In the recently released survey titled “The ORF Foreign Policy Survey 2021: Young India and the World”, Russia was listed the third amongst India’s most trusted major powers, behind only the US and Australia. The respondents, comprised of urban youth between the ages of 18-35, placed Russia at fourth position, behind the Quad countries, when asked who India’s leading partners in the coming decade would be.
This assessment of the former superpower underscores the long-term robust relationship that has endured since the Cold War period, having been upgraded to a ‘special and privileged partnership’ in the 21st century. The two sides enjoy a cordial political relationship and engage in close cooperation at various multilateral organisations such as BRICS, G20, and SCO. Russia has supported India on vexed issues such as Kashmir at the United Nations, and the latter too has called for a peaceful dialogue on Crimea while avoiding any criticism of Russian policy on the issue.
The two sides enjoy a cordial political relationship and engage in close cooperation at various multilateral organisations such as BRICS, G20, and SCO.
The bilateral trade has not kept pace with the level of political engagement, and stood at a paltry US $10.11 billion in 2019-20, but the two countries have set a target to reach US $30 billion by 2025. Arms trade remains a key pillar of the bilateral relationship, with more than 86 percent of India’s defence equipment being of Russian origin. Both countries cooperate on the joint manufacture of the ‘Brahmos’ missile system, the licensed production of SU-30 aircrafts and T-90 tanks in India and also plan to jointly manufacture AK-203 rifles, involving full technology transfer. Investments in the energy sector are another prominent area of cooperation.
Russia’s contemporary strategic relevance for India can be gauged from the fact that Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla’s first overseas trip outside South Asia during the ongoing coronavirus crisis was to Russia on 17-18 February 2021. The two countries held discussions on the upcoming annual summit to be held in India as well as matters related to combating the pandemic, bilateral trade, and high-tech cooperation. Apart from this, regional and international issues including Afghanistan and cooperation in multilateral fora (the UN, the UNSC, G20, BRICS, SCO, RIC, and EAEU) were also discussed
The strong relationship notwithstanding, Russia was placed after the Quad countries (the US, Australia, and Japan) in the youth survey, when looking at the policy scenario ten years down the line. As the survey reveals, the Indian youth are deeply concerned about the rise of China as a major power and see it as the biggest challenge—spanning economic, military, and strategic domains. The low level of trust in Beijing (77 percent distrust) also reflects their sceptical view of the trajectory that Sino-Indian relations will take, wherein 67 percent of youth believe it is unlikely to become India’s leading partner in the coming decade. The findings suggest that the youth value the QUAD in dealing with the rising Chinese power, with the US leading the trust ratings. The findings reflect external pressures on the India–Russia relationship, where the impact of a changing world order and their respective relations with the two major powers has become visible.
The two countries held discussions on the upcoming annual summit to be held in India as well as matters related to combating the pandemic, bilateral trade, and high-tech cooperation.
The revival of the QUAD has been a contentious matter between the two countries too. Even though the QUAD is not a military alliance, and its members see it as a means to advance cooperation on regional challenges, Russia has sharply criticised the grouping. It has labelled the Quad as being a part of a US-led ‘persistent, aggressive, and devious’ policy intended to ensnare India in its anti-China games’ and designed to undermine the close relationship between New Delhi and Moscow.
Russia opposes the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, which it says divides the region into blocs and erodes the centrality of ASEAN. Russia believes that the QUAD would be detrimental to inclusive dialogue and instead called for a broad ‘unified agenda’ for the region. The issue remains a continued area of divergence between the two strategic partners.
Even as India has grown closer to the US, Russia’s relations with the West have been steadily deteriorating since the 2014 Ukraine crisis. In the meantime, the former superpower has also strengthened its engagement with China, with the latter now its top trading partner. It is also reported that Russia and China aim to reach bilateral trade targets worth US $200 billion by 2024. Security and defence are other areas where Russia and China have been building close ties, with further expansion of military cooperation on the cards. The two countries’ shared hostility towards the US is also an important factor in the strengthening of this relationship.
Russia believes that the QUAD would be detrimental to inclusive dialogue and instead called for a broad ‘unified agenda’ for the region.
Russia has also bolstered ties with Pakistan, as it moves to leverage its influence in Afghanistan and protect its interests in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the Russian President’s Special Envoy, Zamir Kabulov recently noted that India has no influence in Afghanistan, ostensibly due to its lack of engagement with the Taliban.
Despite these challenges between India and Russia, the survey indicates a positive perception of the latter within the surveyed population. This can be attributed to the long-term stability in ties between the two nations. Irrespective of differences, they continue to engage with each other in diverse domains such as defence, energy, space cooperation, etc. They also see value in engagement in multilateral institutions, and share concerns in multiple geographies including Central Asia, West Asia, and most recently, Afghanistan.
Overall, we see that while Russia continues to enjoy goodwill amongst the urban youth, their assessment of the long-term nature of the China challenge has prompted a move in favour of the Quad. The relations of the two strategic partners with the US and China is expected to continue to exert pressure on the bilateral engagement, especially in an evolving world order. This raises a conundrum that India needs to navigate—how to deal with the swelling Chinese threat while also preserving the engagement with Russia.