March 23, 2010

Russia still key ally for India

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New Delhi, India — Russia may no longer be fashionable in Indian discourse on international relations and strategic affairs; the new orientation is toward developing relations with the United States and other important powers. Yet the fact remains that Moscow continues to be New Delhi’s most reliable ally.

Viewed thus, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s 12-hour visit to New Delhi on March 12 may have been brief, but the substance of the visit underscored yet again the deep-rooted tradition and mutuality of national interests.

The long list of deals signed between both nations during Putin’s visit is impressive:

1) A 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 of US$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 kilometers) per hour and a range of 13,500 nautical miles (25,000 kilometers) at a cruising speed of 18 knots.

4) Deals to establish a joint venture to produce navigation equipment for global positioning systems including the equivalent of the Russian Glonass, and the use of the Glonass signal for military purposes by India.

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

Russia supplies India with around 70 percent of its defense needs and, importantly, the defense cooperation is no longer restricted to a buyer-seller relationship. It now includes 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 with India. Significantly, it is one of those countries that have promised not to provide China, or for that matter Pakistan, the same weapon systems it provides to India. Of late, India is also holding joint naval exercises and counter-terrorism exercises with Russia.

But some critics say that in today’s arms bazaar, Russia is not exactly great 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.”

Akshay Kumar, a journalist reporting on defense matters, agrees with Verma, and goes further to explain how despite the much-hyped 2008 civil Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, it is Russia rather than the United States that has proved a better partner in augmenting India’s nuclear power.

The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal has not been implemented for many reasons, one of which happens to be the 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 New 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 to constructing as many as 16 nuclear plants in India.

It may be noted that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency was so obsessed with wooing the West that the hitherto strong ties with New Delhi were completely neglected. It was Putin who, as president in 2000, not only restored the traditional warmth and vibrancy in the relationship but also ensured that it would always remain strong by institutionalizing an annual summit between the two countries.

Since 2000, there have been regular annual summits between India and Russia, alternately in each other’s capital cities. The results of these meetings between heads of state 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 agreed on burning global issues such as those pertaining to Iran and Afghanistan. With respect to Afghanistan, both agree on the need for strong international cooperation against terrorism and financing of terror activities, and the need for sustained international efforts to effectively combat production and trafficking of narcotics in the region. In fact, Russia has been supportive of India’s draft text at the United Nations on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

It is perhaps not properly highlighted that one of India’s most significant overseas investments, worth US$2.8 billion, has been in Sakhalin in Siberia for extracting oil. But that is not all. India has also invested some US$2.1 billion in buying a British company called Imperial Energy in the Tomsk region in Siberia. Investing in that region has been India’s energy strategy.

India has been discussing several more investments with the Russian side. Its public sector petroleum company, ONGC Videsh Limited, has shown interest in partnering with Russian oil and gas majors like Gazprom and Rosneft to invest in different regions of Siberia and even North Russia. The regions of interest are Sakhalin-III in Siberia and the Timan-Pechora Basin in northern Russia, as well as the Yamal peninsula, a gas-rich area in Northwest Siberia.

But such cooperation does not mean that there are no hiccups in Indo-Russian ties. Both countries are yet to come to terms with the new situation where private players and organizations are beginning to dominate the economic contours of both nations, and must deal with each other directly without governmental intervention. As a result, not many Indian businessmen are sure of returns on their investments in trading with Russia.

Even in military sales, the Russian attitude has not been exactly helpful, as seen in the agreement on the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier, where price and delivery schedules were not met.

However, the hiccups pale into insignificance if one sees the broad strategic framework. The fundamental reality is that, although Russia may have lost its position as a superpower in Cold War equations, it is still a big power. It strategically abuts on Central Asia, China and Iran – an area of political, security and economic interest to India.

Russia is endowed with enormous natural resources, technological capacities and trade potential. In addition, it has a highly talented reservoir of human resources. It is still 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 the United States or any other power, despite the incremental U.S. acknowledgements of India’s importance.

It is logical, therefore, for India to cultivate and nurture its relationship with Russia in the context of historical experience, current policy orientation and tangible mutuality of interests and benefits.

Realism requires that Russia remain a priority country in India’s external relations. As a Russian proverb says, “Old friends are better than new ones.”

(Prakash Nanda is a journalist and editorial consultant for Indian Defense Review. He is also the author of “Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy.” He may be contacted at ©Copyright Prakash Nanda.)


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