Why India’s relationship with Russia is so special

The recent summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Vladivostok underlined the countries’ harmonious strategic orientation. In what Modi called a “unique case”, India extended a US$1 billion credit line to Russia to develop its Far East, as part of India’s new “Act Far East” policy, a complement to the “Act East” policy which seeks to deepen ties with Southeast Asia.

Modi and Putin also reached a preliminary agreement on the induction of skilled Indian workers into Siberia. Urging both nations to “deepen the bond”, Modi said: “India is proud of the achievement of the Indian diaspora. I am sure here in the Russian Far East too they will make an active contribution towards the region’s progress.”

The Russian Far East is a federal district distinct from the Siberian federal district, stretching from Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, with an area of 6.2 million sq km, or a third of Russia. Resource-rich and sparsely populated, it is viewed with muted anxiety in Moscow as an area that may be slowly taken over by China’s steady demographic creep.

At the summit, Russia, already the biggest supplier of military inventory to India, also approved in principle defence-related agreements worth US$14.5 billion. Referring to this, Dmitry Shugaev, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, said: “This is an impressive figure, it’s a real breakthrough.”

The Moscow-Delhi relationship is anomalous in that it forged a sturdy link between the world’s leading communist/authoritarian superpower during the cold war, with a nascent but enthusiastic democracy led by the idealistic Jawaharlal Nehru.

President Putin (left) and Prime Minister Modi (centre) visit the shipyard Zvezda outside the far-eastern Russian port of Vladivostok on September 4, ahead of the start of the Eastern Economic Forum hosted by Russia. Photo: AFP

This relationship has withstood the vicissitudes of a global order, through the menacing certitude of the cold-war decades when the Soviet Union was one of two poles, to the post-September 11 uneasy world (dis)order where Russia is the inheritor of a shrunken Soviet mantle both geographically and economically.