Russia-India reconnect: Making a new beginning

Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist, author and strategic analyst. He tweets @Kishkindha and can be reached at

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin during a meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Sujatha Singh during the former's working visit to India. (RIA Novosti / Sergey Mamontov)

Russia and India have established a reconnect with each other at a time when a new government has taken charge in New Delhi.

But then these are very
testing times, when the hurly-burly of a rapidly changing
international scenario has prompted both sides to get cozy with
countries that the other side finds a big no-no. Economic
diplomacy is shaping power diplomacy like never before.

A high-level meeting between India and Russia in these
circumstances, therefore, is a significant, very significant part
of a continuing process. The visit to India by Russian Deputy
Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (June 18-19) was a mixed bag of
hits and misses, pluses and minuses, and rosebuds and thornlets.

It was also a visit during which the two sides heard each other
patiently about their concerns and assured each other neither
side will do anything to derail their tried, tested and trusted
close friendship of over four decades.

Here is how

Rogozin had a candid, marathon meeting with Indian External
Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on a wide gamut of bilateral,
regional and international issues of mutual interest. How
substantive and intense the Rogozin-Swaraj talks were can be
deciphered by the fact that these went on for four hours.

After all, just 10 days before Rogozin flew in to New Delhi,
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi too had had four-hour-long
“substantive” talks with Swaraj. Though Wang pipped Rogozin to
the post in becoming the first foreign leader to establish direct
contact with the new Indian government led by Prime Minister
Narendra Modi, the warmth with which Rogozin was received by the
Indian leadership demonstrated Russia’s clout with India.

Indian foreign office spokesman Syed Akbaruddin summed up the
main flavor of the Rogozin-Swaraj talks thus: “As you are aware,
India and Russia have built a sound relationship befitting a
strategic and privileged partnership between them. And the two
ministers reaffirmed their attention to develop and strengthen
this strategic partnership.”

Main talking points

It is a common belief that the health of the relationship between
two countries is indicated by the level of bilateral trade,
though China-Japan relations are a prominent exception to this
unwritten, unspoken benchmark as political ties between Beijing
and Tokyo are frigid but their annual bilateral trade is booming
at $340 billion.

In comparison, India-Russia trade is peanuts – just $10 billion,
of which approximately $6.5 billion is Russian exports to India
and $3.5 billion is Indian exports to Russia. Obviously the two
sides devoted lot of time on this sorry aspect of their bilateral
relations, as considering their close political relations and
immense potential, the actual figure should be many times

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, background, left, during a meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Sujatha Singh, foreground, right, during the former's working visit to India. (RIA Novosti / Sergey Mamontov)

Rogozin and his Indian interlocutors are seeking to rectify this
situation in two ways: ensuring that the private sectors of the
two countries get as much involved in trade and investment as the
two governments are; and by increasing and diversifying the areas
of cooperation.

On the former, the two governments have been trying hard and
encouraging their private sectors to intensify cooperation for
years, but not with much success.

On the latter, forward-looking steps were taken. Rogozin, who
visited India along with leading experts and senior level
officials from the Russian space, nuclear, energy, economic,
trade, and defense organizations, laid a laser beam focus on
improving the untapped potential between the two countries in
terms of our economic and commercial engagement.

There are a lot of complementarities between the two sides and
they rightly stressed on increasing cooperation in areas such as
hydrocarbons, nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers,
diamonds, coking coal and infrastructure development.

The two sides decided that a joint study group would discuss the
feasibility of a free trade agreement between India and the
Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Formalities for
these are now under way in all the countries, and a formal
announcement on the constitution of this joint study group should
be made at the earliest possible opportunity, a spokesman for the
Ministry of External Affairs said.

In another development, India is going to have an India trade
show in Moscow in September. The Indo-Russian CEOs Council, set
up last year, is to work more intensively to make suggestions for
invigorating trade and investment ties. Since India sees Russia
as a key partner for our energy security, Rogozin had a detailed
discussion with his Indian interlocutors on possibilities of
cooperation in the hydrocarbons sector as well as other areas of
energy cooperation.

Red rags

However, the two sides also had some candid discussions on
contentious issues as well.

Since Russia accounts for about 60 percent of Indian defense
imports – this figure is steadily decreasing; not too long ago it
was over 80 percent – a detailed discussion on defense matters
was inevitable.

However, the Indian side, piqued by reports of Russia selling
Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan, made it clear to Rogozin that it
cannot be business as usual till Russia drops the idea in view of
India’s legitimate concerns and apprehensions.

The Russian response in this regard is not known.

At the same time, Rogozin and Swaraj decided to intensify
contacts and worked out a schedule of bilateral meetings for
senior level interactions for the rest of the year. These include
the meeting of the India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission that
will be held a little later, followed by the annual summit where
President Vladimir Putin is to visit India later during the year.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (letf) at the meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his working visit to India. (RIA Novosti / Sergey Mamontov)

From the Russian perspective, the familiar red rag was the
“titanium project.” Rogozin asked Swaraj to help ensure that
Russia gets back its funds in a failed $330 million joint venture
project with Kolkata-based Saraf Industries for the production of
titanium in Odisha.

On this important issue of Russian concern, the two sides Rogozin
and Swaraj agreed to set up a separate working group, aptly named
the Working Group on Complex Issues, to be led by their deputies
to prepare a roadmap for early resolution of not only this issue
but also telecom-related issues.

Rogozin meets Modi

Rogozin also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 19 to
convey President Putin’s greetings to the Prime Minister and his
desire to work with Modi to further strengthen and deepen the
special and privileged strategic partnership between India and
Russia. At this meeting, Modi described Russia as a time-tested
and reliable friend that had stood with India in difficult times
and a major partner in building India’s defense capabilities, for
which Russia enjoys enormous goodwill in India.

Modi expressed his intention to take the relationship to a higher
level. He also recalled his recent visit to INS Vikramaditya on
June 14 and thanked Rogozin for the Russian contribution to the
realization of a major milestone in India’s naval capabilities.
He looked forward to a productive, substantive and forward
looking summit with President Putin.

Rogozin’s India visit can be summed up in one sentence: It was a
good attempt by two old friends to reconnect with each other in
the rapidly changing times and put their relationship into the
next gear, but there is a bumpy road ahead for them.


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