India’s participation in the recently-concluded Vostok 2022 exercises has set in motion a wave of reactions, both in the academic and in the scholarly circles. The country was represented by a contingent of troops from 7/8 Gorkha Rifles, who participated in these exercises between September 1 and 7, held at the training grounds of the Eastern Military District of Russia. This, however, comes at a time when New Delhi is growing ever closer to countries like the United States. Besides, India is party to the Quad, along with Japan, Australia and the U.S. It also conducts the Malabar naval exercises, joining Australia, the Unites States and Japan.
There is a host of issues that need to be considered here.
First, India’s age-old ties with Russia, especially in the military sphere. These began right from the time of India’s independence and have continued ever since. India signed a deal for the S-400 missile systems with Russia. In addition, it is important for India to get spares for the Russian weaponry, which it is already using: its frontline SU-30 fighters, the BM-30 “Smerch” heavy multiple rocket launcher, the BM-21 “Grad” truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher, T-90 tanks and many more. Besides, unlike many other defense partners, Russia has allowed technology transfer to India, licensing and localizing production. India and Russia have come together to produce the BrahMos missile (named after the rivers Brahmaputra and the Moskva). The missile is also likely to be exported to third countries, which makes it a game-changer for both Russia and India. This is also important for India’s Make-in-India initiative, as India is pursuing the goal to produce many items for its defense needs domestically.
Second, though India has been historically close to the former Soviet Union and Russia as its successor state, Russia’s “no-limits” partnership with China has of late been somewhat disconcerting among some sections in India. New Delhi needs Moscow’s critical support in the UN Security Council. New Delhi has received Russian help on a host of issues in the past, and this is important for India—especially since such countries as China and Pakistan have been trying to pin India down on some issues in international forums. The growing ties between China and Russia is a big worry for India, and there are also fears that India may have to fight a two-pronged war someday in the future, where Russia’s help will be crucial for India.
Third, participation in the Vostok 2022 military exercises also gives New Delhi an opportunity for interoperability with the armed forces of other countries and not only Russia. Vostok 2022 had contingents and observers from Algeria, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria and the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. India has suffered from Islamist terrorism in the past—therefore, it is important for India to engage with these nations for its national security interests.
Fourth, Russia is critically important for India’s energy security. New Delhi has been buying cheap Russian oil even after the Western sanctions on Russian oil entities were introduced. This is important: Much as most countries in the world, New Delhi has been facing inflationary pressure. In addition, the Central Asian countries are also important for India and Russia has a big influence in this part of the world. India holds membership of BRICS and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), where Russia is a key and influential member. Besides, the foreign ministers of India, Russia and China meet every year to discuss issues of mutual concern and cooperation. The U.S. has also been putting pressure on India not to buy Iranian oil, whereas New Delhi is a net energy importer. For Russia too, India is an important customer for its oil as many other markets have reduced imports of Russian oil.
Fifth, while India is going for a massive defense indigenization drive, it will be some time before the results are seen. New Delhi recently commissioned its first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant. However, a lot of India’s earlier weaponry is of Russian origin and these have served the country well. While military and military-technical cooperation has traditionally been the main pillar of the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia, it is now moving towards “joint research and development, co-development and joint production of advanced defence technology and systems.”
Last but not least, Russia and India had coordinated in Afghanistan in the fight against the Taliban, together with the Northern Alliance. They have also been cooperating in the International North-South Transport Corridor project, which is important given that India has not taken part in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the case of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which led to Bangladesh gaining independence, India and the former Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation between the Government of India and the Government of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in August 1971. This allowed India to go on the offensive without fear of drawing in China or the United States. India had supported Russia (or its predecessor) the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as well. The two countries have a shared interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in Afghanistan as well. Earlier, India had supplied Afghanistan with Russian-made weaponry.
The Road Ahead
Hence, although the U.S. and other countries will be trying to wean away India from its erstwhile close ties with Russia, New Delhi seems determined that it will abandon its close ties with Moscow. When asked about India’s participation in the Vostok 2022 exercises, the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that “the United States has concerns about any country exercising with Russia.”
What is worth noting here is that Russia–India relations have strong relations in the field of defense, in the field of trade, the ties are still languishing. As per official figures, India-Russia bilateral trade during FY 2020 stood at a mere US$ 8.1 billion. As compared to this, India’s trade with countries like the United States and China is much higher. This is a big worry for policy-makers on both sides. The Joint Statement issued during the visit of President Putin to India in December last year notes that “the leaders stressed on the need for greater efforts to achieve the trade target of USD 30 billion by 2025. In this regard, they placed strong emphasis on new drivers of growth for long-term cooperation.”
For Russia, the Vostok 2022 exercises are a chance to show that it can pull off massive military drills even as its troops are engaged in the military action in Ukraine. It has also been reported that Russia and China may carry out a second joint naval patrol after the ongoing Vostok-2022 exercises. This is also significant since it could signal an even closer bond between Russia and China in the maritime realm. However, New Delhi stayed away from the maritime component of the exercises, keeping in mind Japan’s sensitivities, especially in the light of the 2+2 talks between the Foreign and the Defense Ministers of the two sides.
Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new humanitarian foreign policy doctrine based around the concept of a “Russian World”. This policy says Russia should “protect, safeguard and advance the ideals of the Russian World”. It also says “Russia should increase cooperation with Slavic nations, China, and India, and further strengthen its ties to the West Asia, Latin America and Africa.”
Meanwhile, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while recently speaking virtually at the Eastern Economic Forum, noted that “India is keen to strengthen its partnership with Russia on Arctic subjects and there is immense scope for cooperation in the field of energy as well. This kind of cooperation will work well since India has an Act-East Policy. Already, Indian Oil Company ONGV Videsh has been working in this area. PM Modi went on to add that “India has been emphasising the need to adopt the path of diplomacy and dialogue since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict and it supports all peaceful efforts to end the conflict.”
Vostok 2022 also showed the importance of India-Russia cooperation and connectivity. As PM Modi noted during his address to the Eastern Economic Forum, “whether we talk about the International North-South Corridor, the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor or the Northern Sea Route, connectivity will play an important role in the development of our relations in the future.”
Russia is one of the two countries, with which India has annual summits. In addition, Russia has invited India to invest in its Far East, which is rich in resources but has a very meager population. Russia and India are countries that do not have any strategic dissonances—it is thus important for India and Russia to come closer together. India’s participation in the Vostok 2022 exercises has injected fresh momentum into the relationship, and this is something that both countries need to build on.
From our partner RIAC