha Mantri participated in the events in Moscow marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on June 24, 2020, and interacted bilaterally with his Russian counterpart during his visit to Moscow for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Defence Ministers meeting on September 3, 2020, and the SCO Defence Ministers meeting in Tajikistan on July 28, 2021.

The outcome of this interaction includes the first manufacturing joint venture between India and Russia with transfer of technology for about 600,000 world-class AK-203 Kalashnikov rifles at the Korwa Ordnance Factory in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. Other outcomes include the manufacture and co-production of four Project 1135.6 naval Frigates; the supply of 400 more T-90 tanks; additional supplies of Su-30 MKI, as well as the MiG-29 aircraft; and additional supplies of the MANGO ammunition & VSHORAD systems. The supply of the first unit of the S-400 air defence systems from Russia to India contracted in 2018 is to be completed by the end of 2021. India and Russia are expected to sign an agreement on reciprocal logistic support for each other’s armed forces that come for exercises in either country.

The current value of India-Russia defence contracts is between $9-10 billion, making Russia a top defence partner of India. By participating in the Make in India programme, Russia has committed to the transfer of defence technologies to India that it does not share with other countries, while Russian investments in Indian defence production will generate employment and boost defence exports. This approach mirrors India’s investments in Russia’s defence manufacturing sector two decades ago, which resulted in the supply of technologically advanced equipment for all three services of India’s armed forces, including the BrahMos missile system. The Summit is expected to extend the mandate of the India-Russia Military Technical Cooperation platform chaired by the two Defence Ministers by ten years to 2031.

A similar process of regular interaction between India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has enabled the India-Russia strategic partnership to respond in a calibrated manner to international challenges. Besides the RIC meeting of 2020, India’s foreign minister has visited Moscow for the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting in September 2020 and for a bilateral visit in July 2021, while the Russian foreign minister visited India in April 2021. The two ministers have interacted in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) framework twice through videoconferencing during Russia’s chairmanship in 2020, and once in 2021 under India’s chairmanship.

This interaction has been buttressed by consultations on India-Russia engagement on bilateral, regional, and multilateral issues. Experts from both sides met in December 2020 to coordinate views on issues on the UN Security Council (UNSC) agenda, while discussions on the 21st Summit were held at foreign secretary level in Moscow in February 2021.The convergence of Indian and Russian positions in the UNSC on Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, the UNSC Taliban sanctions regime, and UN peacekeeping operations during 2021 reflect the outcome of this cooperation.

Maritime Security and Connectivity

The strategic rapport between the top leaders of India and Russia was on international display on August 9, 2021, when Prime Minister Modi chaired a special meeting of the UNSC on maritime security. President Putin was the only Head of State of a UNSC permanent member who spoke at this meeting, which endorsed a holistic approach to maritime security.

Russia’s proposal in August 2019 to establish “a security and cooperation organisation in the Gulf” has assumed a deeper significance for the India-Russia strategic partnership in 2021. Apart from its impact on stability in the Gulf region including Iran, such a regional structure can generate confidence in two major connectivity projects that India and Russia have pursued in recent years — the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) linking Russia through Iran with India proposed in 2000, and the Chabahar project linking India, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Russia proposed in 2016.

Greater regional cooperation in the western Indian Ocean will provide stability for the free flow of navigation along two major sea lanes of communication through the Red Sea and Yemen, and through the Straits of Hormuz. These routes transport a significant volume of India’s international trade, energy imports and international digital traffic.

A similar holistic approach to maritime security will sustain the Eastern Maritime Corridor proposed by the India-Russia Summit in 2019 to link Russia and India through the Pacific and Indian Oceans as part of India’s Act Far East policy.The first steps to modernise the port infrastructure of Chennai and Vladivostok have been initiated during the past six months. Eventually, the Eastern Maritime Corridor will connect India to ports in the Arctic.

India has emphasized the “centrality” of the ASEAN in any sustainable maritime security arrangement in the Indo-Pacific. The first-ever Russia-ASEAN naval exercises off Sumatra in early December 2021 demonstrates a similar emphasis on ASEAN-centrality, leading to India-Russia convergence in the maritime domain.

