On 6th December 2021, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened in a summit meeting over the first 2+2 dialogue between Russia and India since the latter came to power. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and their Russian counterparts, Sergey Shoygu and Sergey Lavrov, met to discuss national security concerns common to both countries, and resolved to work towards issues ranging from Ukraine to China to the Indo-Pacific through “joint research and development, co-development and joint production of advanced defence technology and systems.” For observers, this meeting, accompanied by Putin’s five-hour visit to India, could signify a transformation in the recently strengthened India-US relations as well. The two countries signed 28 agreements, where India reiterated its objective of advancing from buyer to partner in Russian defence development and production and raised the issue of Chinese aggression in Ladakh. Modi commented that as India pursues partners “sensitive and responsive to its expectations and requirements”, this meeting would bolster India-Russia “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” and expand the opportunities for cooperation. For Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the most important achievements of the summit were the adoption of decadal military-technical partnerships and of the proposal to jointly produce AK-203 assault rifles under the ‘Make in India’ program. However, the much-anticipated Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics (RELOS) agreement was not signed, and more negotiations are to follow.
The purpose of this article is to analyse Russian endeavours in the Arctic as a new frontier for possibilities, specifically in terms of cooperation with India. It will first summarise the implications of the impending RELOS agreement. Second, it will delve deeper into the history of Russian engagement in the region, its military interests, the legal and diplomatic strategies at play, and the prospects for Russian success. Third, it will analyse the prospects for India-Russia cooperation in the Arctic, specifically in oil and gas, shipping connectivity, manpower and seafaring, tourism, climate change, polar medicines, and digital connectivity. Finally, it will offer recommendations to better the prospects for India-Russia cooperation in the Arctic.
What is the RELOS agreement?
India and Russia have shared historically deep defence ties despite the former’s growing collaboration with the USA in military hardware and technology. Though the relationship has been significantly injured by Russia’s increasing closeness to China and Pakistan, experts believe the December 2021 summit did succeed in augmenting cooperation between both the countries. The “long overdue” RELOS agreement is part of a broader bilateral military-to-military cooperation endeavour. It aims at developing interoperability and logistical exchange arrangements, which have been formulated to delineate the administrative framework necessary to allow both countries ease of access to one another’s military facilities like ports, installations, and bases. This framework coordinating military facilities reduces the time and constant paperwork required for the use of aviation infrastructure and assistance on refuelling, berthing, replenishment of rations and spare parts, and maintenance of warships and troops during joint exercises and port visits based on reciprocity. The RELOS agreement is of immense importance to the strategic objectives of the Indian Navy, particularly regarding its expanded reach in the Polar waters. Infrastructural coordination and partnership would enrich the operational turnaround and reinforce high seas interoperability, especially as India anticipates being granted “access to Russian naval port facilities in the Arctic” and increased energy cooperation in the region. Commentators note that this would allow it to act as a “strategic counterweight” to Sino-Russian “synergy” in the Arctic. Thus, as both countries negotiate to provide for enhanced interoperability in possible “hostile situations”, the RELOS would operationalise India-Russia cooperation in the Arctic in the years to come.
