The summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be their third meeting since the beginning of the year. The two leaders seem to have established good personal chemistry, which helps them resolutely address the sticking points in the bilateral cooperation. For two reasons this summit looks more promising than the previous ones.
Firstly, while in Sochi the Russian president and Indian prime minister held informal and ‘agenda-less’ discussion, the upcoming meeting bids fair to be chock-full of talking points. In addition to global issues having prevailed during talks in Sochi, summit in New Delhi will probably pave the way for pushing areas of bilateral cooperation.
Secondly, this time, due to ‘formal’ format of talks, the agenda includes signing several deals, which have been negotiated for the last two-three years.
When it comes to Indo-Russian relations, the first and foremost avenue of cooperation is defence.
There are at least four deals on the table: The most ‘significant transaction’ – acquisition of S-400 SAM, four Krivak/Talwar frigates, 48 Mi-17 helicopters, 200 Ka-226 helicopters, and probably some other projects.
Ironically, the negotiations have come to a conclusion at a tricky time when Russian main military exporter “Rosoboronexport” already suffers from US sanctions and the well-known Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is threatening India with secondary sanctions.
Whatever decision US President Donald Trump is to make, Russia and India will have to secure trade routes in currencies different from the US dollar. It does not matter if it will be Rupee-Ruble exchange or settlements in Singapore dollar, the trade between the two sides will require a creative approach. After all, sanctions pose not only a challenge, but give a chance to find common ground. Thus, mutual condemnation of restrictive approach of the US may well be present in the joint statement.
A new narrative in the defence cooperation is expected to appear during the leaders’ meeting. According to a report by The Hindu, the two sides are slated to sign a logistics agreement. India has already concluded such agreements with the US, France, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. Being an old defence partner, Moscow might surely be helpful to New Delhi.
An interesting question is whether this would lead to the more robust presence of the Russian navy in the Indian Ocean. In the light of Russian interests in several energy projects in the region, the prerequisites for such development do indeed exist.
Energy will undoubtedly be an integral part of the talks between Modi and Putin. Considerable progress in this sector has been achieved for the last couple of years as energy cooperation between the two states has gained momentum. Russia remains the only country constructing nuclear plants in India.
With two units of Kudankulam nuclear power station successfully working and two more being under construction, Moscow and New Delhi are discussing another site for a new Russian nuclear plant. Besides, an overview of joint work in Bangladesh, where Russia and India collaborate in building a first nuclear plant for the country “Roopur”, is likely to figure in the leaders’ discussion as well.
Apart from nuclear energy, Russia is emerging as one of the gas suppliers for India. The first shipment of LNG from Russian Yamal was delivered to India in June this year and the supplies, according to the contract between Gazprom and GAIL, will be taking place for 20 years.
Several energy projects are still to be discussed. Last week Russia and Pakistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding for building a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and Moscow, according to Russian Deputy Minister of Energy Anatoly Yankovsky, Russia seeks to reach the same agreement with India.
Energy sphere is an example of two-way cooperation between New Delhi and Moscow. Indian oil companies are regular investors in Russian energy sector having stakes in several projects in the Arctic and the Far East regions. According to The Economic Times, one of the new deals that may be concluded during the summit is further investment to Vankor cluster on the part of Indian hydrocarbon firms .
Space is about to re-emerge as an important track of bilateral interaction. Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos offers India partnership in the area of manned space programs. According to Tass, Russia could provide training for the first Indian cosmonauts and send them to the International Space Station (ISS) on board of a Russian spacecraft.
Obviously, it will go in line with Indian ‘Gaganyaan’ space mission announced by Prime Minister Modi in his Independence Day speech. Apart from that, according to the Roscosmos’ CEO Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow is ready to collaborate in such areas as remote sensing of the Earth, spacecraft-building and engine-building, reported Tass.
Apparently, Russia will have to face competition as Indian Space Research Organisation has been enjoying successful cooperation with its American and European partners. However, interaction with Russia in some projects could possibly be complementary.
An intriguing part of the summit is whether mutual projects in connectivity will be brought up.
Potentially the International North-South Transport Corridor could become a breakthrough for the bilateral trade. Yet, due to a large number of participants, this project suffers from long bureaucratic delays and its implementation is still lagging behind.
During the previous summits Indian and Russian leaders routinely reiterated their commitment to the INSTC, but, apparently, the solution to project realisation impediments should be found neither in New Delhi, nor in Moscow.
According to a report by The Economic Times, the talks on a new corridor connecting Russia-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman-India may be launched at the Indo-Russian bilateral summit. The project is said to be complementary to the INSTC, Ashgabat agreement and India’ involvement in Chabahar Port.
All these projects remain promising and can significantly facilitate the trade in the vast Eurasian continent, though their operation is bound to take time.
Quest for New Drivers
As is seen, the three main spheres of India-Russia cooperation – defence, energy (especially, nuclear energy) and space, which is likely to be back on track – will no doubt underline the strategic nature of bilateral partnership. The only caveat is the capability of both sides to capitalise on their friendship.
The commercial benefits of the relationship remain limited. The long-lasting discussion on the necessity to infuse new energy in the bilateral ties is still relevant.
Moscow and New Delhi share a bunch of ideas on how to promote their strategic dialogue and bring in new avenues of economic cooperation. The two capitals would do well to create conditions for the private companies’ collaborations and industries-to-industries joint projects.
What will the Indo-Russian Business Summit scheduled to be held during President Putin’s visit bring is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the two sides should realise that the ‘good words and no deeds’ kind of events will neither boost bilateral trade nor bring about interconnection of two economies.
Last year’s bilateral summit between Russia and India which took place in Saint-Petersburg, marked the two states’ ‘vision for the 21st Century’. For a year that passed since that meeting, Moscow and New Delhi have managed to move forward, though the progress is visible only in traditional spheres of cooperation.
There are still little-to-no success stories in much promising areas like IT, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, super-computing technologies and nanotechnology. These are the spheres which are to define the evolution of human life in the 21st Century. If the Indo-Russian relationship claims to be truly strategic, the quest for new drivers should be given higher priority on the bilateral agenda.
Anyway, since the end of the century is a long distance away, India and Russia can take their time to fully realise what was planned.
(The author, Aleksei Zakharov, is a visiting fellow at the New Delhi based Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)