President Medvedev’s Visit to India: Fresh Directions for Indo-Russian Partnership in the 21st Century


By Smita Purushottam

President Medvedev arrives in India to what is assuredly a warm welcome. Most Indians have fond memories of the Soviet Union’s support for India at critical moments in its history. The Soviet Union/ Russia also played an invaluable role in strengthening India’s capabilities in the nuclear, space, defence and industrial sectors – and therefore ultimately in safeguarding Indian Security.

In addition to the historic role the Soviet Union played in supporting India during the Bangladesh crisis, Russia refused to participate in sanctions against India following India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Instead, it signed a ten-year agreement on military and technological cooperation in the same year, signalling that it would maintain its relationship with India despite the chorus of international disapproval against India’s nuclear tests. It also announced its decision to supply the Kudankulam nuclear reactors in 1998 even though a pedantic application of NSG rules could have ruled this out.

The strategic partnership continues to this day, even though it is largely unsung and uncelebrated. Russian assistance to India’s strategic sectors continues and there is a basic strategic empathy between the two powers.

However, the geopolitical order has undergone dramatic transformations and new priorities have emerged on the strategic landscape of both countries. In response, India and Russia have both adopted “multi-vector diplomacy” in which pragmatic national interests feature prominently, with ideology decidedly taking a back seat.

Several game changing developments have taken place in Russia’s relations with the West, as Russia has sought Modernisation Partnerships by which it wishes to strengthen its economic and innovation base, and to which the West has responded. This has culminated in the US-Russia Reset, in ground breaking decisions at the Russia-NATO Council meeting at the Summit level, and various moves by EU member countries to strengthen their relations with Russia, the most interesting one being the Polish-Russia Reset! The only exception in Russian –“Western” rapprochement is Russia’s vexed relations with Japan.

But the truly revolutionary development is the Russia-NATO agreement at their Summit on November 20, 2010 that they no longer constitute a threat to each other and that NATO and Russian security is intertwined. They have also agreed to discuss pursuing missile defence cooperation.

Dmitry Trenin, Russian foreign policy expert and Director of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, had the following interesting assessment on these issues: “collaboration between the United States and Russia on missile defence… could really be a game-changer in the strategic relationship between the United States and Russia, even more so than the START agreements. From a strict, technological standpoint, cooperation on missile defence makes it impossible to regard the other party as a potential military adversary. Linking defences simply does away with the threat of a nuclear attack. If the two counties managed to collaborate on missile defence, it would make arms control irrelevant. Arms control only regulates enmity or residual enmity but strategic collaboration offers a new approach. Cooperation would be the functional equivalent of NATO membership for Russia. But there are immense difficulties in proceeding down this road….”1

Hints emanating from the Russian side that they would be willing to consider NATO membership were reported. The Director of the Foreign Policy Planning Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry Alexander Kramarenko was quoted by the reputed Nizavisimaya Gazyeta as stating that Russia would join NATO if an invitation was extended, as membership was open to countries sharing similar values and goals as the Alliance.

China was the elephant in the room. China’s rise has been accompanied by a strengthening of its relations with Russia (Russia forged a strong partnership with China while the West was busy increasing pressure on Russia). The opening of Russia’s first oil pipeline feeding the Chinese market concentrated European minds on the need to be more proactive and pragmatic vis-à-vis Russia.

It had been a staple of strategic/conservative thinking in the United States that it was imperative to maintain a delicate balance of power in Europe, forestall the re-emergence of Germany as a leading power, and impede alliances between major continental powers like Russia and Germany. American strategic thinking had also focused on the need to contain Russia and keep Eurasia divided, which was most succinctly elucidated by strategists like Henry Kissinger, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

The possibility of an autocratic and assertive China instead of Russia exercising sway over Eurasia, or of an “autocratic alliance” of the Heartland Eurasian States against the democracies of the West and East, to crudely interpret Robert Kagan, has turned geopolitical theories on their head.

It is interesting to speculate on China’s reaction to the recent NATO Russia Council agreement. Russia and China used to have the same position in opposing missile defences, and on NATO expansion. These two issues will gradually fade from the agenda if cooperation does go forward as envisaged.

