Indo-Russian ties going nowhere

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, PTI
  • |
  • Updated: Oct 13, 2003 15:23 IST

Whenever Vladimir Putin comes to India there are a lot of banquets, an inevitable joint declaration and much nostalgia. There is some talk about buying Russian arms and greater cooperation in the hot multilateral topics of the day: terrorism, software and energy. And that’s the way it remains until the next summit.

But what exactly is the Indo-Russian relationship really about today? The answer: Less and less. This is an admission that both Indian and Russian officials will tell you, quietly and off the record.

The reason: the shared ground between Indian and Russian interests is shrinking, not expanding.

Think of what the Russian President wants out of the world. Putin is rightly consumed with the need to revive his ailing country. Russia, successor to a superpower, has an economy smaller than India’s. The average male Russian dies younger than his Indian counterpart.

Putin is no doubt he needs to build a Western-style, market-driven economy to turn his country around. His years in power have already taught Putin that revving up his economy will not be easy.

The international facet of his Revive Russia strategy seems to have three parts.
One, find growth centres which can attract foreign capital and generate profits that can kickstart the rest of Russia.

Two, ensure political stability in the region so the economy has time to heal. This means not only along Russia’s borders but also in fringe areas of Russia like Chechnya.

Three, make Russia part of the Western economic system. Hence the search for a real G-8 role, World Trade Organization membership and  negotiations for “market economy” status with the US and the European Union. “Putin and his circle recognize that Russia’s security can be ensured only by membership in a powerful and ever-growing Western Union,” believes Dmitry Furman of the Russian Academy of Science.

But Putin is also a nationalist. Putin doesn’t want to make Russia a wealthy, aid-dependent client state.  He may have dropped any superpower pretensions, but he still wants Russia to be an autonomous global player.

As Alexei Arbatov of Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations said in a recent debate, “Putin sees his task as being to preserve Russia’s status of a great power on par with China, Britain and France.”

This is a tall order. Putin is playing great power poker with a very poverty-stricken hand. Russia’s space programme has a budget smaller than India’s. Its arms industry is begging India to fund its research and development costs.

How does Putin make Russia both a global influence as well as an autonomous player? The first and most important way is to persuade the West, particularly the United States, that Russia has a tangible contribution to make to the West’s security. That it is not just a nuisance nation, one that needs to be propped up for fear of “loose nukes” or AIDS.   

Putin has shown an impressive ability to sell Russia’s utility to Washington and Brussels in two areas: terrorism and energy security.

It was no accident Putin was the first world leader to phone George W. Bush after September 11 or bend over backwards to help the US strike on the Taliban regime. Russian observers say Putin has sought to position himself as the head of an anti-terrorist alliance straddling Europe and Asia, a position which would give him a powerful say in the war against terror.

After the recent Chechen hostage crisis in the heart of Moscow, of course, Putin may have become a genuine believer in the need to wage war against Islamicist terrorism. 

Then there’s energy. Putin hard-sold Russia as the guardian of the West’s energy security at G-8 meetings. There’s a trade-off. The US and Europe want to reduce their dependency on fuel flowing from the volatile Persian Gulf. Russia needs Western capital to rebuild and expand its oil and gas infrastructure. Selling gas to Europe and petrol to the US would also give Russia a steady cash flow.

The second way Putin is ensuring Russia is globally influential on the cheap, is to support multilateral and international moves to contain and channel the US’s strength. This is no surprise. This is pretty much the policy of almost every other medium-sized nation in the world.

So Russian diplomats who have served in Baghdad are the first to say the world would be a better place if Saddam Hussein were gone, they also say his removal needs to be done via the United Nations.

Russia is refurbishing a lot of its regional diplomatic groupings, particularly in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and plays around with ideas like the India-Russia-China axis of Asia.

It also tries to stick to an independent trade policy. Putin once complained about finding all the Soviet-built industries in Cuba being run by Western firms. He swore to never leave the door open for others like that again – and specifically mentioned Iran and Iraq. This has meant a lot of fingerpointing from Washington but Putin rightly calculates that the odd reactor sale to Iran is not enough for the US to cut off relations with so useful an anti-terror ally.

Putin’s foreign policy, by all accounts, is largely his own doing. But there is a rough consensus about the contours of a “Putin doctrine.”
Its key elements:

First, that the economy is priority one, two and three. Explains Sergei Karagonov of Moscow’s Council of Foreign and Defence Policy, “Russia should have good, even allied, relations with those countries on which Russia’s future depends to a considerable degree.

This means industrialized, economically developed countries and those that are vital to Russia economically or politically, like China.”

Second, Russia should play to certain foreign policy strengths to increase its influence with the US. This combines both genuine Russian interests and a Russian ability to contribute to tackling these problems. Says Arbatov: “Russia is focussing its attention on new, unusual threats such as international terrorism, ethnic and religious extremism and separatism, illegal migration, drugs trafficking and illegal arms sales.”

