Going strong with Russia Recent visits by Putin’s top associates indicate strengthening of ties


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Going strong with Russia
Recent visits by Putin’s top associates indicate strengthening of ties

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Updated At: Apr 03, 2023 06:31 AM
Going strong with Russia
Primacy: Moscow is prioritising India as a key partner for the development of the Russian Far East. Reuters

MK Bhadrakumar
Former Ambassador

BRAZILIAN novelist Paulo Coelho has written, ‘Seize every opportunity that life offers you, because, when opportunities go, they take a long time to come back.’ The West’s foolish notion to ‘erase’ Russia presents India with an opportunity. A cardinal lesson in geopolitics is, ‘Never say never.’ That said, the Biden administration has all but ensured that repair and restoration of Russia’s ties with Europe will be a long and excruciatingly difficult process. Everything depends on the denouement to the conflict in Ukraine.

For the first time, Russia has become one of the five largest trading partners of India. The volume of trade between the two countries reached $38.4 billion in 2022.

Russia’s reaction has been to turn its back on the West and move on with life. That means basically that in the conditions under harsh western sanctions, Russia has hastened to minimise the damage to its economy by seeking out new partnerships, or strengthening old ones, with non-western countries. China and India figure as the topmost priorities for Russia in this restructuring. This is already reflected in the bilateral trade figures. For the first time, Russia has become one of the five largest trading partners of India, as the volume of trade between the countries reached $38.4 billion in 2022.

Russia’s oil sales to India played a big part in this dynamism on the trade front. Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said on Tuesday that Russian oil sales to India jumped 22-fold last year. India has been the biggest buyer of Russia’s benchmark Urals grade crude in March. And deliveries to India are set to account for more than 50 per cent of all seaborne Urals exports this month, with China in second place.

It is in this backdrop that Russia’s energy tsar Igor Sechin, who is a trusted associate of President Putin, recently paid a working visit to Delhi, following which an announcement was made in Moscow that Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil producer (whose share in global oil production is 6 per cent) has signed with IOC a term agreement to substantially increase oil supplies as well as diversify the grades to India. Notably, Petroleum Minister HS Puri attended the signing ceremony, hinting at a high-level political decision by the government to negotiate a road map heralding the emergence of Russia as India’s number one supplier of oil well into the future.

Sechin discussed with Indian officials ‘ways of expanding cooperation between Rosneft Oil Company and Indian companies in the entire value chain of the energy sector, including possibilities of making payments in national currencies.’ This is undoubtedly a big breakthrough in India’s relations with Russia. It signals that the government has effectively — quietly but firmly — pushed back the western pressure on India to roll back cooperation with Russia. Given the centrality of energy security in national development, there is much symbolism that Putin deputed Sechin, a key figure in the Kremlin power structure, to travel to Delhi at such an inflection point.

Coincidentally, on the Indian side, too, it is a rare moment that Sechin has a counterpart in Puri — an experienced diplomat — to connect the dots in the phenomenon of geoeconomics in contemporary capitalism. The point is, different from classical geopolitical disputes, today’s conflicts are taking place in a highly interdependent world economy. Geoeconomics, as a relatively new concept, urges us to think beyond paradigmatic geopolitical imaginaries in many aspects of the international sphere. The inscrutable ways in which globalised networks of corporate power and control can be weaponised, manipulated and ‘instrumentalised’, challenge and, at the same time, complement geopolitics.

The visit by Alexei Chekunkov, Russian Minister for the Development of the Far East and Arctic, has been another milestone in Russian-Indian relations. He was responsible for the creation of the Russian-Chinese Investment Fund, together with the China Investment Corporation. He was previously the Director-General of the Far East and Arctic Development Fund for several years till 2020, when Putin hand-picked him as federal minister, marking the high importance Kremlin attaches today to the Arctic region, which is visualised as a strategic resource base of the future with vast deposits of oil, natural gas and minerals such as nickel, platinum, palladium and rare earth metals.

Following Chekunkov’s visit, it was announced in Delhi that discussions took place for ‘operationalising’ the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor, a futuristic initiative stemming out of PM Modi’s visit to Russia in 2019. The Indian Ports and Shipping Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, who made this announcement, further revealed that discussions also took place regarding cargo transportation along the Northern Sea Route as well as container shipments between the Russian Far East and Indian ports.

Paradoxically, the disastrous effects of global warming have melted the polar ice caps, and Russia’s huge hidden resources, worth tens of trillions of dollars, are within grasp. (Another untold development will be the ‘liberation’ of Siberia from permafrost, which will open up massive arable lands for cultivation that has a multiplier effect on Russia’s recent emergence as a superpower in agriculture — one strategic vector of President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Moscow.) The melting of Arctic ice means that Russia’s longest border –- more than 24,000 km in length –- that lies above the Arctic Circle, is getting exposed, which in turn realigns Russian military thinking. With the melting of the Arctic ice, Russia now has to consider a 360-degree view of its overall defence.

In such a complex scenario, where geoeconomics and geopolitics intersect, Chekunkov’s visit signifies Kremlin’s prioritisation of India as a key partner for the development of Russian Far East, although China is manifestly keen to connect the Arctic to its Belt and Road Initiative.

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