History of Russian engagement in the Arctic
For several hundred years, successive Arctic governments had supported and fostered Soviet involvement in trade and extraction of natural resources in the region. Indeed, as oil and gas mineral resources were discovered in Siberia, the Soviets found vast sources of wealth and hard currency in the region, which eventually buttressed their military machine, allowed the pursuance of foreign policy objectives, and supported domestic consumption. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the exploitation of the Arctic increased exponentially as those mineral resources financed Russia’s domestic stability, restored its weakened economy, financed the rebuilding of the military, accumulated emergency funds for future economic or political instability, and furthered Putin’s rise to the presidency. In the decades after the Cold War, oil and gas in the Arctic accounted for 60% of Russia’s export revenues and more than 30% of its federal budget. Indeed, in the early 2000s, it was the extraction of minerals from the Arctic that brought Russia back to a position of power in the international system. Russia’s perspective of the Arctic in the first decade after the Cold War was that it was a region of low tensions where cooperation with other great powers was advantageous and practicable. However, as its relations with the West deteriorated over the years (especially after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014), it adopted a confrontational and competitive view of the region, viewing it as a component of its military and economic expansionist strategies and great-power ambitions. In 2006, vying for admission into the G8, Russia underlined the role of Arctic gas and oil in its agenda to institute itself as an “energy superpower.” Especially as rising temperatures eased accessibility through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and provided a dependable source of revenue, Russia found in the Arctic no major challengers to its market and geopolitical influence in the region. To offset high cost-projections and technological complications, it opened up its offshore Arctic projects to foreign investments, intended to assemble powerful stakeholders balancing Western influence in the international arena. It also developed the NSR along its Arctic coastline to better diversify its energy policy, reduce its dependence on the European energy market using Ukraine as a critical node, and link the Russian Arctic to Asian markets. After the invasion of Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) transformed its posturing towards Russia and was viewed as the primary threat to the alliance’s security. The unrest in Belarus compounded Russia’s anxieties, which were already magnified by increased Western threat perceptions. No longer was Moscow certain that Minsk would be a reliable ally if there was a serious conflict with the NATO. Thus, not only did the Arctic resources, navigation and maritime access to Asia act as a counterweight to overdependence on European energy markets, they also helped sustain Russia’s defence capabilities to balance the NATO threat.
Russian interests in the Arctic – economic and military
In general, Russian engagement in the Arctic has deepened for the achievement of three key military interests – primarily, the acquiring of second-strike capability of its ballistic missile submarine force (SSBN) on the Kola Peninsula. In order to secure these seven naval SSBNs lying in conflict with the NATO, it has aggressively developed anti-access/area denial monitoring and surveillance systems, intensified strategic exercises utilising long-range bomber patrols and anti-submarine warfare (ARW) aircrafts, and modernised supporting military infrastructure in the region. Secondly, it has sought control over Arctic maritime navigational routes to safeguard its access to the North Atlantic and European Atlantic – and thus, the Barents Sea, Norwegian Sea, and Atlantic Ocean – in the event of a conflict with the NATO on its eastern flank. Russia’s increasing investments and commercial interests in the Arctic are naturally protected by the remote and hostile climate, scanty communications infrastructure, and severe environmental conditions. However, the enormity of the region, its long and porous borders, and increasing civilian activities have fomented concerns about developing military protection and military-response deployment capacities in case of nuclear, environmental, or maritime shipping accidents.
Nearly 10% of Russia’s gross domestic product and 20% of its exports are accounted for by various natural resources found in its Arctic territories. These primarily include hydrocarbons, but also precious and nonferrous metals, stones, and other minerals. The Arctic waters are also essential as a source of food for the mainland. While Arctic food resources comprise approximately one-third of all fish harvested in Russia, the government has pursued programs to increase this share as rising ocean temperatures push fish stocks north. Because procuring and maintaining consistent access to these resources is one of its primary economic goals, the building of appropriate infrastructure to support the Arctic economy is a related priority in the region. Thus, the government aided by private investments has sought to develop expensive but essential infrastructure including roads, rail, aviation, maritime transportation, ports, weather stations, emergency facilities, and expanded icebreaking capacities. The development of the NSR as a navigable maritime corridor transporting Arctic resources to Asia – a route which is presently only accessible in summer and with icebreaker escort – is an important component of the country’s 2020 Arctic strategy. Russia aims to eventually transform this into a viable maritime corridor, allowing it easy access to Europe and Asia by 2035.
