Banerjee opened the program with a brief overview of the historical context of India-Russia cooperation. Although Jawaharlal Nehru remained wary of the Soviet Union in the early days of the Indian state, by the mid-1950s Pakistan's rapprochement with the United States spurred India to establish closer relations with the USSR. This trend was confirmed in 1956 when, during a visit to India, Nikolai Bulganin and Alexei Kosygin referred to Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India. Formal cooperation between India and Russia began in 1962, when the two countries agreed to a program of military-technical cooperation, and culminated in 1971 with the signing of the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation. In spite of the economic benefits of Indo-Soviet cooperation, the fall of the USSR introduced tensions into the relationship. The years 1991-96 marked a low point in bilateral relations; during this period, the Russian Foreign Ministry considered South Asia only its seventh-highest foreign policy priority. Boris Yeltsin's visit to India in 1993 yielded new military-to-military agreements-and helped alleviate growing tensions between Moscow and Delhi-but brought few other lasting results.
Even today, Indo-Russian cooperation remains limited. People-to-people interactions are rare: only a small number of personnel or academic exchanges have taken place, and the two countries have never conducted joint military operations. Civilian trade between the nations-which amounts to $1.4 billion a year-remains relatively light, and is dominated by Indian exports of textiles, leather, and pharmaceuticals. In spite of recent declines in the volume of India-Russia trade, however, Banerjee argued that the booming arms and energy trade will likely strengthen the two nations' economic relations in the future. He also noted that informal cultural exchanges are healthy and growing, as evidenced by the popularity of Indian films in the former USSR.
Banerjee insisted that if India and Russia have yet to realize their full cooperative potential, India has reaped substantial benefits from the relationship. Soviet/Russian veto power at the UN has provided India with important security guarantees, assuring that a Security Council rift over Kashmir would not result in major changes in the status quo. Even more important, Russia's constant supply of inexpensive but high-quality military equipment has defined the countries' bilateral relations and significantly improved India's security situation. India's acquisitions from the USSR/Russia comprise 70% of its major weapons systems, and include up-to-date tanks, fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, and an aircraft carrier. In the future, energy cooperation may prove just as beneficial for both sides. Indian firms are involved in collaborative projects on Sakhalin and in the Caspian region, and Russia has cooperated on eighty hydro- and thermoelectric projects-as well as a light-water reactor plant-in India.
Dmitri Trenin opened his remarks by arguing that the Indo-Russian strategic alignment of today will endure well into the future. Striking parallels have emerged in both countries' struggles to bolster their economies, craft international roles for themselves, and neutralize threats on their peripheries. Furthermore, Russia's strategic interests are consistent with a stronger India, which Moscow believes would increase trade, create new opportunities for its industrial complex, and balance other growing powers in Asia. Indeed, Trenin argued, Russia has found itself in the "time of the south;" its security agenda over the next decades will focus on its southern borders.
Trenin proceeded to outline Russia's new, three-pronged security agenda. First, although Moscow urges restraint on the proliferation of WMDs in principle, in practice it has resigned itself to a nuclear South Asia. The fact that it took several years to elicit a Russian response to India's and Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests indicates that Russia does not seek to regulate the nuclear programs of either country. Though Russia does not desire to be a leader or a broker in South Asia, it is nevertheless eager to promote strategic and regional stability. Trenin suspects that it was this goal that motivated Putin to meet with Pervez Musharraf recently, mending thirty years of broken relations between Moscow and Islamabad. Despite Putin's suspicion of Musharraf and the ISI, he seems to view a stable Pakistan as a lesser evil than a more democratic, but less orderly, nation. Similarly, Trenin sees a convergence of Russian and Indian interests in Afghanistan, and believes that Russia would welcome India's increased presence in Central Asia. Finally, Russia views India as a possible counterbalance to China. China's GDP is now five times that of Russia, and its population is nearly ten times as large. But India's population-and global importance-are also exploding, and its nuclear program renders it a key player in world politics.
In short, then, the Russia-India relationship contains great promise. Both countries face similar challenges and have responded in similar manners to challenges in the past. Both have embraced cooperation, resuming their yearly presidential summits in 2000. Trenin acknowledged that contacts between the two nations remain minimal beyond the highest levels of government, and that their relations to date have rested on the relatively weak foundation of arms sales. Still, he argued, India represents a pillar of stability in a very unstable region, and there is no better candidate for a strategic-if not formal-ally for Russia.
The question and answer session began with one of the participants observing that Trenin had focused extensively on India's strategic value to Russia, while Banerjee had hardly mentioned Russia's import beyond its role as an arms provider. Another attendee pushed the presenters to elaborate on India's potential involvement in Central Asia, wondering if there is a true convergence in Russian and Indian strategic thinking about the region. Banerjee responded that while the term "strategic partner" is overused, the Indian government has a real interest in crafting a stronger relationship with Russia. With regard to Central Asia, he pointed out that plans for a Central Asian transport corridor might provide new opportunities for increased Indian engagement in the region, ending Delhi's traditionally minimal involvement there. Trenin added that Russia's longstanding and stable friendship with India provides a stark contrast to its troubled relations with Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, the other major players in the region. But he also characterized Russian plans for increased Indian engagement in Central Asia as "wishful thinking," pointing out that India is unlikely to expand its economic presence in the region to the extent that Moscow would like.
The discussion then turned to the effects of the situation in Afghanistan on Indo-Russian relations. Trenin argued that Russia was one of the prime beneficiaries of Operation Enduring Freedom, which removed the greatest strategic threat to arise since the fall of the Soviet Union. He characterized as wise Russia's decision not to undermine the Karzai government. However, he also sees a lack of Russian initiatives to aid the stabilization of Afghanistan, and believes that Russia prefers that Kabul "continue muddling through" the delicate situation in the region. Banerjee asserted that it will be many years before a functional center emerges in Kabul, but noted that India is doing its best to counter re-Talibanization and to promote development. It retains strong ties to northern tribal leaders, many of whom have lived in exile in India, and is training Afghan police forces. Still, he emphasized, serious problems remain: continuing tensions with Pakistan preclude more robust Indian involvement in Afghanistan, and have tied up shipments of food aid, which must travel through Pakistan.
Another participant wondered why Russia and India have not coordinated their Afghan policies, which, in turn, would aid the solidification of their strategic alliance. Banerjee responded that extensive Indo-Russian collaboration might have been possible were India's bilateral relations with Pakistan better, but that the enmity between the two countries has precluded extensive Indian involvement in Central Asia. Trenin added that Russia did have an urge to play a lead role in the Afghan reconstruction effort, but that its history in Afghanistan-and its limited financial resources-prevented it from doing so. There is no fundament clash of interests between India and Russia preventing a real partnership between the two nations, he argued, but India will find it difficult to reach out to Russia until its relations with Pakistan become more stable. In short, a leap forward in Indo-Russian cooperation-which would benefit both countries-is dependent on a leap forward in their strategic thinking.
Summary prepared by Faith Hillis, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian
Program at the Carnegie Endowment.