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External Affairs Minister’s speech on “India-Russia ties in a changing world” at IMEMO, Moscow

July 08, 2021

Dr. Alexander Dynkin, Excellencies, Dear friends,

It is a great pleasure to address the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations on the subject of India-Russia ties in a changing world. In many ways, this is a particularly appropriate venue for such an exercise. In various capacities, Yevgeni Maksimovich Primakov led Russia’s transition in an era of unprecedented changes. While doing so, he was always cognizant of the importance of the India-Russia relationship. It is, therefore, only fitting that two decades later, we assess both the state of the world and that of our ties in an institution with which he was closely associated.

2. There is no doubt that relations between Russia and India have been among the steadiest of the major relationships in the world after the Second World War. Russians will surely recall the ups and downs in their ties with the United States, Europe, China or Japan, or for that matter, Turkey and Iran. On their part, objective Indians would also recognize that this was the case with them as well. Where India-Russia bilateral ties are concerned, there have been changes - even issues - from time to time. But at the end of the day, the logic of geo-politics was so compelling that we barely remember these even as minor aberrations. The undeniable reality of the exceptional resilience of our ties is surely a phenomenon that is worth analyzing. The paradox though is that precisely because it has held so steady, this relationship is sometimes taken for granted. The case for its constant nurturing is therefore as powerful, if not more, than with the more volatile ones.

3. If our ties have been stable, this is not to say that we have remained static as nations and societies. In the last quarter century, India has become the sixth largest economy, a nuclear weapon power, an IT Centre, a reservoir of global talent and an active shaper of global debates. Our interests and influence have grown well beyond the Sub-Continent and we are often perceived as first responders in crisis situations. Russia, of course, has meanwhile transitioned fully into the post-Soviet era and all that this implies. Its inherent strength as a Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power and its long-standing global status - whether as a P5 or what we can call as N2 - makes it unmistakably critical to the world order. Equally important, Russia has regularly demonstrated an ability to influence outcomes across regions and issues. Its salience in domains that matter, like energy or technology, is especially noteworthy. And indeed, both are nations have evolved even as our existence has become more globalized economically, connected virtually and driven technologically. It is not just that India and Russia are a good fit; it is equally that this continues dynamically even as both of them and the world itself undergo continuous changes.

4. As practitioners and analysts of international relations, it is not enough that we recognize or even appreciate trends. If they are to be sustained, we need to probe underlying causes and seek conceptual explanations. To my mind, at the core of our contemporary relationship is the embrace of multi-polarity, both as a reality and as an aspiration. It is this conceptualization that has enabled us to smoothly maintain our relationship in comparison to others. Such an outlook guides our interaction with other nations and groupings and is obviously universal in application. It follows logically that a multi-polar world must have a multi-polar Asia as an essential constituent. In the last few decades, India and Russia may have pursued their national trajectories energetically. But at the same time, they have harmonised them well, both intuitively and as a policy. Related to this is the rebalancing of the global order - economically, politically, even culturally. We have been respectful, I would even say we have been appreciative, of each other’s identities and interests. Because there is no burden of history nor an ideological agenda, this too has been a comfortable and a reassuring exercise. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the weight of the variables in the world’s equation has changed, though again I would caution against being overly deterministic. Together, what this means is that our relationship rests on the foundation of a more democratic and diverse international order, one that is committed to sovereign equality of all states.

5. Because that concept is so central, it is important to have a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of multi-polarity. We are looking at a world where each pole has its own needs, but its pursuit is to be moderated not by the balance of power, but by balance of interests. This is not just a preference but a compulsion in a world that is more inter-dependent. Balance of interests may be individually defined; but it is the task of diplomacy to ensure that it is collectively realized. Equally, it should be our effort to discourage unrestrained pursuit of balance of power and resist domination in all forms. In such a world, a search for options is an entirely legitimate exercise, both in content and form, including convergence on varying issues to different degrees. The operating principle of a multi-polar world is the legitimate pursuit of flexibility without seeking exclusivity. After all, the latter is anti-thetical to the very logic of multi-polarity. The grammar of multi-polarity too is obviously very different from that of bi-polarity. Attempts to mix the two are not just confusing; they at times can even be deliberately misleading. We must also recognize that translating a multi-polar algorithm on the ground is not easy it is much harder than it sounds. A key concern even while widening options is to ensure consistent sensitivity to the interests of a critical strategic partner. Indeed, it is this deep sense of consideration for each other that has been the formula of our ties. Mutual interest mandates that this continues to be so between India and Russia.

