Despite the large number of bilateral agreements signed as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Delhi, there are many obstacles to an improved relationship with India that require pragmatic approaches from both sides.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Russian President Vladimir attend a session of the World Diamond Conference in New Delhi, India, Dec. 11, 2014. Photo: AP

President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India was a success, despite its brevity. This was evidenced by the impressive package of signed documents and an eventful schedule. But that is where the unbridled optimism must end. To develop Russian-Indian cooperation further, the results of the visit need to be analyzed in the clear light of day.

Half of all the documents signed were memoranda of understanding. Despite their collective significance, they merely indicate consensus on certain issues. Of the 16 signed documents mentioned on the Kremlin website, only one is a contract and two are agreements. The contract pertains to the training of Indian soldiers in colleges and institutions under the Russian Ministry of Defense. Meanwhile, the agreements are between the Skolkovo Foundation and the council for companies exporting electronics and software, as well as between the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS and the Press Trust of India (PTI).

These practical arrangements were supplemented by other agreements not mentioned on the Kremlin website in the fields of nuclear energy and diamonds. The documents signed between Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and Russia’s Joint Engineering Company (AO NIAEP - ZAO ASE - AO AEP) will enable construction to get underway of the third and fourth generating units at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant (NPP).

Russia’s ALROSA signed 12 long-term agreements with Indian companies. ALROSA intends to significantly increase direct supplies of rough diamonds to India, which is a leader in the production of cut diamonds. In 2014 direct deliveries made up 30 percent of ALROSA’s $2.3 billion trade with Indian companies, i.e. the majority of Russian diamonds were supplied to India via third-party countries.

There was a much-hyped deal between Rosneft and Essar to supply 10 million metric tons of oil and petroleum products a year for a period of up to a decade. The deal still represents just an agreement on the basic terms and conditions of a future contract. If signed (and nothing would suggest the contrary), the deal will be worth about $5 billion per year. However, the negotiations are still ongoing so adjustments could be made. On the eve of the visit, Vedomosti reported the sale of shares in fields belonging to Rosneft in Eastern Siberia, but that failed to materialize.

The package of signed documents completely bypasses military-technical cooperation, with the exception of the aforementioned contract and a number of declarative statements. It is significant that the Russian delegation included First Deputy Defense Minister General Arkady Bakhin, responsible for Armed Forces combat training, but not Deputy Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, responsible for military-technical cooperation.

Vladimir Putin was, however, accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the military-industrial complex, Anatoly Isaykin, general director of Rosoboronexport, and Mikhail Pogosyan, president of United Aircraft Corporation. But no intergovernmental agreements or contracts were signed between these companies and Indian partners.

Why military-technical cooperation was not high on the agenda

There are several reasons why no military-technical contracts were signed. First of all, Russia and India have drawn up a portfolio of orders in the field of military-technical cooperation to 2020 that are worth $20 billion, according to Indian sources.

Second, after the general election this year, the Indian Ministry of Defense under the new government was not fully operational due to the defense minister’s poor health. This staffing problem was corrected five months after the cabinet was formed. But since the defense minister also happens to chair the Russian-Indian intergovernmental commission on military-technical cooperation, it was effectively out of action for this five-month period.

Third, ahead of Vladimir Putin’s trip to Delhi the parties did not address all outstanding issues related to ongoing projects, primarily the new fifth-generation multipurpose fighter. However, there is no reason to suppose that they cannot be resolved in the coming months.

The agenda included virtually no humanitarian issues, and no documents were signed or meetings held on cultural, scientific, educational, youth or religious cooperation. The only exception was the above-mentioned agreement on the training of Indian personnel in Russian military academies. This exception, however, applies only to the narrow sphere of military education.

The two sides of Russian-Indian relations

The outcome of Putin’s visit to India belies the words of presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who says that it will help raise Russian-Indian relations to a new level. The visit was important and necessary for bilateral ties, but was nothing out of the ordinary. There are good and bad sides to this.

On the one hand, given the already high level of cooperation between Russia and India, it is increasingly difficult to achieve breakthroughs in bilateral relations, of which there have been many in the past. Kudankulam NPP, the Su-30MKI multi-purpose fighter, the BrahMos missile, the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, and the Arihant-class nuclear submarine are just some of the many success stories of Russian-Indian cooperation.

Against this backdrop, the agreement to commence work on the second and third generating units of Kudankulam NPP, for instance, looks rather mundane. On closer inspection, however, it is in fact remarkable. After India’s adoption in 2010 of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, Russia was India’s first partner to reach an agreement to continue cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.

It might seem to the casual observer that Russia and India make more effort to initiate joint projects than to develop them, although the latter is perhaps no less critical.

On the other hand, analyzing the visit, one cannot but agree with Alexander Kadakin, Russia’s ambassador to India, who said in February of this year: “At present relations between Russia and India are at the peak of their development.” There is a sense that, having reached the peak of bilateral relations, in the words of Ambassador Kadakin, Russia and India may be about to embark on the descent. The fact that recent Russian-Indian summits have been far less intense than previous gatherings speaks of such possibility. The weakening of ties between Russia and India, which could drag on for years, may be barely noticeable at first to our casual observer.

Why ties between Russia and India could lag if nothing is done soon

There are ample reasons for such a development. I will cite just two of them. First, Russian-Indian relations are becoming ever more prone to inertia and less innovative. This latest visit showed that Moscow and Delhi’s attention is focused in several areas: military-technical cooperation, peaceful atomic projects, hydrocarbons, space, and now diamonds. Too little heed is being paid to other areas, where breakthroughs are more likely to occur. Even in those avenues of cooperation mentioned, there remain many unfulfilled opportunities.

Second, the multichannel mode of communication between Moscow and Delhi is showing signs of faltering. Why else would an Indian journalist have posed a question about potential military-technical collaboration between Russia and Pakistan directly to President Vladimir Putin? He was asked the question more than once, apparently.

This means that Russia has yet to assuage Indian fears over the statements made by Sergei Chemezov (CEO of Rostec Corporation, chairman of the Union of Russian Mechanical Engineers) in summer about the alleged lifting of the embargo on arms supplies to Pakistan, followed by November’s visit by Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu to Islamabad. No arguments were put forward either publicly or privately that might have reassured the Indian authorities and the public.

The growing trend for inertia in Russian-Indian relations and the breakdown in communication between government and society in Russia and India could be overcome if these and other issues are given close attention. That is what Moscow and Delhi must do if they want to raise up the level of Russian-Indian cooperation, not bring it down.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.