Krzysztof M. Zalewski (the Boym Institute): While Indo-Russian relations were very warm during the Cold War, they later cooled down. Recently, however, we have witnessed a series of common initiatives. Could you tell me why Mr Modi has invested so much in the relationship with Mr Putin, whom he sees at least twice a year?
Nandan Unnikrishnan (Observer Research Foundation): Let me start with the global context. It is not about Russia itself. We are all living in a period of uncertainty. The old postwar order was underwritten by the United States. They have played a decisive role in shaping international norms, standards and institutions. Washington, even under the Obama administration, was accusing China and Russia of being disruptive and revisionist players on the global stage.
Today, the biggest revisionist country is the United States itself. Mr Trump is trying to move away from all multilateral agreements, e.g. arms control or WHO. He is moving from multilateralism to bilateral agreements with India or China. With Russia he is not able to talk at all, because of the internal atmosphere.
What does it mean for India?
In this overall period of uncertainty, India faces multiple challenges. First, many of them are connected to the stage of development we are in. Just to give you an example: as recently as three years ago only 125m people had access to the internet in India, any kind of access, mobile or cable. Although we have now 512m people online, more than 600m Indians are still excluded from the digital revolution. Indian GDP is some 2.6tn USD. We are trying to challenge the UK, which is the 5th global economy with 2.9tn USD. But the economy of California alone is almost 3tn.
Unlike China, we have missed out on the manufacturing revolution. We cannot ship production units to India on a mass scale. We need to invest in what is more modern, in terms of adding to the value chains which have developed across the globe. In order to achieve that, we need to cooperate with everybody, especially with the US, our number one partner in exports. We cooperate with the US politically, economically, even militarily. But there are certain areas closed for cooperation. The US would never supply us with some equipment we need, e.g. nuclear submarines.
Secondly, we are moving away from hegemony to a new system, the shape of which we do not know yet. The US is still today by far the most dominant power. But it is not the hegemon it used to be. Some claim the world is becoming multipolar, some others bipolar; maybe Russian will build a third pole because of its military might. Most definitely we are moving away from the situation when one country could impose its will nearly everywhere on the globe. You witness in Asia conflicts the US has no control over at all, as e.g. in Syria. The US, both under the Obama and Trump administrations, has been withdrawing because of a lack of resources. Let us remember, Obama when he took office declared that American troops would leave Afghanistan in 2014. Trump would like to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan in a way which would preserve American supremacy.
To conclude, India needs to find itself in the new restructured international system. Given its current context of not very good relations with its neighbours to the north and west, China and Pakistan, and the development challenges, India needs a long period of peace, without any external intervention.
We do not want to see any new hegemon in this part of the world emerge. If the US is in a relative decline, we do not want to see this space taken by China. India, whatever space is being vacated by the US, would like to fill it, even a small portion of it, as nature does not tolerate a vacuum. That is the reasoning behind Indo-American cooperation in the Indopacific.
You have the same contest of who will fill in the vacuum left by the US in Eurasia and the Arctic as well. Can India provide an alternative, a choice to the countries of Eurasia without Russia? No, it can’t. We need Russia to be able to find our place in the restructured order in Eurasia.
The Indo-Russian cooperation is thus a reaction to the comparative weakening of the US and the rise of China. But given the quite good, stable and improving relationship between Russia and China, has India any means to pull Russia out of the Chinese embrace?
This rapid improvement in Sino-Russian relations has happened since 2014. It would have happened maybe without the crisis in Ukraine, but the Russian conflict with the West has accelerated the speed of rapprochement. Both partners have found a common enemy: the US.
Poles may understand: Slavs do not like to be enslaved by the people from the East, who are fundamentally different. The Russians do not want to be enslaved by anybody; they want to be an independent power, as India does. Russia has not yet reached the point when she is a vassal state of China. Not yet. India would like to be an alternative. India would like to provide that little bit of strategic space it can provide for Russia vis-à-vis China.
