Putin’s India Visit

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 51


India Visit:

For A New Relationship



Putin’s visit to India, accompanied by a high-powered delegation, was his
first to this country since the new Congress-led government assumed office. The
visit assumed significance in the context of an expected readjustment of Indian
strategic perceptions especially regarding Russia, after the pronounced pro-US
shift under the previous BJP-led dispensation, and Russia’s own evolving
international relations against the backdrop of its strategic situation and the
state of its economy. Given the historical preponderance of defence and
technology collaboration between the two countries dating back into the Soviet
era, as well as advance briefings by both sides, pre-visit commentaries in the
national and international press tended to foresee a slew of agreements.


it turned out, while a few important agreements already under negotiation were
indeed signed, there were a few surprises and several expected deals were not
clinched. The agreements arrived at, as well as those which were obviously kept
on the back-burner at least for a while, provide insight into the unfolding
relationship between two old friends in a dynamically changing global scenario:
India, an emerging power staking claim to a place on the world stage, and
Russia, an erstwhile great power now in decline, seeking to redefine its place
in the world while struggling to retain as much strategic influence as possible.




of the important factors pushing both countries to closer and more substantive
tie-ups has been the strategic and foreign policy stance of the US both globally
and with respective to the two countries themselves.

Russia has been under intense pressure by the US and its West European allies on
the former Soviet republics and the Eastern bloc countries with many having
joined NATO and moving towards greater integration with the West such as through
joining the EU. Several Caucasian and Central Asian countries are also being
drawn closer into the US net economically, politically and in some cases even
militarily. Russia’s economy is struggling, its trade with most erstwhile
allies at historic lows and its defence industry being called upon to bear an
increasing burden in generating resources. The goings-on in the Ukraine, quite
overtly being engineered by the US, are threatening one of the last remaining
bastions of Russian influence, the Slavic group of nations. The Yeltsin era
vision of Russia as a “natural ally” of the US has long gone sour and with
China viewing its overtures rather coolly, so has the earlier “China first”
policy enunciated in a foreign policy White Paper in 2000. Naturally then, India
looms rather large on Russia’s strategic radar.


the BJP-led government, India had turned decisively towards the US, terming it a
“natural ally” and forging a “strategic partnership” with it. This
reflected even in defence acquisitions turning increasingly to Israel apart from
Europe. Whereas earlier governments too had looked to diversify acquisitions
rather than putting all eggs into the Russian basket, and the Russian armaments
industry appeared increasingly creaky, the BJP-led government made few attempts
to creatively explore the many options still available with Russia. Many in the
defence establishment and other analysts felt such options would make for a more
self-reliant, independent defence infrastructure in India, but the BJP opted for
a strategic Indo-US tie-up at all costs, despite the US putting pressure on
Israel not to sell the Phalcon airborne early-warning systems to India, and
imposing sanctions against India for a whole range of high-technology and
defence-related items.


Putin’s visit to India, now under a Congress-ruled government, was clearly
aimed at reversing earlier trends and revitalising the Indo-Russian partnership.


the Indian point of view, even if the BJP did not see it that way, the period
since the US launched its so-called “global war on terror” saw Indo-US
strategic ties dipping downward. Apart from the anti-India sanctions, the US
once again saw Pakistan as a “front-line state”, turning a blind eye to all
manners of transgression. Secretary of state Colin Powell called on then prime
minister Vajpayee and, without a word to him, next day in Islamabad announced US
recognition of Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally”. In the weeks immediately
prior to president Putin’s visit, the US announced its intention to sell F-16
fighters, P3C Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft and anti-tank missile
systems to Pakistan, none of which are of any potential use against the Taliban
or al Qa’ida. However much India does not want the US to adopt a hyphenated
relationship with India and Pakistan, and however much Pakistani defence
acquisitions should be seen to be legitimate, like India’s, the issue here is
US policies which India cannot but look at with some alarm.


Congress-led government, no longer handicapped by the ideological prism of the
BJP, and despite its leanings towards the US in the post cold war era of US-led
capitalist globalisation, therefore viewed the Putin visit as an opportunity to
rejuvenate the strategic relationship between India and Russia.


both countries are aware of the new realities in the post-Soviet era, both in
their respective nations, economies and strategic perceptions and in the
unfolding global strategic scenario, and are trying to rework their relationship
in this light.




president Putin, with a rhetorical flourish, termed India as a “privileged
strategic partner” and, in geo-strategic terms as “number one” for Russia,
the fact is that many problems have been festering in Indo-Russian defence
trade, and for too long. Several of these have been caused by India especially
during the BJP-led government’s pro-US tilt. Defence minister Sergei Ivanov
had arrived in Delhi two days before his president to iron these out before the
summit-level talks.


correctly insisted that India sign up on an agreement guaranteeing secrecy of
Russian military technologies if it was to have such a “privileged”
relationship. Indian officials and experts had free run of Russian manufacturing
facilities, India received full technology transfer in several cases, and Russia
simply could not afford these falling into rival hands. Obvious irritants were
India’s decision to seek Israeli collaboration in upgrading MiG 21 fighters,
Israeli avionics on the Gorshkov air defence ship and so on.