Third, avoid confrontation with anyone. This is not that hard. As Karagonov puts it, “We have no adversaries now and virtually no countries with which we have bad relations.”
The question is how does India fit in all this? My assessment: Only superficially.

Consider how little India contributes to Putin’s number one concern: the Russian economy. Non-military trade has collapsed to just a little over $ 1 billion a year. It refuses to go beyond this. Both Russian and Indian companies prefer to do business elsewhere. Indian businessmen see Russia as a gangster-ridden hell. Their Russian counterparts see India as a bureaucrat-dominated nightmare.

Geography ensures India can buy little or no Russian oil or gas. Any pipeline wouldhave to pass through Afghanistan, Pakistan or China and lands an automatic New Delhi veto.

India and Russia have tried to find other economic areas. Diamonds, for examples. Russia mines them, India polishes them. But Indian diamond merchants say Russia only plays the Indian card when it’s in the midst of tough negotiations with DeBeers. When the talks are over, talk of India disappears.

Putin signed a software agreement this time. But Russia is seen by Indian firms as more a rival than a partner. Russian companies sell themselves in the US as an alternative to India for internet-enabled services like call centres and back office operations. Military sales are also under pressure.

One, Russia provides the type of weapons needed for mass wars of millions of men, thousands of warplanes and tanks. What New Delhi is looking for today is smart weaponry, stuff that will allow it to missile a terrorist camp or stealth-drop commandos. This is exactly what Russia cannot provide. As it is, even the warplanes it sells nove have to get their more advanced avionics and missiles from Israel or France. The then Defence Minister Jaswant Singh publicly said India needed to reduce its “dependence” on Russian arms because the nature of warfare had changed.

Two, Russia’s military-industrial complex can’t fund the development of new weapons. It is now asking India to provide the money. But that will mean the per unit cost will go up. The legendary cheapness of Russian equipment also goes up in flames. As worrying for India is that the other country that will join in the R&D funding is China. At present, Taiwanese assessments claim, Russia gives a marginally inferior version of each weapon to China. But it can hardly maintain that policy once China starts financing the design bureaus.

Finally, Russia will have competitors as the US starts to roll back dual-use technology sanctions against India in spring next year. The West is seen as a less dependable arms provider. But it also has the technology India wants.

The truth is that on almost every economic issue, China is far more useful to Russia than India. One only has to look at the trade and investment figures in all sectors. Perhaps most important, as Putin made clear when he visited Beijing before he came to New Delhi, the Russian leader sees China’s rapid economic growth as a model for his own country. Then there’s India’s strategic contribution to Russia.

Let’s quickly debunk the India-China-Russia axis. Those who have attended the negotiations say it is quite evident that all three countries refuse to subsume their separate bilateral relationship with the US to any trilateral understanding. This means the agenda at the meetings has no substance whatsoever.

There is no reason to believe this will change in future: China will never trade more with Russia and India then it does with the US; Russia will never want to join the Chinese economic sphere; and India has umpteen reasons to not tie its US policy to the demands of other governments.

All three countries use it as a form of leverage with the US. But Washington doesn’t take it too seriously.

India and Russia share an academic opposition for terrorism. But Russia’s problem is Chechnya. India’s problem is Pakistan. There is a tenuous link between the two, but not much.

In any case, Putin clearly believes that Russia can benefit by engaging directly with Pakistan. Moscow set up a joint working group on terrorism with Pakistan before it did with India. In fact, it held its first meeting even while Putin was shaking hands in New Delhi.

Putin clearly believes Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is part of the solution to terrorism, not part of the problem as India believes.

While he was in India he said, “Musharraf has taken a number of resolute steps to combat terrorism. My position is that we should not put all the burden, all the blame on him for negative developments.” In an assessment of Russian attitudes to Musharraf, the former head of the Pakistan desk of India’s Research and Analysis Wing, B. Raman, recently wrote that in Moscow’s view “Musharraf is the best bet in the efforts of the international community to eliminate terrorism…It is apparent that Russia does not fully share India’s distrust of Musharraf.”

It all comes down to this: the Putin doctrine has little or no place for India. It may one day, but for now India is really just a place to make a quick buck through arms sales.

This makes some sense geopolitically. The Soviet Union took to India because it had global interests, notably a perceived threat in China and a desire to reduce US influence in the subcontinent. This was the basis for the Indo-Soviet relationship. The Russia of today is focussed on its internal economy and in the area just beyond its borders. India is not within this limited Russian sphere of interest and an accident of geography also makes trade relations difficult.

Russia increasingly sees China less as a threat than a market. It is concerned about terrorism, but India’s contribution to the war on terrorism is purely subcontinental.

It is telling that two years ago Moscow’s Independent Institute of Social and National Problems held a nationwide survey. It asked the question who could become Russia’s most loyal ally in the 21st century. The Russians cited five countries, in this order: Belarus, Ukraine, China and Yugoslavia, who tied for third place, and in last place Germany.


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