Vladimir Putin deserves our esteem. On assuming power in 2000 he reversed the Yeltsin era drift in India-Russia relations and established a strategic partnership with India. His current visit is his fifth to India in 10 years, testifying to the personal commitment of this pragmatic and practical-minded man to Russia’s India relationship.
In the strategic sectors, much has been achieved in the last decade. Russia has given us its most-advanced aircraft, tanks, rocket launchers, cruise missiles, frigates, etc, consolidating its position as India’s biggest defence partner. The joint development and manufacture of the fifth generation fighter aircraft (T-50) and the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MTR) is intended to give India crucial design capability. The lease of a Russian nuclear-powered submarine and technical assistance in developing our own Arihant give us a strategic sea-based punch. In the nuclear sector, apart from currently building two nuclear reactors at Kudankulam, Russia will build four more at the same site. Its proposed nuclear agreement with India excels in technology transfer terms anything we have signed with others, with an eye on a bigger share of the Indian nuclear pie. Russia is ready to give us access to Glonass (Russian GPS system) military signals, unobtainable from any other source, with civilian applications providing business opportunities.
Defence ties have not been problem-free. Because defence supplies constitute the core of the bilateral relationship, defence transactions maintain their rhythm lest the loss of their cementing force affects the entire relationship. Serious problems such as those of inadequate product support, non-adherence to delivery schedules, cost escalation, incomplete transfer of technology are tolerated.
The aircraft carrier Gorshkov, with a four to five-year delivery delay and steep cost escalation is a glaring case. In view of the high Indian dependence on Russian equipment, such problems affect combat readiness and disrupt planning, prompting calls for diversifying sources of supply. With Israel and France effectively competing and the US making steady headway, Russia’s privileged position as a supplier will be increasingly challenged.
At the political level, India and Russia believe in a multipolar world and a rule-based international order. They are opposed to international terrorism and religious extremism. In translating these positions into practical, mutually reinforcing policies, there is less clarity.
In the context of cooperative multipolarity, the biggest question mark is China. It tends to define its core interests unilaterally and expects others to respect them even if they are arbitrarily defined, and lapses into the language of abuse and belligerence when it feels challenged. India and Russia do not have a common vision on China. Can they develop one on the essentials even as both countries continue to engage China, as they should? Not in the foreseeable future because of Russia’s strategic need of China to counter western pressures on it.
Russia has shown reluctance to wade into India-Pakistan issues publicly. While it condemns terrorist attacks against India, it is less frontal than even the US about the involvement of Pakistan-based terror groups in such attacks. It may not want to create any misunderstanding with the US on the India-Pakistan issue by appearing to encourage a tougher Indian response to Pakistani provocations.
The contrast between India’s economic relations with the US and Russia is striking .The modern sectors of the Indian economy and its most dynamic players are tied to US/Western markets whereas India-Russia economic ties remain limited and their rapid expansion appears unlikely. Even the target of $10 billion of two-way trade by 2010 remains unmet. The India-Russia energy partnership is stagnant. This imbalance in our two strategic relationships needs correction.
On Afghanistan, Russia has given additional transit rights to Nato forces as it sees some advantage to itself in US operations against extremist forces that could destabilise Central Asia and, eventually, southern Russia. In international conferences, Russia is focussing on the important issue of drug trafficking and is quiet about the Taliban. The Central Asians are not active in Afghan discussions. A Russian initiative is needed to chart a hedging strategy involving India, Iran and the Central Asian states against a Taliban return.
A resurgent Russia is necessary for maintaining a desired level of equilibrium at the global level. The space created by the weakening of Russia is being filled in by an increasingly assertive, nationalist, militarily more potent and demographically huge China. Any form of a US-China diarchy would be at the expense, in particular, of large and autonomous countries like India and Russia.
Kanwal Sibal is a former Foreign Secretary, Government of India.
The views expressed by the author are personal.