“Russia is not the Soviet Union,” said the defence minister pointedly,
meaning that commercial factors too, rather than political considerations alone,
would have to be guiding factors. India agreed to this condition and set a
four-month time-frame to sign the agreement.


was also aggrieved that India bought spares for Russian equipment from other
former Soviet countries such as from Ukraine for T-90 tanks. And all this when
India expected Russia not to sell military hardware to Pakistan, and Russia did
not! India must have learnt some lessons when Ukraine then sold T-90s to
Pakistan as well!


too was well-taken by the Indian side which, however, had a legitimate grievance
regarding tardy and unreliable supply of spares by Russia of a whole range of
strategically vital equipment. Part of this was due to the relatively recent
weaknesses of the Russian military-industrial infrastructure, but part was also
due to the Russian manufacturers trying to circumvent the politically-struck low
Russia and India seem to have agreed on a rapid
upgrade of ageing Russian equipment and co-production of spares in India, a
long-standing Indian demand, although this requires to be fleshed out and


also had good reason to be deeply hurt by the fact that, whereas it was
India’s oldest, largest and most reliable supplier of military hardware, India
of late (read since the BJP-led government) had not held wide-ranging military
exercises with it even as it held such exercises even with the US military!
and Russia have now agreed to hold airborne exercises next year.




the most significant agreement during the Putin visit was that India would
collaborate with Russia in restoring, developing and commercialising Russia’s
deeply ailing and cash-strapped GLONASS satellite communication system, the only
existing rival to the US GPS. As against the planned 24 satellites, Russia now
has only 11 in orbit, so its need is for a strategically compatible, technically
capable partner with financial resources.


recently signed up with the EU to partner in its envisaged and highly
sophisticated Galileo Project (covered in these columns some weeks back) so why
the interest in GLONASS?
Simply, GLONASS has military
as well as civilian application, which the US-run GPS would not permit and the
EU’s Galileo Project excludes.


satellites, with military-standard 1-metre resolution, would be jointly built
and launched by Russia and India. The agreement not only recognises and seeks to
use India’s maturity in satellite construction, telematics and cost-effective
launch capability, but also brings in much-needed Indian investment

(quantum undisclosed). Interestingly, neither of these alone could have been the
deciding criterion for China which had expressed its willingness to finance the
venture: geo-strategic considerations, perhaps including anticipation of strong
US objections which were raised even for China’s participation in the civilian
Galileo Project, must have influenced the Russian choice of partner.




agreement was also signed to work jointly for the exploration of deep space for
peaceful purposes
Despite its vagueness and omnibus character, the significance of the new
agreement is that it replaces the earlier one of 1994 vintage and builds in
guarantees against Russian “hold backs” as happened in the early ‘90s due
to US pressure when Russia went back on a promise to sell India cryogenic rocket
engines. During this visit, Russian scientists admitted that now Indian
cryogenic technologies was in some ways ahead of their own and that Russia
wanted to use the Indian experience of using liquid hydrogen and oxygen in the
booster rockets for Russia’s new Angara satellite launch vehicles.


and India also agreed to jointly develop various advanced weapons systems,
including a 5th generation strike aircraft, but these are only pious intentions
at this stage, even though the Brahmos anti-ship supersonic cruise missile with
290 km range and 300kg conventional payload is a reality and quite a success
story at that.


also wants greater Indian involvement in oil and natural gas exploration.

MoUs were signed for joint exploration and distribution of natural gas from the
Caspian Sea basin, for building underground gas storage facilities in India and
technology transfer from Russia for gasification of India’s considerable
lignite resources. Russian interest lies, apart from Indian investment, in
leveraging the marketing capabilities of Indian public sector corporations such
as ONGC, since Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both withdrawn from earlier
concessions to Russian firms citing the latter’s lack of marketing skills and
rack. Indian involvement in the burgeoning Central Asian petro-sector boom has
been sluggish, confined to a 20 per cent stake in Sakhalin-I and exploration
rights to 4 oilfields, whereas India should have been far more deeply involved
given the energy potential and the strategic implications of a strong presence
in the region. India appears to be waking up, even if belatedly, to the reality
that energy security is a strong pole of India’s strategic security 


much-awaited agreements were, however, once again put off. No announcements were
made regarding Indian acquisition of TU-22 long-range bombers or its leasing of
Russian nuclear-powered Akula class submarines. Reasons are unknown, but
continued Indian haggling may be one and US pressure may be another since both
these are nuclear-capable.


hidden but strong US hand was also visible in the outright rejection by Russia
of any possibility of supplying re-processed uranium fuel for additional
reactors in the Koodankulam nuclear power project. Russia cited its obligations
as member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group which it had earlier said it would
fight to overcome but was clearly unable to.


the above show that Russia and India are moving towards a new equation in their
strategic partnership, even while dealing with the pulls and pressures of
present-day great power politics, particularly the hegemonic attitude of US
imperialism. The move away from a buyer-seller relationship towards one of
greater reciprocity was evidenced also
by the much commented on Russian
endorsement of a Security Council seat for India, with veto powers, while India
supported Russia’s entry into the WTO and promised to endorse its “market
economy” status shortly. Interesting times are ahead.