India finds Russia a good friend to count on

Author: Mahendra Ved

Two summits in three months is unusual, even considering the strategic ties India and Russia have nurtured for over five decades.

On March 12, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited India for the fifth time, with the previous four having been whilst he was President. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was also in Moscow last December as part of what has become an annual dialogue taking place each winter. Since 2000, Putin has either visited Singh or received him in Moscow. In 2000, he told then defence minister George Fernandes: ‘Please tell your people, I am India’s best friend.’

Many across the globe, not just Indians, regard Putin as the most significant leader to have emerged from post-Soviet Russia.

As a host, Putin ensured that Singh sat on the same table as former United States President George W. Bush in St Petersburg during the city’s tri-centenary celebrations. That got the civil nuclear deal, and much else, going between India and the US.

Moscow’s gestures have helped India, while also consolidating ties with the West, whilst importantly maintaining a balance. And balance remains the key word.

Despite an armoury full of Soviet weapons, India did not hesitate to purchase the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 fighter jets. Rajiv Gandhi, hailed as the future of India by Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s, flew unscheduled from Washington to Moscow.

The latest Putin visit was barely 22 hours long. However, its significance, rather than in the hours spent talking, must be measured in the USD10 billion worth of deals and parleys on a number of issues where interests converge.

At the top is the price-fixing at USD2.3 billion of Admiral Gorshkov, the aircraft carrier India calls Vikramaditya, ending years of dispute. Left with just one aircraft carrier, the Indian Navy needs it for maritime security across an Indian Ocean region that has witnessed increasing piracy and terror threats on its western and south-eastern flanks. A nuclear-powered submarine will also be with the Indian Navy for the next ten years.

It is passé to lampoon the presence Russian armaments in Delhi’s defence and diplomatic circles, but at 70 per cent, Russia clearly remains the India’s number one supplier of defence hardware.

Moreover, the two countries are moving from mere supplies to joint research and development and joint ventures. The latest of these is a fifth-generation stealth combat aircraft. There is technology transfer between India and Russia that the West, in general, is not ready for.

A slew of other agreements, including two each in the civil nuclear sphere and fertilisers, and one in civilian space programme, were inked during the visit.
Indian officials say energy is emerging as a focus between oil and gas-rich Russia and energy-starved India, always on the lookout for new fuel sources to power its economy.

Russia is way ahead of others on nuclear power. Construction of as many as 16 nuclear power plants at three different sites in India, six of them to be completed by 2017, is envisaged.

Two more reactors (units five and six) at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and two reactors at Haripur in West Bengal during the 12th Plan period (2012 to 2017) are on the way.

The pact also outlines the timeline for the steps to be taken for the construction of Kudankulam units three and four.

Yet for all the bonhomie, at just over USD7.5 billion last year, bilateral trade turnover between India and Russia is miniscule and the two countries aim to lift it to USD20 billion by 2015.

Putin adopted a direct approach, talking to Indian entrepreneurs and cultural figures in different cities through a live webcast, telling them: ‘We should think about the future. There is the political will on both sides, but we need support from the captains of industry.”

A fresh sparkle to economic ties was added as Russian state monopoly Alrosa signed a clutch of agreements with Indian companies. Alrosa, which produces about a quarter of the world’s rough diamonds, plans to supply about USD1 billion worth of unpolished stones to India this year. This is a joint message to Israel and South Africa, who dominate the scene, that India is a global leader in the value-addition and marketing of the precious stones.

India and Russia have never been prisoners of bilateral ties because of a confluence of mutual interest on a myriad of issues.

Indeed, India is looking to spread its net wider. It is looking to keep its autonomy vis-à-vis the US with which it has warmed up in the last decade, despite the immense benefits it has derived.

India is looking for alternative routes to achieve its strategic and diplomatic objectives in the South Asian region and globally, and finds in Russia a willing partner.

The reason is not far to see in the current scenario. New Delhi finds that Washington is not the same as it was under Bush, whose ‘global war on terror’ is out with the Barack Obama administration.

The much-touted Afghanistan-Pakistan situation poses a challenge, perhaps a greater one than when the Taliban was ruling in Kabul. At least, Delhi sees it that way and it is not alone. Russia, the Central Asians and Iran, all directly affected, also have similar fears.

Hence this warming up to Moscow; hence the tightrope walks with Iran, voting with Iran’s critics on the nuclear issue but keeping ties with Iran close.

For similar reasons, India is moving close to the Gulf. Singh was recently in Riyadh to consolidate yet another ‘strategic partnership’ with Saudi Arabia. Besides a doubling of crude supplies, he sounded the Saudis on what they thought of the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation and probed how far they would go on the vexed Kashmir issue.

Professor A. K. Pasha of Jawaharlal Nehru University has pointed out that since 9/11, the Saudis have realised that the Taliban and Pakistan’s support for them harms the region. The new Saudi stance interlinks West Asia’s security with South Asia. Riyadh has offered its good offices to resolve the Kashmir issue.

India and Russia want to send identical messages to their intended targets. Both want to tell the US and NATO that unlike them, they are part of a region where the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation affects them directly.

For anyone who cares to take note, Putin’s visit has marked a new phase of evolution and confirmed the emergence of a multi-polar world.

This is article first appeared here in the New Strait Times.

Mahendra Ved is a Delhi-based columnist.