Russia seeks India ties as Western sanctions hit universities

Kremlin’s push on technological sovereignty met with scepticism as West shuns partnerships over Ukraine war

May 2, 2022
Vladimir Putin with Narendra Modi of India
Source: Alamy

Russia’s moves to reinforce national science capacity and strengthen research collaborations with India belie an increasingly worsening situation on the home front, academics have said.

Isolated by Western institutions over the war on Ukraine, Russia’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education has promoted strengthened domestic capacity and alliances in Asia.

In a recent speech, Russian science minister Valery Falkov said Western sanctions were “not only restrictions, but also fundamentally new opportunities” for homegrown science and technology.

But to many, the optimism rang hollow. Academics were sceptical that Russia would manage to boost the sector, which has been practically cut off from the outside world since the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine began nearly three months ago.

“The Russian semi-peripheral status in science and higher education is now changing to peripheral, with partnerships terminated or in decline, with brain drain increasing and the state acquiring a pariah or terrorist-country image,” said Anatoly Oleksiyenko, associate professor in higher education at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on post-Soviet higher education.

Even a sizeable investment in science and technology would not put a dent in the “growing apathy, corruption, and frustration amidst elite scholars who used to collaborate with top minds abroad”, he said.

Moscow appears to be looking eastward for a friendlier reception. In mid-April, Alexander Sergeev, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, revealed the group would soon announce new joint projects with India, praising the country as a “positive example” of international cooperation.

“India has had a close relationship with Russia for many decades now…so to expect that India would move away from Russian collaboration is not very realistic,” said Debjani Sengupta, associate professor of English at Delhi University.

“However, the Ukraine war has brought a new dimension on the table and I would think that some educational institutions in India would feel uneasy about continued close scientific research with Russia.”

If Indian institutions have ethical qualms over involvement with Russia, they appear to be swallowing them so far.

On 25 April, Chandigarh University, a private institution in Punjab province, announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Saint Petersburg State University. Just days later, Jawaharlal Nehru University – one of India’s top public institutions – said that administrators had met with a delegation of researchers from Russia to discuss “enhanced academic collaboration”.

To outside experts, the moves appeared to be driven by necessity rather than choice.

“A pivot to China or India becomes the last resort for Moscow after everyone else snubs its aggressive and erratic policies,” said Leonid Petrov, a professor at the Australian National University and specialist in communist and post-communist studies, who summed up Russia’s stance as “self-deception and bluffing”.

“Russia has no choice but to try to pivot in terms of research development,” agreed Maria Popova, associate professor of political science at McGill University.

She said that the emphasis on boosting local research capacity was “consistent” with Vladimir Putin’s pledge to find homegrown replacements for products supplied by multinational companies that have left due to sanctions. But she too was sceptical that the Kremlin could jump-start national science.

“This is easier said than done…especially because opposition to Putin’s regime is proportionally higher among high-tech sector workers and many have emigrated or may plan to emigrate.”

Professor Petrov also believed that Russia would undermine its own efforts.  

“Whether it’s about exploring the Arctic Ocean or landing on the Moon, the Russians end up building another Potemkin village and embezzle the limitless state funds.”


Print headline: Russia woos India as sanctions hit

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