If there has been one constant in India’s external firmament, it has been enduring friendship with Russia. Through wars and peace, Moscow has always provided us crucial support, material and political. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ongoing visit to that country is a reaffirmation of that friendship. The context is significant.

On the face of it, the annual India-Russia summit is one of those many routines of diplomacy. Singh has visited Moscow six times since 2004. There have been high-level visits from Russia, too. So what has changed?

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Much of it has to do with India’s relations with the other great power whose friendship it sought eagerly, the US. A very different US administration led by George Bush Jr, too, wanted to lift relations with India away from the miasma of Cold War suspicion. The year 2005 marked the high tide of efforts in that direction. But by 2009, American priorities had changed. In the 20th century, US foreign policy has followed an unbroken tradition all the way back to the time of Franklin Roosevelt. It was in 1943-45 that much of the US calculations in this domain were made. From that perspective, the Bush years marked an upheaval. It represented an opportunity for India that had never existed before. That opportunity has, for the time being, gone.

If there was a certain cooling of relations with Russia, it took place during this time. Pranab Mukherjee’s disastrous 2007 visit to Russia, the constant bickering over the price of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and a host of other issues clouded Indo-Russian relations. In that sense, ignoring Russia, if such an expression can be used in an all-weather friendship, was a costly oversight. The Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow should, in all likelihood, set that right. Initial observations point in that direction. Singh described India’s relations with Russia as being “the most important".

So far, the relationship has been more pronounced in military and political directions. That ought to be the direction in which the friendship proceeds. But deepening these ties now requires a big boost in trade and economic ties. Once that happens, the political fibre will be strengthened against any shocks. At the moment, Russia is nowhere close to India’s largest trade partners. There is ample scope for trade enlargement in almost all spheres: manufactures, oil and gas, information technology and services. Hopefully, the Prime Minister’s visit will be able to impart some depth to trade ties with Russia.

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