Nandan Unnikrishnan, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation
Nandan Unnikrishnan, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

With what queries Modi came to Russia

May 27, 2017
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived in Russia on a dual goal mission – summit talks with President Vladimir Putin and participation in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF).

Mr. Modi will be seeking to deliver the twin messages that Russia continues to be an important strategic friend for India and that re-energising bilateral economic ties is vital to deepening this partnership. He will particularly stress the need for Russia to get deeply involved in India’s developmental plans through the “Make in India” programme.

While the economic content may appear to dominate the visit, particularly since it coincides with SPIEF, the summit is likely to be frontloaded with political and strategic issues.

Primary among the political issues is likely to be an intense discussion on Afghanistan. India and Russia have for long held similar views on the situation in Afghanistan and agree on the need to have a stable and neutral regime in the country. However, recent media reports suggest that some daylight may have appeared between the positions of the two countries. An analysis of the reports suggest that these differences are more tactical in nature rather than strategic – the extent of engagement with the Taliban and the assessment of the current level of threat from ISIS in Afghanistan.

But, the situation is complicated by Russia’s burgeoning relationship with Pakistan, which backs the Taliban and the apparent emergence of great power rivalry between Russia and the United States. India will be keen to hear Russia’s views on its improving ties with Pakistan. There appears to be a view among Russian officials that it is essential to develop a modicum of leverage in Islamabad to effectively tackle the Afghan imbroglio. India will also be keen to stress that it believes that a solution to the Afghan problem is unlikely to emerge if measures are adopted to keep the United States out of such efforts.

Also, likely to figure in the discussions is the situation in the Middle East (or as the Russians call it the Near East). The situation in Syria, Yemen and the Saudi-Iran rivalry are likely to figure prominently in the discussions. India is directly affected by any turmoil in the region in multiple ways. First, India is one of the worst victims of terrorism and instability in the region tends to give rise to extremist activity. Second, it has nearly six million Indians earning a livelihood in the region, who contribute large amounts of money to the Indian economy. Third, it receives substantial energy inputs from the Middle East. Fourth, with a large Muslim population India would not want any internal Muslim rivalries to destabilise communal situation in the country.

The two sides will also exchange views on several important developments in the world as well as discuss cooperation in multilateral forums. India and Russia are members of the UN and related bodies, such as G-20, BRICS, and SCO to name a few.

A significant way to measure the levels of trust between India and Russia would be to see if the two sides have a frank discussion about their relations with China. Russia’s closeness to China is causing some concern in India, particularly in the context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A frank discussion is also necessary in order to establish if the Russia-India-China (RIC) forum could become a significant factor in influencing the evolving new order in Asia and the world. Similarly, Russia would probably like clarity about India’s growing ties with the United States.

In the modern age, despite the backlash against some aspects of globalisation, it will be important to develop a solid economic foundation to sustain a long-term strategic partnership. Therefore, Russia’s sensitivity to India’s development challenges will go a long way in nurturing bilateral ties. And Modi seems to have a novel way of using Russia’s strength – military industrial complex – to deal with the weakness in bilateral economic ties.

The project to construct 200-odd Kamov helicopters in India in collaboration with Indian public and private sector companies highlights this approach. Some agreements related to this project are expected to be singed during the current visit. Probably the two sides will agree to set up a joint venture for the production of these helicopters. There are reports that similar efforts are being made in shipbuilding.

The second important item on the list is cooperation in energy, particularly, civilian nuclear energy. It is widely expected that India may offer Russia a new site for construction of a nuclear power plant. It is speculated that the site is likely to be in Andhra Pradesh and will be home to six reactors. It is expected that an agreement for two more reactors in Kudankulam will be signed during the visit.

Aiming to improve economic ties, Modi is taking a very high-powered Indian business delegation. Several leading private industrialists – Shobana Kamineni, Kallam Satish Reddy, Shiv Khemka, Hemant Kanoira, Baba Kalyani, and others – are among the delegation, which also includes leading public sector organisations – State Bank of India (SBI), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indianoil, Oil India, ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Canara Bank, etc.

Bilateral trade has been abysmally low considering the potential and is not commensurate with the level of political and strategic ties. There are several areas in which potential synergies exist – energy, pharmaceuticals, agro-industries, and infrastructure development. Some progress exists, but more needs to be done. There is also a proposal to set up an FTA between India and the Eurasian Economic Union to bolster economic relations.

The expected military and nuclear energy deals underscore the importance cooperation in these spheres has acquired in maintaining the strategic nature of Indo-Russian ties.

Another area that holds rich potential is collaboration in science and technology. Cooperation in Outer Space and nanotechnologies are some of the directions for future cooperation. Last, but not least, there is a need to encourage academic interactions and people-to-people contacts.

Therefore, Modi has a wide range of issues to discuss with Putin in his hometown – St. Petersburg. It is imperative that the two leaders find imaginative ways to revitalise this relationship at a time when the world is beset with uncertainty.

Nandan Unnikrishnan, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.