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Russia-India ties need a new backbone and they might have just found it

The character of the Indian community in Moscow and elsewhere in the country has changed from what it used to be in the Soviet times – and their most urgent task is to sell the “new India” story

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s 2023 year-end visit to Moscow was a focused initiation of a preparatory effort that will reorient Russia-India relations when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Russia this year.

Defense, nuclear, and space will continue to be the core elements of the bilateral relationship. In the coming months and medium to long term, other poles will be added: an important role for the Indian diaspora in Russia, connectivity, tourism, fin-tech and info-tech.

Among such a mix of old and new pillars, the much-discussed energy collaboration will have to find its feet. Both sides are looking to convert their flourishing energy business from a buyer-seller relationship into a strategic energy partnership similar to what Modi has built with Gulf states.  

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Confirming Modi’s intention to visit Russia in 2024 at his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on December 27, Jaishankar told the Russian leader that Modi “will find a date that is mutually convenient for the political calendar of both countries. So, it is certainly something that he is looking forward to.”

Hinting at changes to come in bilateral relations, Putin told Jaishankar that at the Putin-Modi summit next year, “we have to cover a lot of ground.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged at his joint press conference with Jaishankar on the same day that “we are respectful of the aspiration of our Indian colleagues to diversify their military and technical links.” 

Indians who know about Russia-India defense ties concede that this will take decades in view of the depth, diversity, and history of them. However, a public discourse on India’s aspirations point to steps in that direction beyond the 22nd Russia-India summit this year.  

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Jaishankar’s crowded itinerary during his December 25-29 visit included a pioneering effort to turn to and seek support from the Indian diaspora in Russia to help augment bilateral relations. There are 30,000 Indians living in Russia, according to figures available with the Indian embassy in Moscow. Some of them have lived in Russia for more than three decades. It is being planned that when Modi visits Russia this year, he will address this numerically significant community at an agreed location to be decided in the coming months. 

Diaspora engagement has been a pillar of Modi’s overseas outreach all over the world in the nearly ten years he has been prime minister. Jaishankar’s initiative to meet a cross-section of this community in Moscow on December 26 was enthusiastically welcomed by those who attended this meeting.

Attendees claimed this was the first time that a visiting Indian foreign minister had addressed the diaspora in Moscow. The claim was not challenged. The Indian embassy’s archives have records of external affairs ministers meeting sections of the diaspora – such as students at universities in the Soviet Union – but not the Indian community as a whole.  

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Jaishankar was frank with the Indian community in Russia about what he expects from them. Firstly, he asked every Indian to persuade five of their Russian friends to visit India. In turn, he hoped those five who make the visit will persuade other Russians to go to India. The idea is to jump start tourism in both directions. By the time the meeting ended, the audience had taken this request earnestly. They demanded direct passenger flights between ten Indian cities and ten Russian cities. If there was more connectivity, Indian tourists will flock to Russia, they said. 

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Jaishankar was unfazed. The next day, in his opening remarks at a press conference with Lavrov, the minister brought up this subject. He said India had recently increased the number of flights to Russia from 52 to 64 every week, adding, “We are open to increasing it further.” Greater air connectivity is now an important bilateral agenda item. 

Jaishankar acknowledged at his various interactions, including one in Saint Petersburg with indologists, that culture has always been a very strong element in Russia-India relations. Even on his latest visit, the minister went to see a school named after Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.

But a new and changing world requires additional, innovative drivers in bilateral relationships. It is relevant in this context that the character of the Indian diaspora in Russia has changed. They now belong to professions such as financial technology, business consultancy, information technology and other areas that did not exist in the heyday of Indo-Soviet amity. 

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Jaishankar’s request to the Indian diaspora was meant to actively fill gaps in Russian hearts and minds by updating their knowledge about a new India, which has emerged as the fifth largest economy in the world by GDP.

Many people in Russia are not familiar with what has changed in India,” he said. In Jaishankar’s view, if the diaspora fills this knowledge gap about opportunities for doing business, the present bilateral trade of $50 billion – an all-time high – could double to $100 billion. All in all, the Indian community in Russia now has its task cut out for them. It is a new leap that brings them on par with the Indian diaspora in the Gulf, Far East and North America. 

Beyond the obvious, Modi has not given up hope for an end to the conflict in Ukraine. Putin told the Indian Minister: “We know the position of Prime Minister Modi … his attitude to complicated processes, including hot spots, the situation in Ukraine. I know about his striving to resolve this problem through peaceful means.” 

A few days before traveling to Moscow, Jaishankar pointedly recused himself from discussing Ukraine when he launched a book in New Delhi by his multilateralist diplomat colleague Ambassador Mohan Kumar. From what Putin said, it was clear that Ukraine was discussed in depth with Jaishankar more than meets the eye. “Now, we will talk about this [Ukraine] in more detail … I know that our colleagues have spoken about this, but nonetheless we will give you additional information on the situation.” Jaishankar’s visit was not a substitute for the interrupted annual summit, but it was a good augury for Russia-India relations in the new year. 

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