Since Russia began its “special military operation” (SVO) against Ukraine in February 2022, its stalled offensive has been accompanied by increasingly punitive Western sanctions. This trend has increased the value of those partners still willing to trade with Moscow. China tops that list, with India a close second. Both Beijing and New Delhi seek to avoid the slowing global economy in continuing trade with Russia. Already a major market for Russian arms and energy exports, India is seeking to expand its trade options with Russia even as other states are turning away from trade with Moscow to limit their exposure to secondary sanctions. The development of an alternative maritime corridor—the Eastern Maritime Corridor (EMC)—was one of the most significant topics discussed between India and Russia at the recent Eastern Economic Forum (September 10–13) in Vladivostok (Economic Times, September 13). The EMC is intended as an alternative route connecting Chennai on India’s southeastern coast to Russia’s Far East. The EMC is estimated to run for almost 5,600 nautical miles and is expected to reduce transit timetables between Indian and Russian ports by up to 16 days.
The Eastern Economic Forum was established by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015. Its primary purpose is to support the economic development of Russia’s Far East and to expand Russian involvement in the Asia-Pacific region (Economic Times, September 13).
The Chennai-Vladivostok maritime connection was first formalized during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok in 2019. Modi was traveling to participate in the World Economic Forum and the annual bilateral Russian-Indian summit. Before departing for Vladivostok, Indian Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal proclaimed that “the historic ties between India and Russia have reached a new height. … We have been working together to develop an alternative trade route between the historic port cities of Vladivostok in Russia and Chennai in India. I believe during my visit and meetings with the leadership of Russia, we will be able to make progress in this important venture apart from fostering strategic, trade and logistical cooperation” (Pib.gov.in, September 11)
The lack of viable transit links is the main reason for limited trade between India and Russia. Over the past few years, bilateral trade has totaled an average of about $13 billion annually (Neftegaz.ru, September 13)
India is looking to acquire a larger share of the Russian export market as a hedge against further uncertainty in global financial markets. This trade is not one way; Russia, smarting from sanctions, is eager to purchase at least 500 different Indian products, including critical parts for cars, aircraft and trains (Indiashippingnews.com, February 6). Vladivostok is the largest port on Russia’s Pacific coast. The Chennai-Vladivostok sea route was in operation during the Soviet Union and is designed primarily to allow the speedy transportation of coking coal (Economic Times, September 15). It currently represents the most viable option for expanding cargo volumes running from Russia to the Indian Ocean.
The talks in Vladivostok also focused on facilitating an increase in trade volumes passing through the Northern Sea Route (NSR.) The NSR begins in Murmansk and is considered the shortest route for the transit of cargo between Europe and the Asia-Pacific. It is becoming increasingly more navigable year-round due to climate change (see EDM, June 12). Russia’s Arctic-India trade is already substantial. In the first seven months of 2023, Murmansk handled 8 million tons of cargo, of which India accounted for 35 percent. According to Andrey Dotsenko, a deputy director at the Murmansk Commercial Seaport, the cargo consists of “mostly coal” bound for India’s eastern coast (The Hindu, August 15). In signaling India’s serious interest in expanding trade along the NSR, Sonowal noted that Moscow and New Delhi also agreed to train Indian seafarers in arctic waters at the Russian Maritime Training Institute. This facility is equipped with training simulators and specializes in preparation for the navigation of polar waters (Indian Express, September 13).
In a further display of India’s interest in Russia’s Far East, the Vladivostok discussions also included the Indian proposal to build non-nuclear icebreakers at its shipyards (Korabel.ru, September 16). Such an arrangement is welcomed in Moscow as Russia’s shipbuilding industry has struggled mightily in recent years due to Western sanctions (see EDM, June 20).
India’s deep ties to Russia predate Putin’s SVO. Given the Kremlin’s discounts on energy exports to India, trade relations between New Delhi and Moscow are likely to intensify for the foreseeable future, no matter how distasteful the United States and European Union find the arrangement (see EDM, April 27). Further development of the EMC will give India a presence in the South China Sea, nearly all of which is claimed by China. Yet, relations between Beijing and New Delhi are extremely difficult, potentially adding political considerations to the project that may prove far more costly than the disapproving frowns from Washington and Brussels.