India Eyes Privileged Partner Poll
Image Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

India Eyes Privileged Partner Poll


Indians will have been following today’s parliamentary elections in Russia more attentively than most Asian nations. The Indian-Russian partnership has remained surprisingly durable, despite all the changes since the end of the Cold War. India still acquires the bulk of its weapons from Russian arms sellers, while the two governments’ foreign policy goals aren’t normally in conflict and often coincide. For example, both worry about the potential of the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan after NATO troops leave the country in a few years. Indeed, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev now refers to their bilateral relationship as a “privileged strategic partnership.”

And certainly, the two countries do treat each other in special unique ways, nit least in the defense sector. Russia has, for example, sold India some weapons systems that it offers no other foreign clients. These sales and other defense cooperation have been institutionalized in the Russian-Indian Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation, which meets annually at the level of defense ministers. Russia is the only country with which India has such an institutionalized military cooperation mechanism at such a high level.  The commission, established in 2000, has two main working groups (on Military Technical Cooperation and Shipbuilding and on Aviation and Land Systems) and seven sub-groups, and it generally supervises implementation of the ten-year umbrella intergovernmental agreements on military and technical cooperation.

Russian analysts have seen India as an important element in the multipolar world order that they hope to promote, with Russia, China, and Brazil – the other members of the “BRIC” also helping to balance the power of the United States and its European and Asian allies. Yet, just as Indian leaders have made clear their unwillingness to align with the United States against China, so they are determined to avoid siding with Moscow against Washington.

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Still, Russian officials are in a more favorable position than their U.S. counterparts regarding counter-terrorism cooperation with India. American policy makers have long confronted the difficult balancing act of improving security ties with India while simultaneously sustaining good bilateral relations with Pakistan. The Obama administration, like its predecessors, needs Pakistani government support to counter Islamist extremists based in northwest Pakistan. In contrast, the Russian government can more openly side with New Delhi due to its limited ties with Islamabad. Russia refuses to sell weapons to Pakistan out of deference to Indian sensibilities.

On the other hand, U.S. officials are better positioned to induce the Pakistani government to crack down on anti-Indian terrorist groups based in Pakistan. Due to its good relations with both governments, moreover, Washington is best placed to achieve a settlement to the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. The Obama administration identified promoting an Indian-Pakistan reconciliation as an important objective for reorienting Pakistani security efforts toward combating terrorism. Russian policy makers, having less influence in Pakistan, find it harder to mediate between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Economic ties are another relatively weak foundation of their partnership. Both governments want to expand Russian-Indian economic ties, which have decreased as a percentage of their overall foreign trade since the Cold War. Bilateral trade amounted to only $7.5 billion in 2010. In contrast, Russia’s annual trade with China is now around $60 billion. India’s main imports from Russia consist of weaponry, machinery, chemicals and metals.

Similarly, the level of direct investment in each other’s economies is also low. India’s $4 billion of investments in Russia is heavily concentrated in the hydrocarbon sector. Indian’s ONGC Videsh Ltd., the overseas arm of state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd, has a 20 percent stake in the Sakhalin-1 project off Russia’s Pacific coast.  Sun Pharmaceutical Industries, based in Mumbai, is another large Indian investor in Russia. The AFK ‘Sistema” conglomerate is the largest Russian investor in India. It provides mobile telephone services to Indians.

During Medvedev’s 2008 visit to India, the two governments agreed to cooperate more on the exploration of outer space. Russia committed to launching an Indian astronaut into space in 2013 on one of its own craft, as well as to provide technical and other support to enable India to launch its own manned spacecraft in 2015.  Indian policy makers are hoping that scientific ties with Russia will enable India to enhance its own space technologies, which also have diverse military applications, including regarding ballistic missiles and space-based reconnaissance and communications.

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