Russian strategies at play in the Arctic
Russia has efficiently utilised a constellation of legal, diplomatic, economic, military, and informational strategies to pursue its ambitions in the Arctic. In the formal legal sphere, it has emphasised on the fact that it is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – the foremost legal treatise on the matter – whereas USA has never ratified it. Thus, when Russia has claimed ownership over large swathes of the Arctic seabed as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and argued that its continental shelf is geologically coherent with the provisions of the UNCLOS, it has also emphasised in the United Nations (UN) that it would hesitate to recognise any conditions put forth by USA in this regard. This territorial claim also conflicts with similar claims by Canada and Denmark, and Russia continues to negotiate bilaterally with both these countries to reconcile their competing perspectives. A viable resolution of this issue is crucial because if the Russian claim is accepted in the UN, it would grant the country exclusive rights to exploit the abundant offshore resources in a substantial part of the Arctic Ocean. The Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council has allowed it to effectively employ regional diplomatic tools to project a soft power image on the international arena. Because this organisation is the primary international forum concerned with governance and cooperation in the region and is comprised of all the major regional stakeholders – eight Arctic member states, organisations and representatives of the indigenous people, and other observer States including China – Russia seeks to garner influence on matters relating to sustainable development, environmental conservation, and scientific research, even if the Council’s mandate does not extend to military and security issues. As Russia pledged to promote and protect the rights of the indigenous peoples, initiate regional cooperation programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide impetus to foreign investment in the region, observers believe that this also signals towards its efforts to cement its legitimacy in ownership of large portions of the Arctic. It also employs its membership of the Arctic Five Forum, comprised of the Arctic littoral States – Canada, Norway, Denmark, USA, and Russia – to further promote the legitimacy of its claims. This forum is an informal body and has no rigid mandate. Thus, Russia has been able to discuss a wide range of issues, from fisheries and maritime policy to security arrangements. Though its economy has not experienced satisfactory growth in the last few decades, it has dedicated nontrivial fiscal and monetary resources to bolster its agenda in the Arctic. Several large mining, energy and infrastructure companies have been offered attractive tax incentives to invest in the Siberian eastern Arctic territories, especially as these have seen less development than those regions west of the Urals. An incentive program of more than $300 billion for infrastructure, industrial, liquefied natural gas (LNG), oil and gas extraction projects, was sanctioned by the government in 2020. It is also expected that other industries – petrochemical, mining, timber – would also receive similar incentives. For commentators, Russia is intent on attracting foreign and domestic investors to the region to invigorate economic activity, curb the outmigration of skilled populations, and develop civic resources like roads, power plants, ports and airports in the region. Russia has also adopted several conventional hard power strategies to pursue its ambitions in the Arctic, primary of which is its Northern Fleet. This coordinated military instrument has aided the securing of SSBN forces and Arctic borders, assertion of regional hegemon status, defence of territorial and resource claims, protection of economic and infrastructural assets, and has countered the military build-up of NATO forces in the region. Indeed, the government has also implemented organisational transformations in the Fleet to build its capacity and “phase NATO out of the Arctic.” These include an Arctic joint strategic command and Arctic Brigade to protect the military installations in the NSR, increased and upgraded facilities for logistical support to icebreakers, and the modernisation of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems through more sophisticated naval surface combatants and artillery units, air-defence systems, motorised infantry brigade, and anti-ship cruise missiles. Though at its current pace, Russia does not yet have the capability to establish a truly superior blue-water navy, the Fleet has been utilised to intimidate competitors in the region. It has conducted confrontational manoeuvres against NATO countries in the north and east and against the USA off the Alaskan coast, increased patrols (air, submarine and naval) near Denmark and Norway, and commenced snap military drills in the contested areas. The principal operational objective is to deny access to US and NATO forces in the Kola Peninsula through a defence-oriented strategy and to eventually obstruct NATO’s chief sea lines of communication and carrier battle groups through deploying extended defence-in-depth SSBNs through the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap. Additionally, because the installations and infrastructure developed along the NSR is generally dual-use, Russia has also been able to better maritime security through radar surveillance, communications, and several new drone bases.
