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Revitalising India-Russia Ties

Updated: April 3, 2010 12:16 pm

Russia may no longer be fashionable in the Indian discourse on international relations and strategic affairs. Whatever the new orientations in India’s foreign policy may be in developing relations with the US and other important powers, the fact, however, remains that Moscow continues to be New Delhi’s most reliable ally in more senses than one.

            Viewed thus, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s 12-hour visit on March 12 may have been brief and the Indian media may have buried the event in inside pages; but the substance of the visit underlined once again the deep-rooted tradition and a mutuality of national interests.

            The long list of deals signed between India and Russia during Putin’s visit is impressive:

1)         US$1.5 billion deal for the supply of 29 additional MiG-29 Fulcrum D-based fighter aircraft.

2)         An agreement to sign a contract on the joint development of a new fifth-generation fighter.

3)         A revised price-deal of $2.3 billion on the upgraded Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier with a displacement capacity of 45,000 tons, a maximum speed of 32 knots (59 kilometres per hour) and a range of 13,500 nautical miles (25,000 kilometres) at a cruising speed of 18 knots

4)         Deals to establish a joint venture to produce navigation equipment for GPS (global positioning system) and its Russian equivalent Glonass, and the use of Glonass signal for military use by India.

5)         Several agreements for the construction of up to 16 nuclear power plants in India by 2017.

Russia gives India around 70 per cent of its defence needs. And importantly, the defence cooperation is no longer restricted to a buyer-seller relationship; it includes now joint design, research and development, joint production, training, and service-to-service contacts. Russia is always prepared to share its most sensitive and newest developments in technology to India. Significantly, Russia is one of those countries that have promised not to provide China (or for that matter Pakistan) the same weapon system it provides to India. Of late, India is also holding joint naval exercises and counter-terrorism exercises with Russia.

            Some critics do point out that in today’s arms bazaar, Russia is not exactly a great market given the comparatively poor technology associated with its weapons. But then, as noted military analyst Bharat Verma points out, “no nation would fulfill the requirements of India like the Russians and no one would be willing to lease their submarines for a decade to India except for Russia”

            Agreeing with Verma, Akshya Kumar, a journalist reporting on the defence matters, goes further to explain how despite the much hyped 2008 civil Indo-US nuclear deal, it is Russia rather than the United States that has proved to be a better partner in augmenting India’s nuclear power.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is not implemented because of many reasons, one of which happens to be Obama administration’s reluctance to transfer “dual-use technology” to India. But it provided the international non-proliferation framework which Moscow has now better exploited to boost cooperation with Delhi on a range of sensitive areas such as reprocessing technology, joint thorium fuel cycle nuclear power projects and fast neutron reactors. As Putin’s visit demonstrated, Russia has now signed on constructing as many as 16 nuclear plants in India.

            It may be noted that after the break up of the Soviet Union, Moscow under Yeltsin’s Presidency had been so obsessed with wooing the West that the hitherto strong ties with Delhi had been completely neglected. And it is Putin, who as President in 2000 not only restored the traditional warmth and vibrancy to the relationship but also ensured that it would remain always strong by institutionalising “annual summit” between the two countries.

            Since 2000, there have been regular annual summits between India and Russia, alternately in each other’s capital. The results of these summits between the heads of the two governments have been extremely significant, be it the ‘Joint Declaration on Deepening the Strategic Partnership to meet Global Challenges’ or   the agreement on military and technical cooperation for the period 2011 to 2020 or the agreement of cooperation in peaceful uses of atomic energy.

            India and Russia have been unanimous on burning global issues such as those pertaining to Iran and Afghanistan. In respect of Afghanistan, both agree on the need for strong international cooperation against terrorism and financing of terrorism, the need for sustained international efforts to effectively combat production and trafficking narcotics in the region. In fact, Russia has been supportive of India’s draft text at the UN on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

            It is perhaps not properly highlighted that one of India’s most significant overseas investments (2.8 billion dollars) has been in Sakhalin I (Siberia) for extracting oil. But this is not all. India has also invested more in that region through ONGC Videsh Limited 2.1 billion dollars was the investment for buying a British company called Imperial Energy in the Tomsk region in Siberia. So, India has had energy strategy of investing in equity in that region and this continues to be the strategy. India has been discussing with the Russian side on several more investments where ONGC Videsh Limited is willing to go along with Russian oil and gas majors like Gazprom and Rosneft to invest in different regions of Siberia and even North Russia. In Siberia the regions are Sakhalin-III and there is a region on Timan Pechora, as also there is an interest on the Indian side in the Yamal peninsula, which is a gas-rich area in Northern Russia.

            All this does not mean that there are no hiccups in Indo-Russian ties. The two countries have not yet come to terms with the new situation where private players and organisations are dominating the economic contours in the two countries and where they have to deal with each other directly without governmental interventions. The result is that not many Indian businessmen are sure of their returns on investments in and trade with Russia. Even in military sales, the Russian attitude in going against the signed agreement on Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier with regard to money and delivery schedule has not been exactly helpful.

            However, these hiccups pale into insignificance if one sees the broad strategic framework. The fundamental reality is that though Russia may have lost its position as a super power in Cold War equations, it is still a big power in terms of the ingredients of such power. It is huge. It strategically abuts on Central Asia, China and Iran, an area of political, security and economic interests to India. Russia is endowed with enormous natural resources, technological capacities, trade potential and over and above all a highly talented reservoir of human resources. It still is the most important military power in the world after the United States. Most importantly, Russia perhaps gives a higher priority to India in its foreign policy and strategic calculations than America or other power centres of the world in spite of the latter acknowledging India’s importance incrementally.

            It is logical, therefore, for India to cultivate and nurture relationship with Russia in the context of historical experience, current policy orientations and tangible mutuality of interests and mutual benefits. Realism requires that Russia remains a country of priority in India’s external relations. As a Russian proverb says, “old friends are better than new ones”.

By Prakash Nanda

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