This would raise the obvious question, what is NATO directed against? Is it threats to its South, as it proclaims in the context of missile defences, or threats further east? Drawing Russia into its orbit is thus a master stroke which at least balances, if it does not override, China’s gravitational pull on Russia.

But China’s increasing sway over Eurasia has implications not only for the geo-political balance, but also for India’s Eurasian options, unless India becomes more pro-active, for example by seeking out areas of strategic convergence with Russia in Eurasia. Since a strong Russia is in India’s interest, Russia’s partnerships with the advanced economies are to be welcomed. In Eurasia, a strong and democratic Russia can help to maintain peace and stability: Central Asia, the Pak-Af region, Iran, and in our immediate neighbourhood, where Russia has never sought to play a destabilising role. Russia can also help to further greater Indian engagement in the Eurasian region, from which India risks getting physically cut off, through the SCO, the India-Russia-China and other forums.

Following Russia’s tentative return to Afghanistan, India and Russia can collaborate in Afghanistan, Central Asia and even Pakistan (which Russia has involved in the Quad forum of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan which last met in Sochi), to forge energy, transportation, industrial, commercial, cultural and other linkages. Russia’s relations with Pakistan need not be perceived as a zero sum game and India should set aside its reservations on Russian-Pakistani engagement, to the extent that benighted country can be saved from itself, while remaining aware of developments in Russian-Pakistani relations.

Another area Russia and India can strengthen their cooperation is in developing the international North-South Corridor. Russia is also seeking an active role in the Pacific Rim – India should explore how it can strengthen cooperation with Russia’s Far East and with the littoral States along the Asian maritime highways.

India’s relationship with Russia is proceeding well, apart from bilateral trade and investment (trade volume is below eight billion dollars in 2009), and people-to-people contacts, which have dwindled drastically from the already low Soviet era levels. For such a vital relationship this is sub-optimal, to put it mildly.

It is necessary for India to explore new dimensions for the economic relationship. While it is learnt that a number of initiatives are being undertaken to provide momentum to the economic/ technological partnership, India would do well to introspect on the fact that it only imports equipment from advanced economies and is not exporting anything worthwhile to them, apart perhaps from automotive components, pharmaceuticals and other sundries. Our export basket is beginning to look decidedly out of date when compared to the Chinese export basket. This shows up key weaknesses in our economic structure.

India needs to modernize and update too. Russia is the only country which has transferred key strategic technologies to India. But neither of our countries has managed to diffuse key strategic technologies to civilian production and kick start economic growth through their application. The US, Japanese and Chinese models of civil military integration contain important lessons for the two countries. Russia is still very advanced in the nuclear energy, space and defence sectors and in nanotechnology. India possesses a vibrant entrepreneurial culture and a few world class companies. The two countries should look at a hi-tech partnership for the 21st century in new areas of the civilian economy. New and creative thinking needs to be undertaken in both countries to explore these possibilities to provide another pillar for our mutually beneficial cooperation. One obvious area for collaboration is Skolkovo, the innovation city outside Moscow and brainchild of President Medvedev which has Ratan Tata on its foundation council and Vivek Wadhwa as a contributor.

India also needs to take proactive measures to strengthen and catalyse people to people contacts, through encouraging Russian language studies, sending Indian students to learn science in Russia and guaranteeing that meritorious students will get employment on return, and by offering MBA scholarships to hundreds of young Russian students to study in India, as Russians need to learn how the market economy works. This would garner enormous goodwill and forge contacts with the new generation of talented young Russians.

This is a valuable relationship which has served India over the years despite difficult and evolving circumstances. India needs to make an extra effort to maintain it at the earlier high levels. If indeed we have a principled foreign policy, maintaining friendship with an old friend who may be going through relatively difficult times is the first principle of Friendship. After all, Russia has proven, in times of crisis for India, that it is a Friend in Need. We can reciprocate that by exploring new dimensions of friendship which in any case will be highly beneficial to India.

The views expressed are personal.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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