How Mikhail Gorbachev & Rajiv Gandhi shaped civil, military nuclear cooperation

Published on Aug 31, 2022 03:22 PM IST

Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday, laid the foundation of nuclear cooperation with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 80s — a key agreement being the Kudankulam nuclear power plant

Gandhi made his first visit abroad as PM to the erstwhile Soviet Union in May 1985, at a time when the youthful PM was being courted by both Moscow and Washington. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
Gandhi made his first visit abroad as PM to the erstwhile Soviet Union in May 1985, at a time when the youthful PM was being courted by both Moscow and Washington. (HT Archives)

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who died on Tuesday, shared an easy rapport with late Prime Minister (PM) Rajiv Gandhi, and the two leaders laid the foundation for crucial civil and military nuclear cooperation between Russia and India.

Gandhi made his first visit abroad as PM to the erstwhile Soviet Union in May 1985, at a time when the youthful PM was being courted by both Moscow and Washington. The two leaders got along very well when Gandhi again visited Moscow in July 1987, spending more than six hours in one-to-one discussions.

The Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu was the outcome of an inter-governmental agreement signed on November 20, 1988, by Gandhi and Gorbachev during the Soviet leader’s second visit to India. At the time, the agreement covered the construction of only two 1,000-MW units and this was subsequently expanded to six reactors.

This was long before the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of 2006, which led a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 that allowed India to civil nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. However, the Kudankulam agreement was stalled for some time because of the breakup of the Soviet Union and revived later by the new Russian government.

Russia, as a member of the NSG, faced challenges in implementing the 1988 agreement as the suppliers’ group changed its guidelines in 1992 to make it mandatory for non-nuclear weapon States – as India was at the time – to accept full-scope safeguards for nuclear activities.

In the face of pressure from Western countries, Russia argued that the 1988 agreement predated the 1992 guidelines and thus, they were not applicable, and went ahead with the construction of the Kudankulam plant.

A declassified Soviet report on Gorbachev’s 1988 visit to India, now held at the Wilson Center, states the conclusion of several inter-governmental agreements, including the one on cooperation in construction of a nuclear power plant in India, “created further favourable opportunities”.

What is perhaps less well-known is the work done by Gandhi and Gorbachev to help India build a nuclear-powered submarine. The project, which was given the codename “Advanced Technology Vessel” (ATV) by the Indian Navy, remained classified for close to two decades and was not even officially acknowledged by the Indian government for long.

A letter written in 1989 by Gandhi to Gorbachev, also now held by Wilson Center, sought the Soviet leader’s personal intervention on behalf of the project to build the nuclear-powered submarine in India.

Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber while on the verge of a political comeback in 1991, recalled his conversation with Gorbachev on the issue of the atomic submarine during a visit to Moscow in July 1989 and wrote: “The progress of this plan has been delayed because of our inability to come to an understanding on the main arms installation for this submarine. When we preferred the local Indian plan for this installation, the Soviet specialists declared their concern about the security of this installation.

"At the time of his visit in India Academician Igor Dmitrevich Spaskii assured me that at the same time when he was content with the progress on the planning and construction he was convinced that in consideration of security, it will be necessary to modify the reactor plan.”

He added, “I ask for your personal intervention, because the impasse [over] this aspect of the program has held up the project for over a year. I also recommend the Counselor of the Indian Ministry of Defense for Science and visit the Soviet Union in order to work out the details with the assistance of the relevant Soviet specialists through a political directive, which will allow a resolution of the problems awaiting an answer.”

Though little was known of the project at the time, it has subsequently emerged that Russian experts played a key role in advising and guiding the Indian side on the miniaturisation of a nuclear reactor to fit it within the hull of the submarine. This was one of the most complex processes in the ATV project.

India launched INS Arihant, the first of a class of strategic strike nuclear submarines, in 2009 and the vessel was commissioned in 2016 after extensive trials.

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