Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been honoured with Russia’s highest and oldest state decoration, the Order of St Andrew the Apostle, for boosting bilateral ties between the two countries.
On Friday, April 12, Moscow decorated Modi with the honour, according to a tweet by the Russian embassy in India.
It also arrives a day after a group of US lawmakers introduced a bill to elevate India’s status as a strategic partner to a NATO ally, in a bid to improve defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, combat a range of threats Russia poses to global security, and limit Putin’s interests in Asia. The legislation also arrived in the wake of failed US attempts to thwart the prospective sale of Russian S-400 missile systems to India.
Strengthening bilateral ties
A Russian official told the Indian press that the ‘Order of St Andrew the Apostle’ is awarded to prominent statesmen, public figures, and those working in the fields of science, culture, and arts in recognition of their exceptional services in promoting prosperity and glory of Russia.
The Russian government said Modi is given the highest state decoration of Russia as a mark of appreciation for his “exceptional services” in promoting a special and privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India and friendly relations between the Russian and Indian peoples.
PM Modi thanked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, heaping praise on the President. Modi said he was “honoured to receive this prestigious award”. “Foundations of India-Russia friendship are deep & the future of our partnership is bright,” he added.
“President Putin remains a source of great strength for the India-Russia friendship. Under his visionary leadership, bilateral and multilateral cooperation between our nations has scaled new heights.”
Over the last five years of his tenure, Modi has visited Russia four times and overseen the first-ever joint military deal, including air, naval, and army forces.
In May 2018, Modi met Putin for an informal summit in Sochi, where the two leaders upgraded this traditionally close relationship to a “special privileged strategic partnership”.
What is the Order of St Andrew?
The Order of St Andrew the Apostle is the highest order of the Russian Federation. It was established in 1698 by Tsar Peter the Great in honour of Saint Andrew, the first apostle of Jesus and patron saint of Russia. The order was abolished in the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1918 and re-established in 1998.
The Order has been awarded in the past to foreign heads of state for their outstanding services. Among the foreign recipients of this award are President of China Xi Jinping, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, and President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Geydar Aliev.
The award ceremony is usually held at the St Andrew Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace.
Modi’s international awards
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) on April 4 honoured PM Modi with its highest decoration, Zayed Medal, in recognition of his “pivotal role” in bolstering ties between the two nations.
The Seoul Peace Prize Committee on October 24, 2018, conferred the 2018 Seoul Peace Prize on PM Modi for his contributions towards the growth of the Indian and global economies, and in reducing social and economic disparity between the rich and the poor via “Modinomics” in particular.
Modi on September 26, 2018, received the prestigious UN Champions of the Earth Award 2018, the highest environmental honour of the UN. He was selected in the leadership category for his commitment to banning single-use plastic in India by 2022 and championing the International Solar Alliance to scale up solar energy. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres presented the award to Modi on October 3, 2018.
Despite its close ties with Israel, India has made overtures to Palestine with PM Modi becoming the first head of the Indian state to visit the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The latter conferred on him on February 10, 2019, the ‘Grand Collar of the State of Palestine’ in recognition of his contributions in promoting relations between India and Palestine.
During his brief visit to Afghanistan, Modi was conferred with the Amir Amanullah Khan Award, the highest civilian honour of Afghanistan, on June 4, 2016. The same year, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia also presented him the Gulf country’s highest civilian honour ‘King Abdulaziz Sash’ at the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia.
Besides having a strong economic relationship in the past, the Soviet Union, before its collapse in 1991, was India’s biggest trading partner and supplier of defence technology.
Among India’s most important European partners at present, Russia still leads France, Germany, and even the UK. But shifting geopolitical dynamics of late, especially with the rise of China and proliferating trade between India and the US, the long-standing relationship with Russia has deteriorated over the last decade.
Furthermore, in line with PM Modi’s effort to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign arms, India’s overall arms import from Russia fell by 42% between 2009 and 2018.
The US, Israel, and France increased their arms exports to India in the meantime, according to the report “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018” released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute last month.
As the gap of arms sales between the US (largest exporter) and Russia (second largest exporter) continues to widen, India as the world’s second-largest arms importer can play a decisive role in the future of Russia’s military enterprise.
A report in The Diplomat argues that both superpowers are competing for India’s favour and its burgeoning energy market in particular; meanwhile, India is trying to retain both Washington and Moscow, leaning heavily on the former.
A valid reason for this may be, as the article notes, “When it comes to military technology, Russia has less of what India now needs.” A recent survey of over 100 members of India’s strategic community, conducted by Dhruva Jaishankar of Brookings India, showed that 75% of respondents believed the US to be India’s most important global partner, while only 12% opted for Russia.
That is perhaps why the US recently struck a hefty deal to build six atomic reactors for India to develop nuclear energy for civil and military purposes, despite Russia being India’s important partner when it comes to the energy sector and Russian companies having invested heavily on the Indian market.
What Russia needs to do
The highest Order, thus, serves as little more than a symbolic gesture and just another accolade for PM Modi during the crucial general elections. To mend and revitalise their relationship, Russia must make sure its arms are supplied on time and meet the necessary requisitions and heightened expectations.
Then there are the myriad strategic interests when it comes to Asia. With the US reviving the Quad dialogue and advocating “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”, the success of these ambitious foreign policies lies greatly on India’s willingness to engage.
For Russia, the risk of “losing” India’s privileged partnership, therefore, has never been higher.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.