6. An important reason why India and Russia readily accept multi-polarity is their strong sense of independence. Perhaps, such self-confidence is a natural outlook for large polities with a long history, a rich culture and a deep-rooted identity. Our pasts may be different but what they do have in common is a clear sense of national interest and a strong sense of national resolve. We have dealt with each other long enough to know that these qualities are very much part of our basic character

7. A world of convergences that the multi-polar and re-balanced international order has created will inevitably be different from the one that we were used to before. Quite obviously, it will be less structured and more fluid, leaving open the possibility of differences even among those who are together. The inclination would be to look at pragmatic and result-oriented cooperation on defined issues. To some extent, the weakening of multilateralism has contributed to this. Between the collective interests of the entire international community and the compulsions of decision-making, a number of intermediate layers exist in a variety of areas. We are seeing this as both ad hoc and more formal arrangements, on security, on economic and on technology issues, in specialized domains as well and even in global bodies. Given their prominence, India and Russia are members of many such arrangements, whether you talk about the G-20, BRICS, EAS, SCO, MTCR, FATF, Wassenaar, etc. We are not unique in that respect as many others are equally embedded in such understandings. Sub-universal groups have always been a reality; they supplement not replace more universal arrangements. Given the flux in world politics, a large element of our working together is today likely to happen in such formats.

8. Changes in the capabilities and interests of major players naturally lead us to reassess the global arena. Whether it is Europe, the Middle-East, Africa, Eurasia, the Arctic or the Indo-Pacific, new developments have re-defined our understanding of the landscape, as also of its risks and opportunities. None of us can afford to be in denial of these shifting realities. After all, international relations can never be change-proofed. If there are enhanced capabilities in some cases or contractions in others, strategists and diplomats need to adjust their calculations accordingly. That is certainly the case with the Indo-Pacific, whose disconnection was an outcome of a certain moment of history. For a nation like India that now sees much of its trade eastwards, we must look beyond such anachronisms. Both our interests and our reach today extend well into the Pacific. Our major partners are located there, and indeed, cooperation with the Russian Far East is one notable example. The reality is that there is a vast global commons whose safety, security, ecology, environment and activities are increasingly a shared responsibility. For those who wish to better understand our thinking, I would refer them to the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative that Prime Minister Modi announced at the East Asia Summit in 2019. The ability of India and Russia to work together is facilitated by our shared belief in the centrality of the ASEAN.

9. The shift of global growth eastwards has been a continuous phenomenon over the last four decades. Its consequences for the international order are now getting visible. This shift took place largely in the context of globalization, though it was not unaffected by big power calculations. As it unfolds, concerns both during the Covid pandemic and before have provided some insights into the risks of globalization. On the political front, it is essential for India and Russia to work together to ensure the stability and diversity of the world as we know it. This includes insistence on honouring agreements and observing laws. On the economic side, there is a growing realization on the importance of resilient and reliable supply chains. Our collaboration can surely add to the options before the world, as we have already seen in the case of vaccines.

10. If we are to continue influencing the direction of global development positively, it is imperative that we always pay adequate attention to the constant strengthening of our bilateral cooperation. In two decades of strategic partnership and five before that of close friendship, defence, energy, nuclear, space and science and technology have constituted the key propelling forces. Russia has always been a dependable defence partner of India. The enormous experience of past cooperation is today being applied to a more contemporary requirement, including the Make in India programme. This transition can accommodate the interests of both sides and even lead to new areas of military-technical collaboration. The Brahmos example could well be a precursor of what is to come. This needs to be accompanied by a greater focus on military-to-military ties, including in the maritime domain. The establishment of the 2+2 mechanism which was recently agreed to by the Prime Minister and President Putin promises to provide a new vitality.