The major economic stakeholders with significant investments in Arctic oil and gas are close associates in Putin’s inner circle, thus leading to interdependence of political and economic interests. This has ensured a coordinated mechanism for industrial growth in the region, where the State assists domestic companies struggling to increase their investments and development, especially under US sanctions prohibiting companies from collaborating with Russian offshore oil projects. The State oil company Rosneft partnered with ExxonMobil in 2011 to develop resources in the Kara Sea, and when the latter pulled out in 2014 after sanctions were imposed, the government supported the resumption of the project in 2020. The Yamal LNG plant is another instance in this regard. Novatek is the largest independent gas producer in Russia and possesses a controlling interest in this plant. It is also operated by Putin’s close associate, Gennady Timchenko. After Western sanctions hindered financial and technological transfers, Novatek partnered with the China National Petroleum Corporation and a Chinese state investment fund to develop the plant, in return for a 30% stake. Sino-Russian cooperation is a major force in the Arctic, with similar projects being pursued in the Russian Far North. In 2018, Rosatom – the State nuclear organisation – was charged with developing offshore Arctic infrastructure, managing shipping along the NSR, constructing the nuclear icebreaker fleet, and bettering communication and navigation facilities in the region. Indeed, for Nikolai Patrushev, the Security Council Secretary, the expansion of Russian presence in the Arctic is a key defence and security goal, and a special commission was appointed in 2020 for this reason.
What chances does Russia have for success?
Though the Russian government is pursuing ambitious plans to attract foreign investors to the Arctic, there are several reasons why the prospects for success are uncertain. Firstly, oil and gas – primary resources in the Arctic – are also found in significant quantities elsewhere in more hospitable terrains with more temperate climates. The vast remoteness of the region makes the development of infrastructure and new settlements with vibrant economic activity difficult and expensive. Not only do these factors reduce the attractiveness of the region for investors, but these Arctic towns also suffer from high rates of poverty, unemployment, and outmigration. Thus, as the government continues to allocate major resources to only companies owned by Putin’s close associates, other promising projects remain underfunded. Even if companies do set up facilities in the region, the melting permafrost due to climate change have caused the degradation of roads, buildings, and other civic infrastructure, and have accelerated the vulnerability to industrial and transportation accidents. All these factors have made the region one difficult to inhabit and work in, and large sections of skilled workforce continue to migrate to more welcoming environments. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a deleterious impact on the global economy and diminished the demand for oil and gas. Europe is currently pursuing major energy sector reforms due to a weakened economy, to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reduce its carbon footprint. It is one of the largest importers of Russian gas, and both these developments have made the European market more competitive. Plans for the expansion of LNG exports to Asian markets, especially China, suffer from a constellation of obstacles – expensive LNG gas, threat of US sanctions, length, and hostile climate along the NSR, and hard and uncompromising positions of Chinese negotiators. The NSR is expected to develop as a major route of transportation between Europe and Asia, but its success has been unencouraging as polar water insurance and icebreaker support is expensive. Though 331 ships travelled through parts of the NSR in 2020, only 62 ships carrying 26 million tons completed the whole voyage – much lesser than Russia’s proclamations of shipping 80 million tons by 2024. The Northern Fleet and Arctic Brigade are also severely underdeveloped, considering high Russian ambitions to defend the northern border and military-economic infrastructure, protect the SSBNs in the region beyond simple bastion defence. Like other slagging Arctic projects, these also face resource constraints and challenging operating conditions, leading to the shelving of the second Arctic Brigade for better coastal defence, and to the Fleet experiencing major paucity of icebreakers, ice-capable ships, troop transport, aerial refuelling, and ASW patrol aircraft. In case of an Arctic conflict, it is uncertain that these will be able to prevail successfully against the NATO. Moreover, the Baltic regions are near Russian military installations, thus making the latter vulnerable to long-range precision weapons launched from air and sea-based platforms. It is also questionable whether Russia would be able to escape the heavily enclosed Gulf of Finland and protect the Kaliningrad enclave from NATO strikes. However, the Baltic states are isolated from the rest of the alliance and are smaller. In the event of a conflict, NATO would find it difficult to deploy and reinforce troops stationed there, without vulnerability to Russian interdiction, especially as Russia possesses experiential and technical superiority in icebreaker and ice-capable ships and cold-weather training and technology. These questions about whether Russian forces and infrastructure would be able to withstand a NATO attack are not purely hypothetical. The former has aggressively projected power in the Arctic and Baltic and has provoked the NATO and US interests in the region. In February 2021, a B1-Lancer squadron with 200 temporary personnel was deployed by the USA in Norway. In September 2020, joint exercises were conducted by US, British and Norwegian navies around 100 miles away from the Russian coastline. Most revealingly, in March 2020, several NATO States including USA, Norway and UK as well as representatives from Sweden and Finland conducted practise exercises to prepare for a “high-intensity combat scenario” in northern Norway.
