Earlier this month, India and Russia took stock of the bilateral relationship in a range of sectors, including civil nuclear, trade and investments.
By Harsh V. Pant
India and Russia will once again try to resuscitate a partnership which is badly in need of repair. It is often said that India and Russia share longstanding ties which are durable. The end of the Cold War has not been able to dent this relationship, but there are signs that this relationship needs some repair urgently.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Russia on 1 June for the annual India-Russia summit wherein he is expected to unveil, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ambitious vision document to outline the agenda for economic cooperation in the coming decades.
Earlier this month, the two nations took stock of the bilateral relationship in a range of sectors, including civil nuclear, trade and investments during the meeting of India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC), a key forum to address major issues concerning bilateral ties.
There is an urgent need to prioritise economic ties which have been going downhill for some time. Though the two nations have set a target for their bilateral trade of $30 billion (₹3,000 crore) by 2025, it was a measly $7.8 billion (₹780 crore) in 2015.
The two nations are yet to conclude the General Framework Agreement (GFA) for units 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam nuclear plant and two deadlines have been missed since last year. The pact is now likely to be signed during the 18th annual India-Russia summit next month. The much delayed International North South Transport Corridor will also be fast tracked in a fresh attempt to give a boost to regional connectivity.
It remains to be seen if this fresh attempt will be enough to alleviate political tensions in the India-Russia bilateral relationship.
There is concern in New Delhi at Moscow’s decision to side with China in ensuring that Pakistan does not get isolated globally. At the 2016 BRICS summit in Goa, Russia did not back India’s demand to name two Pakistan-based terror groups as perpetrators of terrorism against India, thereby shielding Pakistan from censure.
This shift in Russian stance is also evident in the role that it envisions for itself in Afghanistan, coming almost four decades after the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country. Russia hosted a February six-nation conference in Moscow on Afghanistan’s future with participation from India, Iran, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. This was Russia’s second initiative after the first trilateral conference in December, including only China and Pakistan.
The December conference agreed upon “a flexible approach to remove certain (Taliban) figures from (United Nations) sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”
The three states underscored their concern “about the rising activity in the country (Afghanistan) of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of ISIS (the Islamic State)” and underlined that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the global fight against the Islamic State.
Kabul and other partners like New Delhi were surprised, while the Taliban was ecstatic. “It is joyous to see that the regional countries have also understood that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a political and military force,” noted a statement issued on the Taliban’s behalf.
“The proposal forwarded in the Moscow tripartite of delisting members of the Islamic Emirate is a positive step forward in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.” So Moscow was more careful for the February meeting, broadening outreach by inviting India, Iran, Afghanistan and most regional stakeholders while pointedly excluding the United States and NATO.
It was left to Afghanistan to underscore American centrality in the country’s unfolding dynamic and to push for inclusion of the United States as one of its most important partners to “end war and usher in sustainable peace in Afghanistan.”
Vladimir Putin, intent on viewing South Asia through the prism of Russia’s geopolitical competition with the West, may have decided that the time was right for tilting towards Pakistan. The US-Pakistan ties may have hit their nadir and the Trump administration, expressing isolationist tendencies, remains consumed by multiple domestic crises.
The global arms market has become more difficult for Russia to navigate, with China deciding to produce its own weapons rather than procuring them from Russia.
Russia lifted an arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014 and will send four Mi-35M attack helicopters this year. Russian troops participated in this year’s Pakistan Day military parade. And the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar could be merged with the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.
This at a time when India became one of the few countries to boycott the One Belt One Road Summit organised by China earlier this month. It is through this turbulence that Modi will be hoping to navigate India-Russia ties when he meets Putin next month. Whether he will succeed, of course, remains far from clear.
This article originally appeared in Daily Mail.