11. Space and nuclear are among the success stories of our relationship. The Kudankulam project was the first beneficiary of India’s resumed civil nuclear collaboration with international partners. The trilateral nuclear cooperation that we both have with Bangladesh also holds interesting possibilities. Insofar as space is concerned, the training of Indian astronauts for the Gaganyaan Mission brings back memories of Rakesh Sharma’s flight into space. Overall, science and technology has been a productive area that could be taken forward with the participation of the private sector. This bodes well for both commercialization and start-ups. If I would have to give you examples of the collaboration underway I would particularly point out to Sputnik vaccine and we should recognise, that this has benefits not just for public health in India but actually larger gains for the international community.

12. Where investment and trade are concerned, the last few years have seen a visible pick up, especially in the energy sector. As a result, we are seeing more Indian participation in production and import of oil and gas, as well as a greater Russian presence in refining and distribution. Expanding trade in goods is very much the focus, in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, fertilizers, chemicals, petro-chemicals, agro industries and timber being areas of interest. Collaboration in railways and inland waterways can actually make a difference to the pace of India’s national development. Where trade is concerned, more efficient connectivity and reduction of non-tariff barriers are areas that need to be addressed.

13. Now as you all know there is an immense legacy of intellectual goodwill in our relationship. Many of us recall an era where our scholars and institutions interacted frequently and productively. And in fact, IMEMO was itself one of the centres of this bonding and I particularly appreciate Dr. Dynkin’s commitment to maintain this tradition. Today, there is a need to reconnect our youth and renew appreciation of our languages, literature and sciences. The impact of tourism can never be underestimated. Some initiatives have already started to take shape while others are still in the pipeline. The Sirius-Atal Innovation mission started by PM Modi in 2018 represents a new model of interaction. We welcome the ICCR-Oriental Institute fellowships that were established recently. The Ganga-Volga Dialogue, participation in the Raisina Dialogue, popularity of Yoga, the revived interaction on Buddhism and digitization of manuscripts are all examples that speak of a renewed enthusiasm.

14. As we contemplate the future, how we navigate some important transitions will help define our further ambitions. India and Russia will definitely see more common opportunities in the regions immediately beyond. New partnerships could also be explored, including in trilateral formats. Connectivity will be increasingly central to our interests, whether we speak of the North-South Corridor, the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor or the Northern Sea Route. India is actively engaging the Eurasian Economic Union for a trade agreement and participating in the endeavours of the SCO and BRICS. When it comes to disarmament or technology issues, we seek practical and productive outcomes in multilateral fora. Reformed multilateralism is also in our common interest and we value Russia’s support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Regional issues like Afghanistan and the Middle-East have seen convergence previously that may be mutually beneficial to continue. As an Observer State, India is also interested in deepening its engagement with Russia, the Chair of the Arctic Council, on Arctic issues. Energy, in particular, holds enormous promise as the two nations engage in long-term planning and cooperation.

15. The big issues of our times are combating terrorism, addressing pandemics and acting on climate change. On all of these, India and Russia are unquestionably on the same page. We have both been victims of fundamentalist thinking and know well the dangers of radicalization and extremism. As pluralistic societies, we must be especially on guard against the revival of such forces. Where global health is concerned, a history of scientific collaboration can today be repurposed to meet this new priority. On climate change, Russia can really be an indispensable partner as India transitions towards greater LNG consumption and renewables.

16. The direction and progress of major relationships is very much dependent on leadership. In our case, Prime Minister Modi and President Putin have met 19 times since 2014. That itself speaks a lot for their commitment. We, of course, look forward to hosting the President in India for the Annual Bilateral Summit. It is also natural in societies for the people to have an image of their partners. Russia has a unique standing with the Indian public and maintaining that sentiment is very much an asset for our relationship.

17. In the world of current diplomacy, ours is a particularly mature relationship. More than its contemporaries, it has withstood the test of time, finding new convergences with changing circumstances. Geo-political compatibility, leadership trust and popular sentiment remain its key drivers. History is very much in our favour, something that cannot always be said for all relationships. Drawing from the past, assessing the present and committing to the future, I have every confidence that our two nations would continue to realize the full benefits of our Special and Privileged Strategic Relationship.


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