Vladimir Putin’s 24-hour dash to India last month was a subdued affair due to protests in New Delhi against the brutal gang rape of a paramedical student. However, the mood in diplomatic circles was slightly more optimistic. India awarded Moscow with defence deals worth $4 billion at the 13th edition of the Indo-Russian Summit in the Capital. Ten new agreements on Trade, Science, Education and Law enforcement were finalised. The two sides continue to implement a co-operation roadmap that could throw up opportunities worth $45 billion in the nuclear energy space by 2030.
India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh hailed Putin as ‘a valued friend of India and the original architect of the India-Russia strategic partnership’. The development points towards a healthy resurgence in relations between the once indispensable allies. Fears of closer Pakistan-Russia ties, pressing energy considerations, insecurity over China’s rapid rise and apprehensions about stability in Afghanistan post 2014 are factors heralding this change.
Traditional defence partners
Straightforward co-operation in the field of defence procurement and homeland security has been a primary feature of India-Russian relations. India’s massive win in the 1971 war against Pakistan would not have been possible without support from the former USSR. Recent declassified documents show that Russia effectively prevented a British-American naval attack on India by deploying a nuclear-armed flotilla in the Bay of Bengal towards the end of the 1971 war.
Russia is the only country that shares defence technologies pertaining to aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines without attaching significant pre-conditions. India and Russia have jointly developed the Brahmos anti-ship cruise missile. However, delivery delays and cost overruns in defence procurement have emerged as major roadblocks. India is paying $2.3 billion for the refurbishment of Soviet-made aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov as against the $974 million agreed in 2004. The carrier will be delivered in 2013, four years later than originally scheduled. Until the 44,570-tonne Gorkshov is inducted into service, India will have to rely on the services of its solitary carrier, the over 50-year-old 28,000-tonne INS Viraat. Since India is the seventh largest spender on defence globally (2.5 per cent of GDP), cost escalations and delays can disturb budgetary calculations and hurt national security.
India’s defence purse has been bolstered by a 2007 decision to spend $50 billion for military modernization over a five-year period. New Delhi has been trying to spread its basket of defence suppliers, a move that does not augur well for its equations with Moscow. India accounts for thirty per cent of Russia’s defence exports; hence its quest for diversification is seen as a sign of aligning with the West. In recent times, Israel and the US have emerged as significant suppliers. Last year, India signed a $1.4 billion dollar deal for 22 US-made Apache Longbow helicopters.
Pakistan-Russia bonhomie: A worrying trend
India’s perceived drift towards the West could change long-standing equations in South Asia. Recent models of the Chinese JF-17 fighters operated by the Pakistani Air Force now come with Russian engines, something that was unthinkable during the cold war days. With US-Pakistan relations at all-time low, experts believe that Pakistan’s defence market could be an untapped opportunity for Russia. While Russia may not sell air defence units or fighter aircrafts to Islamabad, dual-use systems such as the Mi-17 helicopter could be supplied, Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, was quoted as saying in the press. Though Russia has assured it will continue with the cold-war policy of not selling arms to Pakistan, rumours refuse to die.
The United States is reluctant to sell some of its most advanced weapons to India, thus adding to India’s woes. Second largest supplier, Israel, mostly provides equipment such as radars, sensors, night vision equipment and special force equipment.
Moscow’s unwavering support in building India’s defence infrastructure since the 1950’s ensure it cannot be ignored for any major arms deal. At the Summit, New Delhi announced its intention to buy 42 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and 71 Mil Mi-17 helicopters for an overall consideration of $2.9 billion. This comes as a relief to diplomats in Moscow who were peeved at losing out on an $11 billion deal (to France’s Rafale) for replacing aging jets of the Indian Air Force.
India’s energy conundrum
Currently, India is the fourth largest importer of fossil fuels and West Asia accounts for two-thirds of India’s oil trade. The Arab Spring has made India susceptible to supply-side and price related volatilities. Through Russia (which is one of the world’s largest energy exporters), India has an opportunity to diversify energy imports by investing in hydrocarbon exploration projects in the country’s Far East, Arctic and Siberian regions. Several non-Indian oil companies have begun profitably extracting oil from Shale rock and other difficult geological formations in Siberia “The opening up of the Arctic and advances in technology indicates that Russia’s Arctic energy reserves will be exploited in the near future,” Rajorshi Roy, says in a paper titled ‘Putin’s India Visit: A Review’, published by New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. Roy perceives Russia’s 2012 offer to India’s ONGC for a stake in the Madagan 2 oil-field and Gazprom’s (Russian-state owned gas company) 20 years liquid natural gas deal with Indian counterpart GAIL to be the beginning of a new era in energy co-operation between the two countries
India’s long-term goal is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by adopting nuclear energy for civilian uses. It wants to boost nuclear energy production to 63,000 MW by 2032 from 4,780 MW in 2012. However, foreign players are sceptical of making investments because of the controversial Nuclear Liability Law (passed in 2010) that makes nuclear suppliers legally responsible for damages their equipments cause. India’s 2008 nuclear deal with the US, made possible by a special waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, has been stuck for the same reason.
