The Track II expert-level dialogue between Russia and India is marked by realism rather than nostalgia about Soviet-era ties. Both sides agree that geostrategic considerations will drive them towards increasing mutual cooperation. By RAJIV BHATIA

ONCE upon a time, no discussion of Indian foreign policy was possible without a reference to the Soviet Union’s place in it. The successor state, Russia, became increasingly invisible in the strategic narrative of India, which essentially focussed on three major powers —the United States, the European Union and China. Of late, however, a reorientation has begun in the Kremlin and South Block, as also among their regular watchers. Moscow and New Delhi need to increase cooperation to protect their mutual interests. This was a key conclusion that emerged from an extensive interaction at the Track II expert-level dialogue in Moscow in May, which involved the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and two premier Russian think tanks.

A mutual rediscovery of an old friendship could gather momentum. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rarely visits a country twice during a year. But he will do so in 2013 when he goes to Russia, first in September to attend the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit and later in December to participate in the annual dialogue with President Vladimir Putin.

Changing world view

Convergences and divergences in the foreign policy domain came through various presentations made by scholars at the two-day conference of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and the ICWA, a dialogue that resumed after a hiatus of three years. The scope of the discussions was widened through an interaction with specialists of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow and the state university in the country’s “cultural capital”, St. Petersburg. The discussions led to enhancing of understanding of each country’s world view.

Both sides recognised that world politics had now overcome bipolar and unipolar tendencies of the past and was heading clearly in the direction of a complex multipolarity. It is “a polycentric model” where power centres are not one or two but several and of varying strength. It is the inter-relationships among them—the U.S., China, Russia, India, the E.U., and Japan—that will determine the fate of the early decades of the 21st century. The imperative is to encourage an inner equilibrium that guarantees every stakeholder’s security and development.

Russian scholars seemed to accord primacy to the role of three states—the U.S. China and India—arguing that this strategic triangle would be of exceptional importance in shaping the contours of the future. Their line of reasoning revealed how deeply the Russians were conscious of the decline of “Mother Russia”, even though one of the scholars referred candidly to the country’s nuclear arsenal as still being able to “eliminate” the U.S. But the mention of economic decline and the deceleration of innovation, research and science and technology was constant. Indians, on the other hand, explained the multiple challenges their country faced, both internally and externally. It was thus agreed that geostrategic considerations would drive Russia and India, arguably Tier II countries, towards increasing mutual cooperation. India-Russia relations, stressed a Russian scholar, should not be made “hostage” to the evolving U.S.-China relationship.

Multilateral institutions

Russia enjoys a unique position as a member of the G8, the G20 and BRICS; it is the only country to hold memberships of the three important institutions. It is determined to define its role in them by pursuing its specific interests. A recent RIAC study identified five categories of clusters as “the most critical and likely threats of the next decade”. They are: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological. Its advice to the Russian government was that the G20 should concentrate on “managing risks in the economic cluster”, the G8 on “the geopolitical and technological clusters”, and BRICS on the management of “societal cluster risks”.

The Russians had a rather grandiose view of BRICS; they projected it as a grouping of huge strategic importance. They would like to transform it from a talking shop into an instrument of wide-ranging cooperation. The Indian delegation was willing to recognise its potential significance but introduced a dose of realism and caution. For its good health, BRICS should function as an institution of equal partners, avoiding dominance by one of them. This writer’s view is that the outcome of the current negotiations regarding the new development bank may reveal how BRICS fares on this score.

Other multilateral institutions too came up for a critical review. India’s quest for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and an elevation of its status from an observer to a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was articulated strongly. The Russians were supportive but conscious that they faced the challenge of navigating through difficult waters.

Regional issues

The vast Asian space between Russia and India remains an area of immense interest to both sides. Developments in Central Asia drew sustained attention in the discussions. A component of the Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War, Central Asian countries still enjoy close relations with Russia. Driven by many considerations, India, through its “Connect Central Asia” policy, has been taking initiatives to augment its cooperation with the region. Natural convergence laced with a touch of competition is notable, but it must factor in China’s rapidly growing profile in Central Asia. A continuous dialogue is essential to improve India’s connectivity with the region as a means to expand its footprint.

Inevitably, Afghanistan figured prominently in the Moscow discussions. Scholars shared a somewhat pessimistic perspective about post-2014 scenarios. A strong and stable government in Kabul, backed by national consensus and regional support, was considered essential for tackling many challenges such as terrorism, India’s chief concern, and drug menace, Russia’s chief concern. The prospects looked quite grim unless effective international cooperation was crafted soon.

Regarding the Asia-Pacific region, greater clarity emerged about Russia’s role as a Pacific Ocean country. Its critical requirement was to accelerate economic development in its far east, a task requiring massive investment. Hence Russia’s growing interest in expanding linkages with Japan, South Korea and Singapore. China’s assistance has been quite welcome to the Russians. But some of them seemed anxious about the possibility of a heightened Chinese migration into the less inhabited areas of Russia. A Russian scholar suggested that Russia could benefit from a controlled immigration of educated work force from India. On the current U.S.-China rivalry in East Asia, Russian policy would continue to be one of studied detachment.

Bilateral relations

Realism, rather than nostalgia about the golden period (from mid-1950s to end-1980s), marked the appraisal of the relationship between the two countries. Public awareness in India about Russia has been on the decline. Indians remember perhaps only two Russians—cosmonaut [Yuri] Gagarin and tennis star [Maria] Sharapova. Russians, however, are a little better informed, thanks to a television channel dedicated to showing Bollywood films. A vast scope exists for expanding people-to-people relations through Indians accessing the excellent facilities for higher education in Russia and a serious promotion drive for tourism. An incredible treasure of historical monuments, art, music and ballet, Russia needs to market itself better. Indian tourists, spoilt by an abundance of choice, need to be wooed actively, with tourism companies taking care of such discouraging factors as language and cuisine.

Relations at the government level have been in an excellent shape. Cooperation in vital fields such as defence, energy, space, science and technology has been of great substance. But new ways should be devised to motivate the private sector to step up business and investment ties. This remains one of the biggest challenges for policymakers today.

Rajiv Bhatia, DirectorGeneral of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), led a multi-institutional Track II delegation to Russia recently. The article reflects his personal views.