Furthermore, we must not exaggerate the level to which Russia and China have already come together. There is a marriage of convenience at this point in time; one cannot exclude a long and successful relationship in the form of an alliance. But it is not yet an alliance. If the estrangement with the West continues and the relationship worsens, the chances of permanent alliance grow. As the Russian economic situation deteriorates, it is only the Chinese who can help them. The West is closed. India does not have enough means. That merger will happen whether the Russians want it or not. That possible merger is at least 15 to 20 years away from now. If India can procrastinate it, we should do it. And that is what Indo-Russian relations are now about.
Moreover, India, which will be competing with China in the Indopacific, needs Russia, even as a kind of arms shop. The type of weapons Russia is selling to India is not available to us from anywhere else. Russia and China know how India can use these arms. Indian nuclear submarines, which are ordered from Russia, are not directed against Poland, I suppose. There is only one possible enemy. China and Russia both know it.
Last but not least, Russia may become our road to Europe. China has the Belt and Road Initiative to connect Shanghai with Europe; we need to provide an alternative. We are trying to build a North-South corridor, which will enable South and Southeast Asian countries to trade with Europe and Russia. It gives these countries at least an option. The same goes for Indian business. It will not stop using the Belt and Road facilities because of patriotic reasons. For them it is the colour of money that matters.
We are speaking about the connection from India, circumventing Pakistan, going through the Iranian harbours of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas, then to Azerbaijan and Europe.
The idea is to have two branches. First is the rail connection from Iran to Afghanistan to Central Asia. The second variant of the route would run from Iranian ports to Mashhad and then to Turkmenistan, connecting to the existing rail network. The idea is that Indian trade would enter Europe via Turkey in the south and via Russia and Belarus and or Ukraine in the north to Europe.
And what about the rather tense relations between Kiev and Moscow?
We do not see any obstacles to trading with Ukraine and Russia simultaneously. The Russian warships delivered to India are going to be partially equipped in Ukraine. It is a complicated deal, because Ukraine cannot send this kind of equipment to Russia, Russia cannot buy it from Ukraine, in which case we need to buy some parts of equipment from Ukraine directly.
Russia does not want anyone to do business with Ukraine. India does it. We have made it clear that we do not seek an alliance with Russia. We serve the particular national interest of our country and seek cooperation with many nations on many issues. E.g. we cannot resolve situation in Afghanistan without involving Russia and Central Asia, otherwise it will fall fully under control of China and Pakistan. Therefore we need Russians, Central Asians, Americans, Iranians to temper the desires of Pakistan. We need to find a new arrangement in Kabul, in which the Taliban would participate, but not dominate the country.
In one of your reports you give a very persuasive picture of how deep the connections between Russia and India, or better between India and the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, used to be. But to get it right, do you think the Russian-Indian relationship will still be important, but less important than it used to be, or – given the rise of China – will we see more new Russian-Indian initiatives to come?
We will not see much more, but we will see some. There are areas of excellence in Russia, particularly when it comes to AI, robotics, software development. We need cooperation with them in space. We cooperate with NASA, but even the Russians can do something for us. India is trying to indigenize whatever is coming to us in terms of high-tech and armaments. We do not have the arms industry as it used to exist. We try to enter arrangements with Western companies.
However, in the very delicate areas, Western companies do not want to cooperate with us yet. There is the issue of trust. It will take at least 10 years for that trust to develop. In the meantime, Russia will remain our crucial partner. In the non-controversial areas, such as space, robotics and AI, we will cooperate with Russia in order to help Moscow to free itself from the Chinese embrace. Not fully. We don’t have that kind of economy yet. But we will give them that little bit of strategic space. Our 2.5tn economy, together with Russian 1.5tn economy, give us 4tn economy in a sense, which can resist Chinese 9tn a bit better. Let us remember that in absolute terms China will grow much faster than India in the foreseeable future, even if the Chinese rate of growth goes down.
Last year India signed finally a contract for delivery of the Russian S-400 missiles. During that same Russian state visit, another even more important agreement was signed – on new nuclear power stations.
In India the view is that even in that Russia can help. They can help us develop our internal capacities. Whether we like it or not, we need to move away from fossil fuels. Up until now, every country which underwent industrial revolution has done it based on fossil fuels. It does not matter if it is coal, gas or oil. India will be the first country to industrialize less dependent on fossil fuels, because of climate change policies. There are alternative energy sources, and one of them will be nuclear energy. We will ramp up nuclear energy by 2031. We would like to have some 30 new nuclear blocks around the country. The only ones who have put nuclear reactors on the ground are Russians.
