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When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, he will be continuing a tradition based on a decades-old relationship and convergence of interests that has endured several regional conflicts, the fallout from the end of the Cold War, and new economic realities in the 21st Century.
Despite its role as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in the 1950s, India maintained very close ties first with the Soviet Union and then its post-Cold War successor Russia.
The 65-year relationship has been formidable, overcoming a few speed bumps along the way, but has endured for so long – with both countries deeply investing in the other – that it is unlikely to waver despite new geopolitical equations coming to the fore.
Shortly after the establishment of the modern Indian state, the Soviet Union looked to the south and east in a bit to export Communism and seed influence in a part of the world that become vital to it’s long-term foreign policy.
Growing ideological differences with the West fueled the Soviet race to win hearts and mind in both India and China.
At first, however, Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru – a strong supporter of the United Nations and non-alignment – sought to keep at bay both US and Soviet overtures, but never lost sight of his country’s strategic importance.
But Nehru was a socialist at heart even though he supported a parliamentary democracy and mixed policy economics. He was also scornful of the apparent lack of the West’s assistance to post-colonial states.
He saw in the Soviet Union a country that was willing to help India in industrial development, modernise the military, and ultimately help the country establish a public sector.
But Indo-Soviet relations were heavily impacted by external geopolitical alliances and agreements. One such alliance that would push India and the USSR closer was the 1954 US decision to increase economic and military aid to Pakistan.
In 1955, Nehru visited Moscow; a year later, Nikita Khrushchev visited New Delhi and declared the Soviet Union’s support of India’s post-colonial territorial claims.
In the meantime, Soviet relations with China – both countries had initiated an anti-West alliance in 1950 – were beginning to hit rocky waters, exacerbated by closer Delhi-Moscow relations.
When the USSR declared neutrality over the Indo-Chinese border disputes of 1959/60, Peking began to feel that it may have erred in allying with Moscow. The ensuing distrust eventually led to a schism between the two powerful Communist states and further pushed India and the Soviets closer.
Although Nehru had managed to sign a border treaty with China, border tensions exploded into a full-scale war in 1962; India lost.
But India was fast gaining greater military assistance from Russia. In 1962, the Soviets agreed to have India co-manufacture the then advanced MiG-21 jet fighter. At the same time, China and the USSR were trading increasingly hostile barbs.
By the mid-1960s, the USSR was playing a prominent role in India’s economic and industrial development. Both countries signed a number of bilateral agreements.
In 1971, as the US and China appeared to be moving to end years of distrust, India and the USSR inked the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation which essentially moved Moscow firmly in Delhi’s camp; trade deals were signed with India’s lack of foreign currency taken into consideration; arms sales were increased, and state visits were raised to historic levels when India received Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in 1973.
The Treaty gave India greater confidence to play an influential role in the 1971 East/West Pakistan secessionist conflict, and allowed it to assist in the establishment of the sovereign state of Bangladesh.
By the end of the 1970s, the USSR had become India’s greatest trading partner – a legacy that was to last well into the next century.
Collapse of the USSR
By the mid-1980s, several changes in Soviet outlook would affect their relationship with India.
Moscow and Beijing were beginning an era of rapprochement that would last into contemporary times.
At the same time, exporting Communism and establishing satellites as foreign policy ideals became no longer viable.
The Soviets were on their way to losing the war in Afghanistan and new leader Mikhail Gorbachev was leaning increasingly to a multi-lateral foreign policy that would later include conflict-resolution as a pivot.
(This policy would endure well into current Russian President Vladimir Putin’s global outlook and contribute to Moscow’s approach to ending the 2013 Syrian crisis)
Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi would continue is grandfather’s (Nehru) and mother’s (India Gandhi) close ties with the USSR. He visited Moscow in 1985 and Gorbachev visited Delhi in 1986; both visits would culminate in two large-scale comprehensive economic cooperation agreements, further cementing trade ties between the two countries that would not only last but strengthen into 2013.
As the Soviet Union began to collapse, the two countries maintained their friendship.
“Successive Indian governments have continued to engage in friendly relations with the Soviet Union, and a foreign policy consensus in India has been very largely supportive of the relationship,” writes Ramesh Thakur, Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) in the Crawford School at the Australian National University.
“More materially, when the Soviet Union was hit by a food crisis in the winter of 1990-91, India responded promptly with a loan of a million tons of wheat and a gift of 20,000 tons of rice,” Thakur, also a former UN Assistant, writes in India and the Soviet Union conjunctions and disjunctions of interests in Asian Survey in 1991.
Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union into more than a dozen sovereign states, India saw its friendship with Moscow only grow.
Soviet President Boris Yeltsin continued the legacy of high-profile visits to India, with successive Indian leaders reciprocating in kind.
During the 1990s, the two countries signed nearly a dozen agreements to boost trade ties, increase Russian investments in India, and cooperate on military and even space initiatives.
In 2000, India and Russia began a tradition of annual summits when they signed a Declaration of Strategic Partnership.
With the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, and the consequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, India and Russia discovered that their mutual cooperation extended beyond their immediate region and borders.
Two new sets of conditions had now been created. The first, the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, brought to an inevitable conclusion the geopolitical bi-polar chasm that existed between the West and the East, and established the US as the world’s only superpower.
The second was based on a 2001 prediction by Goldman Sachs Asset Management Chairman Jim O’Neill that the emerging markets around the world were beginning to pull focus and energy from the dominant G7 countries.
In his 2001 paper, Building Better Global Economic BRICs, which focused on this trend, O’Neill coined the acronym used in the title to shed light on the growing economic might of Brazil, Russia, India and China as emerging markets.
Given their growth and market purchasing power, O’Neill was able to project that within a decade, their combined GDP would “raise important issues about the global economic impact of fiscal and monetary policy in the BRICs”.
In 2009, India joined Russia in establishing BRIC at a summit in Yekaterinburg and formalized their relationships into an economic block with a political outlook. Incidentally, China, India and Russia had all improved tripartite relations since the end of the 1990s.
The creation of BRIC, now BRICS, was a culmination of a convergence of interests among some of the world’s most powerful economies.
In congruence with their partnership in BRICS, India and Russia have continued to hold summits on an annual basis, signing multi-billion dollar agreements in all fields, including nuclear and deep space technology.
Gone are the days when the USSR was helping post-colonial India develop its economic might. With a projected GDP growth rate of 4.5 per cent next year, India is now seen more as a partner than recipient.
On October 18, both countries began 10 days of joint military drills.
The BRICS Post