The indefatigable Foreign Minister S Jaishankar who never seems to sit still, was in Moscow and held a meeting on trade, economic relations and related issues. But the meat that everyone is looking at is whether as part of the outcome, India’s supposed influence can avert further tragedy in Ukraine.
While there is certainly much more to the relationship than a dangerous European war, the relationship itself is directly or indirectly linked to Russia’s Ukraine debacle. Jaishankar's role was tough— to please not just his government but also taking into account others watching from the sidelines.
Russia’s India Outreach
The Russian side has been playing up the friendship as 'Druzba Dosti' on social media, which was trolled immediately by the Russian haters. The Foreign Minister, meanwhile, issues statements on the Indian connection prior to the visit, declaring that "Russia and India stand for the active formation of a more just and equal polycentric world order, and proceed from the inadmissibility of promoting the imperialist diktat on the global arena," and of course, not mentioning Ukraine at all.
The Ministry of External Affairs in India would have blanched at that language. Jaishankar’s remarks in a meeting with this counterpart indicated significant warmth in an “exceptionally steady and time-tested relationship” noted a ‘multi-polar world’ but also remarked on the dire consequences of the Ukraine conflict.
How G2G Forum Furthers Bilateral Trade and Business
While Jaishankar praised the series of recent bilateral visits, the truth is, this is the first formal visit since the war began. The visit itself is about the meeting of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC).
This is the primary ‘G2G‘ platform while the heavily named— the Indo-Russian Forum for Trade & Investment and the India-Russia CEO’s Council have evolved into platforms for facilitating direct B2B interactions between the two countries.
Oil Price Rise and Impact On India
All this was formed with Russia seen as a ‘major’ trade partner with a volume of USD 8.9 billion in 2011. It has now crossed USD 18 billion which is not necessarily a good thing since the rise is due to the import of desperately needed oil and fertilizers, with its share of oil rising from a mere one per cent in February to 21 per cent in September. That’s about 100,000 bpd .
Europe takes a million barrels per day. That's the statistics that powers Jaishankar’s arguments. Besides, it’s the refiners who buy from the international market, when and wherever it's cheap.
If Russia raises its prices, these refineries will go elsewhere. It's that simple. But there are shoals ahead. Reports indicate that the pulling out of western insurance companies for oil cargoes has led to a stand off where Russia's largest shipping company— Sovcomflot is not being accepted as an alternative.
This could hit Indian refineries as well. In addition, the exit of US firm Exxon, means that the India-owned 21 per cent stake in the project is halted. Then, there’s India’s recently increased stakes in Eastern Siberian oil which goes to ports such as Vadinar, Sikka, Paradip and Mundra, where private firms like Reliance Industries Ltd and Nayara Energy Ltd operate plants. The stakes are big, and there’s no doubt. Ukraine may mean cheap oil for the time being but there are dangerous costs involved as the sanctions bite.
SCO and the Rise of China
Russia’s primary vehicle to regain some of its lost influence in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This began with Russia’s ‘turn to the East’ in 1996, which lead initially to the formation of the ‘Shanghai Five’ (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan); Putin’s own ‘pivot’ turned this into the SCO, with, however, one important difference. By late 2000s, Russia was hardly in the driver's seat.
China had taken that position. It is here that India’s ‘balancing’ role becomes vital. But the SCO as an organisation has no common security outlook, in fact, there is apprehension about China’s rise.
Neither is there any real economic space. Uzbekistan for instance, is hardly an equal to massive China. Again, as India takes the chair of the organisation, it will want to empower trade ties, particularly through the International North South Trade Corridor, so that it doesn’t become a ‘China market space’.
But the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) is meant to take goods to Europe, which is the real market. Now that’s cut off. There is the ‘Chennai-Vladivostok’ corridor, which is Russia-specific . It’s a challenge, despite a partially convertible rupee, but it’s the only way to make up a rising trade deficit that’s beginning to worry policymakers.
The Taliban Factor in Russia-Afghanistan Ties
Russia has a far more solid relationship with the Taliban, giving them a virtual recognition after the visit of Taliban officials to Moscow. Russia doesn’t talk women’s rights, but does stress ‘ethnic balance’ ( read more rights to Uzbeks and Tajiks) which is certainly not happening now. In fact, Taliban commanders from these groups are being targeted and replaced, leading to the possibility of another round of fighting.
An uneasy border is the worst possible option for Russia, so it looks for cooperation from China and India to persuade Kabul and Kandahar towards stabilisation.
India and Russia are accustomed to working together in this. China is another matter. India also has its own ‘Central Asian summits’ – the former Soviet space to work towards this, as well as trade and connectivity.
India-Russia Space Cooperation Strategy
For India, this remains the big-ticket issue, and the least spoken about. The construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) is a unique bilateral example, with this continuing to expand. Then there’s the Gaganyaan project— a high profile project for an Indian space station, where four Indians trained in Russia, with this to come to fruition in 2023. Meanwhile, Russia is disassociating itself with the US-backed International Space Mission, even as it woos other Asian states on board.
ISRO and ROSCOSMOS have identified crucial areas for collaboration on this mission. In defence, while Indian imports of Russian equipment has reduced from 67% in 2012-17 to 46% in 2017-21, this has not reduced dependency, at a time when it is vital to remain on our toes along the China border in particular.
Deployment, spares and training manuals will take years to shift, especially with commitments to the S-400 and new submarines. True, Russian equipment in Ukraine has taken a beating but that’s not the real problem. The key issue is that the Ukraine war has cut off Russian access to Western technology and key components. That’s not going to do them any good; or us either.
So, here’s the issue. A key problem for increasing Russia-India relations is Ukraine. True, the large contingent of ministers who went with Jaishankar in such fields (as Mr Jaishankar was accompanied by senior officials from seven Ministries, including Commerce and Industry, Agriculture, Ports and Shipping and Chemicals and Fertilizers), shows a range of interests other than the traditional areas.
It's also true that an exit of European and US big business means that there are deals to be made, which were otherwise not available. Perhaps, neither would cheap oil be available. But there is a global effect India cannot escape, and the strong need for global investment, especially since we don’t want Chinese money. Russia has little to invest.
India To Play a Key Mediator in Russia-Ukraine Conflict
So while the Ukraine issue largely only got a lateral reference in the pressers, Jaishankar clearly laid out the Indian position and called for full support of any negotiation to ‘de-risk’ the conflict. Any mediatory move would be extremely silent, but it is highly likely that Delhi has asked Moscow to begin negotiations, at the same time as President Zelensky also seems to have been pushed in the same direction.
Any formal negotiations is unlikely to have an Indian presence. But as a quiet influencer, Delhi is hard to beat. Unlike China, it has no covert ambitions to dominate the Russian space, or poach on its territory. That’s what constitutes a full hand in diplomacy. Lots of good will and no hidden agenda.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)