And the French.
No, the French have not even started yet. Yes, we have negotiated, we know where the power centres will be, but they have not even started yet.
And why is that so? What is the reason?
Russia is not the Soviet Union. For Russia commercial aspects are really important. But Russia is sometimes willing to compromise between the strategic and the commercial. Because all these industries are state owned in Russia. Unlike in the West, Japan or the US, where the nuclear industry is private. Profit must be there. In comparison with Russia, they have a disadvantage.
One of the biggest problems was the so-called liability bill. We wanted the liability bill to be with the supplier, not the operator. Suppliers found themselves under pressure after the incident in Fukushima, of course. The French as well.
You mean the Russians can live with the risks better than the West does?
They want to get the strategic advantage. If they have six reactors on the ground, when everyone else has zero, they will lead in that industry in India. One day it may be only India and Russia who goes in that direction. The Russians are doing something nobody else will do with us. India and Russia will build a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh together. A lot of equipment is going to be supplied by India. Why would India refuse?
I grew up in late 1980s in Poland and one of my early childhood recollections are connected to the disaster of Chernobyl. Do the Indians fear this kind of catastrophe? Might the environmental risks and social protests stop the construction?
We have the nuclear establishment of our own. Do not forget we have developed the bomb on our own. We have nuclear scientists. Chernobyl had a serious problem. If Russians offered us the Chernobyl type of reactor, we would refuse. But the contemporary technology the Russians offer to us is much more advanced. Maybe the most advanced today, because Russia has invested in research in the time when the West has stopped building new reactors and started closing the sites down. The only people doing some progress were the French, the Russians, the Chinese and Indians. India has the capacity to build small scale nuclear power stations on our own, up to 800 MW. The scaling up is a challenge. Russian partners can install the reactors which are at the size of 2 GW.
You said once that in such a long-lasting relationship as the Indo-Russian one, there is a need to resolve disagreements behind close doors, not in public. Could you open these doors at least a bit and say on which points India would disagree with Russia?
India will never see the world through the eyes of Russia. And Russia increasingly perceives global affairs in terms of old-fashioned rivalry with the United States. For India there is no question that the US is our primary partner. And India is in a sense America’s primary partner because the US would like to contain China. Our primary investment would be the development of our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.
I fully understand the Indo-Russian cooperation on a practical level. But on the level of values and international norms you seem to be on opposite sides. As you said, India needs the liberal international order to develop.
I am not a fan of the authoritarian regime in Russia. I have no love for them. As an Indian, I have my own apprehensions of what is happening in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. I do not like proxy wars, because it is precisely what Pakistan is doing to India. On the other hand, I have my national interest, the duty to protect my borders, my territorial sovereignty. I am still a nation and territorial sovereignty dominates my psyche. In order to defend, I need to have some capabilities, available to us from Russia. We use the ties developed since our independence and we will need Russia for another 20-30 years.
By the way, you may use the same kind of argument with the US and Saudi Arabia. You would agree that Mr Putin is more agreeable than the Saudis are.
At least for some journalists, I suppose.
In terms of citizen’s rights, women rights, how you treat minorities as well. I do not like the Russian state either. People are of course different. I do not like the authoritarian constitution as well. We need to remember though, it was supported by the West, including Poland, back in the 1990s, because it helped to keep Yeltsin in place, not the communists. You are now harvesting the fruits of that decision. Mr Putin has not changed the constitution significantly.
Well, he has centralized power, moving it from the regions to Moscow.
All I am trying to say is that for your national interest you sometimes make compromises with your own value system. Because of the imperatives of reaching some other more important aims. That is realism. If India would only use Mahatma Gandhi’s methods in foreign policy, we would be God knows where.
 Nandan Unnikrishnan has served for many years as a correspondent for Indian media in Russia. Currently he is a research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. The interview was conducted during the Raisina Dialogue 2019 in Delhi.
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