PRESIDENT 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.
As 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.
THE US FACTOR
One 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.
Under 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.
President Putin’s visit to India, now under a Congress-ruled government, was clearly aimed at reversing earlier trends and revitalising the Indo-Russian partnership.
From 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.
The 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.
Yet 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.
REMOVAL OF IRRITANTS
While 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.
Russia 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.
Russia 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!
This 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 prices. 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 operationalised.
Russia 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! India and Russia have now agreed to hold airborne exercises next year.
SATELLITE COMMUNICATION SYSTEM
Perhaps 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.
India 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.
18 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.
OTHER DEALS AND NON-DEALS
An 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.
Russia 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.
Russia 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
Some 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.
The 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.
All 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.