Prospects for Russia-India cooperation in the Arctic
India and Russia have historically shared deep civilisational ties. This was reiterated by Modi at the Eastern Economic Forum 2021 where he termed Vladivostok a true “Sangam” of the Pacific and Eurasia and emphasised upon the important geostrategic location of the region. Indeed, colonial India had participated in the Spitsbergen Treaty (1920) along with other States to define Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard – an Arctic archipelago. With the opening of the NSR due to Arctic sea-melt, allowing better shipping routes and increased access to offshore hydrocarbons, India has been keener to strengthen its economic partnership with Russia. In recent years, the Arctic has evolved as a new arena for investment and development opportunities and cooperation. India has reiterated this perspective at two recent occasions. The Joint Statement formulated after Modi’s 2019 visit to Vladivostok for the India-Russia Annual Summit emphasised that India was eager to explore opportunities for cooperation in the Arctic region and to “play a significant role in the Arctic Council.” Spurred by this, in January 2020, the Ganga-Volga Dialogue of Civilizations was organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Research Foundation, where eminent experts from both the countries discussed at length, a range of issues including – education, culture and civilisation; entrepreneurship and innovation; trade routes and inland navigation; and cooperation between India, Russia and Greater Eurasia.
India currently has the fastest growing market for consumption of energy, and various joint statements between India and Russia ahead of the Eastern Economic Forums 2019 and 2021 regarding sustained hydrocarbon engagement are indicative of both governments seeking collaboration. As Russia pursues ambitious oil and gas development projects in the Arctic, outlined in the recent national strategy document, Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security until 2035, India too is looking toward the Barents area for hydrocarbon extraction and mineral development. This region not only possesses rich mineral deposits – especially iron ore, which is essential to the growing demand for steel in India, it also has deep harbours which make transportation convenient. Thus, over the years, Indian oil and gas companies have viewed Russia as an attractive investment destination and have collectively invested approximately $16 billion in the Russian oil and gas sector involving upstream investments, collaborations, sourcing, and supplies. The energy consortium comprised of Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOC), Oil India Limited (OIL) and Bharat Petro Resources Limited (BPRL) – a subsidiary company of Bharat Petroleum – acquired 23.9% stakes in JSC Vankorneft and 29.9% stakes in LLC Taas-Yuryakh fields in 2016. ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) presently holds 20% stakes in the Russian Sakhalin-1 oil and gas project. Following Modi’s statement that energy was “major pillar in India-Russia strategic relations, and that this energy partnership would bolster” stability in the global energy market”, the IOC and OVL signed separate MoUs with Gazprom. The growing involvement of Indian workers in gas projects in the Amur, Yamal and Vladivostok regions have augmented the legitimacy of India’s claims towards energy cooperation. According to Modi’s 2019 during his visit to Russia, India has also begun to import LNG and coking from the country. Though there are concerns about the relatively higher shipping and ice-breaking technology costs when importing from the Arctic (compared to Qatar, Australia and Mozambique), both countries are determinedly exploring ways to increase energy trade and cooperation. Because of warming sea temperatures, swathes of sea-ice have melted and receded along the Arctic coast. This has allowed the opening of several new shipping routes, the most prominent of which is the NSR which significantly reduces the maritime distance between East Asian and West European ports and may act as an effective alternative to the often-crowded Suez Canal. It is unclear how India will benefit from this precisely but given its increasing investments in developing Russian Arctic oil and gas fields, the NSR would present a viable strategic alternative to India’s shipping routes. Both governments are hopeful that expansions of the Chennai–Vladivostok Maritime Corridor (CVMC) – connecting the ports of Chennai, Visakhapatnam, and Kolkata with Vladivostok, Vostochny and Olga – would succeed as an extension to the NSR. Experts also believe that the CMCV and the developing International North-South Corridor would reduce the distance in connectivity between both countries. The CVMC would allow several advantages over existing maritime routes. First, it would reduce the time taken to transport cargo between India and Russia to only 24 days, instead of the currently used European route which takes 40 days. Second, it would effectively elevate India’s strategic standing in the South China and broaden the scope of the Indo-Pacific through increased naval presence safeguarding energy and trade shipments from the Russian Far East. For Russia too, the CVMC