India and Russia on Tuesday pledged to expand their trade and economic cooperation, including New Delhi's oil purchases, as external affairs minister S Jaishankar reiterated India's call to end the war in Ukraine because of growing concerns among developing countries about food and energy security.
Jaishankar, on his first visit to Moscow since Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine in February, held talks with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov and co-chaired a meeting of the Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Cooperation with Russian deputy prime minister Denis Manturov.
The commitment by the two sides to step up trade and economic engagement came amid continuing disquiet in Western countries over India's purchase of discounted Russian oil and fertilisers. From accounting for just 0.2% of all the oil imported by India in the year ending March 2022, Russia emerged the top supplier in October – with a 22% share of total crude imports – to elbow aside traditional suppliers Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Addressing a joint news conference with Lavrov after the first round of their talks, Jaishankar pointed at "significant growth" in bilateral trade this year and said the two ministers focused on making it more sustainable. However, he said India is "naturally concerned" at the trade imbalance and raised "impediments that stand in the way of greater Indian exports".
Lavrov noted the "positive dynamics of bilateral trade", which had grown by more than 130% in September when compared to the past year and almost touched $17 billion. He said the two sides are confident the goal set by their leaders to increase bilateral trade to $30 billion "will soon be achieved".
Describing the India-Russia relationship as substantial and time-tested, Jaishankar said discussions at Tuesday's meetings focused on areas with "natural convergence of interests". "And when we do so, we not only serve our national interest, we...as major G20 economies...are actually helping to stabilise the world economy as well," he said.
Replying to a question on India's response to Western pressure to not buy Russian energy and G7's proposed price cap for Russian oil, Jaishankar asserted that India intends to stick to the relationship with Russia as it works to the country's advantage, especially to ensure the best possible access to energy supplies at a time when global markets are stressed.
"As regards the oil supply issue...there is a stress on the energy markets...created by a combination of factors. But as the world's third largest consumer of oil and gas, a consumer where the levels of income are not very high, it is our fundamental obligation to ensure that the Indian consumer has the best possible access, on the most advantageous terms, to international markets," Jaishankar said.
"In that respect, quite honestly, we have seen that the India-Russia relationship has worked to our advantage. So, if it works to my advantage, I would like to keep that going," he added.
The EAM said that there are still challenges that need to be addressed and it is "essential that our time-tested defence relationship continues to perform smoothly".
"Today we were united in our opinion that strengthening the Russia-India special and privileged strategic partnership is in favour of our people and it contributes to regional and international security and stability," Lavrov said.
Jaishankar used his opening remarks to reiterate Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call to end the war in Ukraine, an issue the Indian leader raised with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Uzbekistan in September.
He said the Ukraine conflict was a "dominant feature" of his discussions with Lavrov. "As Prime Minister Modi conveyed to President Putin in Samarkand in September, this is not an era of war... We are seeing growing concerns on energy and food security emanate from the conflict that are coming on top of severe stresses created by two years of Covid," he said.
Developing countries are "feeling this pain very acutely" and India "strongly advocates a return to dialogue and diplomacy". Jaishankar added, "We are clearly on the side of peace, respect for international law and support for the UN Charter."
India will help specific initiatives related to food grain and fertiliser shipments or any other problems. "I would say that for any initiative that de-risks the global economy and stabilises the global order at this stage, India will be supportive," he said.
Lavrov conveyed Russia's "high appreciation" of India's position on the situation in Ukraine and briefed Jaishankar on the current state of the "special military operations aimed at achieving the goals" set by Putin in February. He said the two ministers discussed the "attempts of Western powers to use the pretext of events in Ukraine to strengthen their domination in global affairs".
India has refrained from publicly criticising the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called for respecting the sovereignty of all states while abstaining on most Ukraine-related votes and resolutions at the United Nations.
Bilateral trade in recent decades has been largely driven by India's purchases of hi-tech weaponry and military hardware from Russia and the two sides have grappled with the problem of expanding their economic engagement and making it stable in the long-term. Jaishankar said discussions in this area were yielding results, accelerated by stresses on the global economy, including as a result of the Ukraine conflict.
Jaishankar said his discussions with Lavrov and Manturov covered cooperation in trade, investment, energy, defence, space and nuclear. The Indian delegation included senior officials from the ministries of finance, commerce, agriculture, petroleum and natural gas, ports and shipping, and chemicals and fertilisers.
The two sides reviewed progress in the space and nuclear programmes, including satellite navigation and piloted space programmes, and discussed the joint production of modern weaponry. They also discussed inter-regional cooperation, especially in Russia's Far East, and enhancing connectivity through the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor.
Sameer Patil, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said India's latest engagement with Russia reflected the delicate balancing by New Delhi to secure its interests. "India is looking to advance its national interests by leveraging the economic opportunities arising out of the lower prices of Russian oil. At the same time, India is doing a careful balancing by advocating the end of hostilities, which in turn had caused the glob economic turmoil and rise in crude prices," he said.