An Indo-Russian nuclear plant at Kudankulam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu has been a bone of contention between the traditional partners. India chose not to apply the 2010 law to Units 1 and 2 of the plant (with an installed capacity of 1,000 MW) as they were constructed under the original 1988 agreement with the USSR. The agreement governing units 1 and 2 exempt suppliers by placing any liability squarely on the plant operator.
India’s refusal to exempt the proposed units 3 and 4 at Kudankulam, despite Moscow’s contention of the units being grand-fathered by the same agreement of 1988, has been an irritant for both sides. During Putin’s visit, considerable progress was made in negotiations on the techno-commercial front. Though a joint declaration following the summit did not give specific details, experts believe India has agreed to a significant price escalation for construction of the planned units.
The optimistic mood can be summed up by unconfirmed news reports that the two countries will set up 16 to 18 nuclear energy plants of 1,000 MW each in India. Russia would account for over 20 per cent of India's current power production by 2030, the reports suggest.
Proponents of multi-polarity and state sovereignty
India and Russia have common strategic and economic interests in groupings such as RIC (Russia-India-China), BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). India perceives these as important forums for South-South co-operation, away from western influence. Politically, India banks on Russia’s veto wielding powers (as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council) to push its foreign policy designs. In the joint declaration, Russia once again re-iterated its support to India’s bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Both countries are concerned about the unconstrained rise of China and its recent military assertions in their backyard. Though the joint declaration did not allude to China as a threat, experts see it as a major driver for accelerating the pace of friendship. Experts also believe that Russia is willing to court India as a counterweight to a rising China.
India and Russia are staunch proponents of state sovereignty and envisage a multi-polar world free from hegemony. India shares Russia’s aversion against military intervention in Syria, for a host of domestically sensitive reasons. The joint declaration exhorts the international community to ‘resolve the (Syrian) conflict through peaceful political means on the internationally approved political and legal basis’. It also acknowledges Iran’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program within the framework of UN Security Council resolutions.
As US-led forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, India and Russia are jittery about state failure in that country pushing religious extremism deeper into Asia. New Delhi has been at the receiving end of terror originating from the Taliban and Al-Qaida for several years now. Russia too has had a history of Islamic secessionist movements internally. India has a pronounced interest in Afghanistan since it has been at the forefront of development related investments in the country. The current Afghan Government is believed to be pro-India, much to the discomfort of Washington DC and Islamabad. The partnership between India and Russia could be instrumental for both countries to secure their interests in Afghanistan. “The two sides recognised that the main threat to Afghanistan’s security and stability is terrorism, and that this threat also endangers regional and global peace and security…the sides recognise that drug production and narco trafficking are the major source of funding for terrorists’ networks that requires collective action against the producers and traffickers of illegal drugs. They agreed to continue to take effective measures against the illegal production and trafficking of opiates and other narcotics,” read the joint declaration.
Putins’ visit: A success?
One can conclude that the Premier’s truncated visit was pivotal in retrieving some of the lost ground on the political side of Indo-Russian relations. The two countries managed to address some deterrents in bilateral ties while re-iterating their convergence on pressing international matters. On the flip side, not much has been done to accelerate the abysmally low levels of two-way trade. At $10 billion currently, bilateral trade is meagre, compared to India’s economic exchanges of $100 billion with the U.S. and almost $73 billion with China. The target of $20 billion for two-way trade by 2015 appears optimistic.
Writing in India’s ‘The Hindu’ newspaper, Former Indian Foreign Secretary, Mr Kanwal Sibal, gives reasons for weak economic links. “Many efforts at the Government level to promote more business to business contacts have not galvanised the economic relationship because of the hangover of the state controlled trade arrangements of the past that blunt real entrepreneurship on both sides, the decline of the public sector in India and the state oriented structure of the Russian economy, and also because the most dynamic, technologically modernising sectors of our economy, especially knowledge-based, are west oriented.”
Keeping in mind the perceived differences, agreements signed at the summit on leveraging information technology and on satellite based navigation systems using GLONASS (the Russian GPS system), are encouraging. A joint investment fund has been setup to promote greater co-operation between regions of both countries.
The challenge now lies in time bound execution, something that both countries are not known for. At least the fears of Indo-Russian friendship turning into a pale shadow of its glorious past have been dispelled, albeit for the time being.