possesses several advantages. Most importantly, it could pave the way for Russian involvement into the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. It could also allow an opportunity for diversification of energy exports to India and East Asia and reduce the dependency on China. The development of the NSR, the CVMC and other shipping routes through the Arctic, combined with the growing energy and mineral resources extraction projects in the Russian Far East and the Arctic, have created a demand for skilled seafarers with proficiency in polar expeditions and a similarly trained workforce. Currently, 9.35% of global seafarers in the maritime industry are Indian, and India ranks third worldwide in this regard. The Indian government is developing enhanced training facilities for the existing and the new generations of seafarers with specialisation in polar operations, to be better able to compete for emerging opportunities for employment in the Arctic. This is even more essential for domestic socio-economic progress, because India also retains the largest populations of skilled and unskilled labour and extremely high rates of unemployment. Indeed, the government is keen to gain from its large youth demographic dividend and emerging consumer market – which is attractive to Russia, and both countries are strengthening educational exchanges between their respective universities as Indian youth look to Russia for training in seafaring and employment in the maritime industry. Experts predict that the commonalities in social affinities and development goals between Russia and India would lead to the easing of immigration restrictions in the former for Indians as maritime/Arctic employment opportunities increase, leading to the possible migration of an Indian workforce into the Arctic region.
Other than providing opportunities for strictly economic cooperation between India and Russia, the Arctic could also allow for collaboration in tourism, science, and digital connectivity.
Though more Indian tourists visit Russia than vice versa, the proportions are significantly lower than other destinations travelled to by tourists of both countries. The direct contribution of the tourism industry to Russia and India’s GDP – before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – was $23 billion and $121.9 respectively. Though the latter benefitted from an augmentation in tourism revenues in 2019 and early 2020, the former has been eager to increase its tourism revenues and has recently projected India as a high-priority market. Russia has sought to demonstrate the appeal of its culture, nature, and hospitality in order to welcome more tourists, and India too intends to increase the tourist inflow substantially by 2023. Indeed, as a result of recent bilateral deliberations, charter flights have been launched between Russia and Goa. For both countries, the Arctic – with its unique landscapes, flora and fauna, and northern lights – could offer a hitherto unexplored tourism destination, and Russian tour companies are exploring opportunities for increased Indian tourist and film industry flow into the Arctic, leading to profits made on both sides. Indeed, the Indian Ministry of Tourism and the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism are collaborating on plans to promote the Arctic as a premier travel destination. As in Antarctica, scientific research regarding climate change is one of the chief reasons for India’s engagement in the Arctic. Scientists in India have understood that close observation, monitoring, research and analysis of the consequences of environmental transformations in the Arctic – glaciology, atmosphere, biological, marine and earth sciences – is cardinal to better comprehending and predicting the Indian monsoons and its wide-ranging impact on the agricultural industry. Given the considerable share that agriculture accounts for in the Indian GDP, as well as the dependence of most of the population on agriculture for food and employment, it is not difficult to understand why India is so enthusiastic about improving its relationship with Russia and gaining access into the Arctic. Secondly, the persistent Arctic ice retreat due to climate change and warming sea temperatures is raising sea levels in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This has increased the threats to the safety and security of nearly 14.2% of India’s population residing in coastal cities, towns, and villages along its lengthy coastline of approximately 7516 sq. km. As these areas become more prone to floods, storms and other hazardous weather events, the Indian scientific community is striving to better understand how to mitigate the arising challenges. Indeed, marine biologists, glaciologists and atmospheric scientists of both countries aided by their governments have developed several mechanisms for scientific and technical cooperation, including the Working Group on Science and Technology, the Integrated Long Term Programme, the Basic Science Cooperation Programme, and the India–Russia Bridge to Innovation. They have also instituted mechanisms for cooperation in Telemedicine, creation of a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, and the Russia–India Network (RIN) of universities. In all these frameworks, the