Script: Rajorshi Roy, Research Analyst , MP-IDSA
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently held a productive telephonic conversation with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin. The key focus of discussions revolved around tackling the evolving COVID-19 situation in India with President Putin offering Russia’s fullest support in this moment of crisis.
The two leaders also took stock of the India-Russia bilateral relationship by reaffirming their commitment to strengthen their partnership. Two vital areas of collaboration were highlighted. These involved the space sector, where Russia recently trained four Indian astronauts as part of India’s “Gaganyaan” programme, and renewable energy comprising the hydrogen economy.
A key takeaway of the discussions was the decision to hold a 2+2 dialogue between Indian and Russian Foreign and Defence Ministers.
Two planes from Russia have also arrived in New Delhi, carrying emergency medical equipment. Russia’s timely support was acknowledged by Prime Minister Modi who termed the gesture as a symbol of the “enduring” India-Russia partnership.
Historically, India and Russia have shared a robust multi-faceted and multi-dimensional strategic partnership. However, the conditions that welded them together in the past have fundamentally changed. Their existing multi-vectored foreign policies, given the erosion of exclusivity of their ties and their deteriorating external environment, have at times complicated their bilateral ties. This is reflected in Russia’s entente with China and growing engagement with Pakistan, which have the potential to alter India’s strategic matrix.
Similarly, India’s qualitative improvement in ties with the U.S. has taken place against the backdrop of growing confrontation between the US and Russia. These developments have led to the fear of dilution of either nation’s strategic empathy towards each other. As a result, the “special and privileged” Indo-Russian strategic partnership stands at a key inflexion point.
Nevertheless, a strong bilateral partnership continues to be mutually beneficial, given their shared strategic interests across an extensive canvas. This is particularly relevant in a post-pandemic world marked by the sharp accentuation of geo-political and geo-economic contestations and the weakening of globalisation and multilateralism. This turbulence could be navigated given that New Delhi and Moscow appear to be on the same page on several of these issues.
Their decision to hold an annual 2+2 dialogue is a reflection of these realities. This joint political-military engagement is expected to run out the existing wrinkles and add more pillars to bilateral ties beyond the traditional defence and energy sectors. The dialogue is also a statement of intent from both New Delhi and Moscow of desire to maintain their strategic autonomy despite attempts by other strategic partners to dilute the India-Russia relationship.
Today, India and Russia have a shared interest in tackling the pandemic which is arguably the biggest challenge the world has witnessed in a century. Health diplomacy could emerge as a new vector in bilateral ties – a fact acknowledged by the two leaders.
With vaccines offering a ray of hope in combating Covid-19, the decision to manufacture the Sputnik V vaccine in India would augment the efforts at scaling up the vaccination programme not just in India but also in other countries.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of reliable and resilient supply chains. With Russia being one of the world’s biggest repositories of natural resources, resource diplomacy could provide a new dimension to bilateral ties.
In fact, Russia’s geography, bordering India’s extended neighbourhood, is likely to ensure that Russia will continue to influence India’s northern strategic calculus. Notably, despite its diminished heft, Russia still remains relevant on the global stage marked by its weapons, nuclear and natural resources arsenal, UNSC membership, and experience of great power diplomacy to shape the international order.
This relationship has served both countries well with ties continuing to be relevant. With a broad consensus across their political spectrums to maintain their durable ties, a post-pandemic world offers opportunities to recalibrate the relationship in sync with the changing needs of the time.