Afghanistan and countering terrorism

President Putin and Prime Minister Modi held a telephonic conversation on August 28, 2021 on the unexpected takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban disregarding calls for an “inclusive” government. The leaders agreed to cooperate in countering the common threats emanating from Afghanistan, such as terrorism, drug trafficking and the impact on Central Asian security. This objective has been integrated into the India-Russia strategic partnership by the first meeting of the India-Russia High Level Mechanism on Afghanistan on September 8, 2021, India’s official participation in the Moscow format talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on October 20, 2021, and Russia’s participation at the National Security Advisers Conference on Afghanistan hosted by India on November 10-11, 2021, in which Iran and the five Central Asian states participated, but Pakistan and China did not.

 Energy, Technology, Trade

The primary driver of the India-Russia strategic partnership is its contribution to the transformation of the two countries in the 21st century. Bilateral cooperation in energy, technology, and trade to achieve this objective is a priority for both countries. The Summit is expected to endorse three energy cooperation projects, viz. investments by ONGC-Videsh, Indian Oil and Oil India into Russia’s Rosneft owned Vostok which has an estimated reserve of about 6 billion tonnes of crude oil; potential Indian investment into the Arctic LNG-2 gas field in Siberia which has 461 billion cubic metres of natural gas; and possible Russian investment into the Paradip cracker plant in Odisha, which will open a new avenue of cooperation in petrochemicals.

Nuclear energy, with its strong linkage with international security, plays a big role in India’s energy security framework. Today, Russia is the only major nuclear power partnering India after the historic 2008 waiver given by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India’s largest nuclear power plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu is an India-Russia project for six nuclear power reactors of 1000W each, of which two units came on stream in 2017, two more are expected to be operational in 2027, and construction of the fifth and sixth units was begun on 29 June 2021.

Three areas with a strong technological imprint, viz. cooperation in outer space, the digital economy, and the Blue Economy, are expected to transform the contribution of India-Russia scientific and technological collaboration to the strategic partnership. Space cooperation has built upon on existing satellite launches, the GLONASS navigation system, and cooperation in training India’s astronauts in Russia for India’s first manned space mission (Gaganyaan) due to be launched in late 2022 or early 2023. Digital cooperation is spearheaded by youth-driven digital innovation involving India’s Atal Innovation Mission and Russia’s Sirius, and encompasses areas such as additive manufacturing, 3D printing, blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, and Big Data Analytics. Cooperation in the Blue Economy, as part of India’s SAGAR Indian Ocean policy, will look at deep sea research and shipbuilding. The Summit is expected to agree to establish a Joint Commission on Science and Technology.

The 2019 Vladivostok Summit’s target of reaching $30 billion two-way trade by 2025 has been set back by the unexpected contraction of the economies of both countries due to the Covid pandemic. In the financial year ending March 2021, two-way trade was valued at $9.31 billion, with Russian exports to India accounting for $5.83 billion and Indian exports to Russia $3.48 billion, mostly the result of public sector led trade. Despite a growth of about 30% in the first six months of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020, the Summit will need to find ways to significantly increase private sector participation from both countries in trade and investment relations, including through greater financial sector cooperation.

People to People

On 22 January 2020, India hosted the first Ganga-Volga Dialogue, an idea that emanated from discussions between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi.The Dialogue touched upon four broad themes in the context of India-Russia bilateral cooperation; viz. education, culture, and civilisation; entrepreneurship and innovation; trade routes including inland navigation; and India, Russia and Greater Eurasia. The Summit’s endorsement of this initiative will be a major impulse to encourage greater people-to-people interaction and sustain their strategic partnership.

The way ahead

On 8 July 2021, speaking at the prestigious Primakov Institute in Moscow, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar identified “geo-political compatibility, leadership trust and popular sentiment” as the key drivers of the India-Russia special and privileged strategic partnership. Both India and Russia seek a multi-polar world, where “no single country is able to impose its will through domination or through military force.” This will be the key takeaway of the 21st India-Russia Summit.

The author was India’s Ambassador to the United Nations (2013-2015) and India’s Deputy Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2001-2005). He is a Distinguished Fellow of the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi


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