Arctic has evolved into a key area of collaboration and research. This is not limited to meteorological or geological research only, as Indian and Russian scientists have maintained a long history of cooperation in medical and pharmaceutical research as well. With the melting of Arctic permafrost and receding sea ice, several viruses have begun to reappear into the ecosystem after millennia. Moreover, several antibiotic-resistant genes with migratory capacities over long distances – such as metallo-β-lactamase-1 (blaNDM-1) found in the Arctic in 2013, and first detected in an Indian hospital patient in 2007 – have been discovered in the Arctic ice. These occurrences have provoked serious concerns about the future of human-animal health and have increased the focus on developing polar medicines. The scientific communities of both countries and their respective governments are rapidly deepening their scientific cooperation and bioprospecting mechanisms for studying organisms with unique adaptations found in the harsh Arctic climate, which could possibly be the future for new medicines to counter these emerging infectious pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Emerging sea lines of communication around the Arctic aided by growing commercial and economic activities have also led to the advent of digital connectivity pathways. A more commercially viable Arctic necessarily requires sophisticated modes of communication. Thus, Russia is developing the Polar Express Project – including 12500 km of undersea fibre optic cables connecting swathes of Russian territory along the NSR, from Murmansk to Vladivostok with high-speed internet. When the CVMC becomes fully operational, this too will bring India closer to the Arctic. However, both countries also realise that digitally connecting the Arctic through satellites would be a more resilient alternative to fibre optic cables, given the extreme polar climate and weather conditions. India and Russia have an extensive record of cooperation in outer space, and the Indian Space Research Organisations (ISRO) is internationally renowned for producing cost-effective satellites. Experts believe that this introduces another prospect for India-Russia cooperation in the Arctic, because total connectivity will only be achieved if multiple low-earth satellites are placed across the region and ISRO’s Antrix has capacity to pioneer these satellite launches at inexpensive prices. The booming Indian IT sector could also provide effective solutions for software technology infrastructure and cooperate on developing large software hubs in the region.
Recommendations for India-Russia cooperation in the Arctic
India should seriously consider deepening its collaboration in hydrocarbon exploration and extraction in Russia through either instituting new mechanisms or increasing the capacity of existing ones. A special joint working group may be set up under the auspices of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) to specifically explore cooperation in the Arctic. The joint statement released on 6th December 2021 entitled INDIA-RUSSIA: Partnership for Peace, Progress and Prosperity does refer to sustained cooperation in the Arctic and India’s desire for Observer status in the Arctic Council, but experts believe that more rigorous efforts must be made to review and extend the five-year roadmap for cooperation in the hydrocarbons sector and Russian Far East that was first signed in 2019. Russia has the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world, and India may seek collaboration to allow the accelerated acquisition of Polar Research Vehicles (PRVs) – a proposal that was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in 2014 and was supposed to have been operationalised within 34 months. Given the intent of both countries to engage in scientific collaboration in the Arctic, a MoU between the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) and the Indian National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) could prove useful in furth4ering joint research goals. As Russia contends for the recognition of vast swathes of the Arctic as part of its EEZ under the UNCLOS, India could consider supporting this assertion in the UN Security Council to signal willingness to provide support in the diplomatic sphere. India currently fulfils 85% of its requirement for coking coal (essential for the steel sector) through imports – specifically Australia. If the MoU signed between the Indian Ministry of Steel and the Russia Ministry of Energy on cooperation in this regard, which was approved by the Union Cabinet in 2021 is operationalised, the Russian Arctic and Far East could fulfil 50% of India’s coking coal requirement. Alongside the CVMC, the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) could also be extended to the Arctic through Russia’s Unified Deep-Water System (UDWS) – which links the White, Baltic, Caspian, Azov, Black Sea and the Volga through a 6500 km-long network of interconnected inland waterways. India has already proposed the inclusion of the Chabahar Port in the UDWS, which would bring it much closer to the Arctic and emphasise on North-South connectivity for the region’s development.
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