By Nandan Unnikrishnan
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s whirlwind one-day visit to Delhi on 24 December, amidst speculation about the future direction of Indo-Russian relations, has helped lift some of the pall of doom and gloom that appeared to engulf the outlook on the relationship.
Superficially, it appeared that bilateral ties were beset by several problems that defied a satisfactory resolution. These were snags in military supplies, the future of Russian investments in India in the light of the travails of the Sistema company, which owns the MTS telecom brand, and the imbroglio over the additional reactors at Kudankulam. But, before looking at these and other issues in greater detail, it would be appropriate to place them in context.
Although our hype-prone foreign policy mandarins are happy to term any relationship as “strategic”, diluting the word’s true meaning, ties with Russia qualify to be among the few genuinely strategic partnerships India has.
The breadth and depth of India’s ties with Russia are unmatched by any other bilateral relationship. The United States is, undoubtedly today, a more significant partner, but still has some way to go to match the intensity and range of the political and security engagement that Russia has with India. With this caveat, let’s take a closer look at some of the issues bedevilling the relationship.
On top of the totem pole of problems is what is known as “military-technical cooperation”. The Indian litany of woes is led by the irregularity in supply of spares, delays and escalation costs of military deliveries epitomised by the Gorshkov/Vikramaditya saga. The Russians are unhappy about their declining share in India’s defence procurement as a result of international competition.
The Russian concern is a problem of perception management. Currently, Soviet/Russian hardware, according to various estimates, accounts for 70 to 80 percent of equipment used by the Indian armed forces. India has opted to diversify its sources of procurement to reduce dependence on any one supplier. Therefore, decline in Russia’s share of the Indian defence market is inevitable. Both governments must work out a strategy to deal with this expected decline in Russia’s domination of the Indian defence market.
The Indian concerns are more serious. The irregularity in Russian supplies of military equipment, tardiness in agreed technology transfers and sudden cost escalations have significantly eroded the unique level of trust that had developed between the two countries in the military sphere. The only long-term solution to this is to seriously address Indian concerns, which in turn will require changes in the Russian official mindset towards India. This has happened at the top of the Russian hierarchy but needs to permeate down. India is not a vassal of the U.S., but neither is it a “junior partner”of Russia.
This does not mean, however, that the traditional military-technical cooperation is about to end. There is much positive that offsets the negative. The cooperation on the 5th generation fighter aircraft, the BRAHMOS project, the lease to India of two nuclear-powered submarines (technology no other country will supply), unacknowledged support in India’s efforts to develop its own nuclear submarine, the ‘Arihant’, are reasons enough for Delhi to want to pursue the military relationship with Moscow.
Also, given that India’s defence market is growing at a rapid pace, Russia’s percentage may decline, but the amount of money that Moscow receives annually for military supplies is unlikely to diminish in the near future. In fact, contracts signed during the visit for 42 additional Sukhoi 30MKI fighter jets, 71 M-17 V-5 helicopters plus existing contracts should ensure that Russia gets a couple of billion dollars a year for the foreseeable future, something that should keep the Kremlin wanting to strengthen military ties.
Civil nuclear cooperation is another area of controversy, thanks to the Nuclear Liability Law. While it is no one’s argument that the Law is perfect or even good, the Russians must understand that changing the Law or expecting exclusions from it is not likely to happen. Even if some changes are made this may not be round the corner. If, Russia, wants to maintain its edge in civil nuclear energy cooperation it would be probably easier if ‘Rosatom’went back to the drawing board and reworked its numbers taking into account some of the weaknesses in the Law.
As for Sistema, one can only sympathise with the Russian company. It became collateral damage when the Supreme Court annulled 122 telecom licenses. But, there is little the Indian government can do about that. We do not have a system where the Prime Minister can “dial a verdict”by calling the Supreme Court. It does complicate matters when part of the billions of dollars Sistema invested in India was provided by the Russian state. However, some hard-nosed negotiations should yield a result that satisfies Sistema as well as the Russian state.
It is clear that the apparent irreconcilable differences are not as intractable as they appear. Mutually satisfactory solutions can be found since both sides understand that they have much more in common than just the recent “speed breakers”they have hit, albeit in some important sectors. It must be noted that cooperation in other sectors – space, science and technology – continues apace.
While bilateral and multilateral political cooperation leaves little to be desired, economic ties, on the other hand, require enhanced attention if set goals are to be achieved. Both governments seem aware of the challenges ahead. The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding to Promote Direct Investment between Russia and India is clear indication of this. This two billion dollar fund should help kick-start some bilateral projects, hopefully including the energy sector.
Still, the most important outcome from Putin’s visit is that both countries realise they cannot give up on each other. Both India and Russia devote considerable attention to their engagements with other nations, especially the US, but they also continue to seek new areas to engage with each other.
However, if Putin and Manmohan Singh want to capture some of the magic of the past, it is imperative to look beyond government-to-government ties and engage the private sector as well as civil society. The India-Russia relationship is not only about defence or nuclear issues but about people who need to rediscover each other, in art and literature and cinema, indeed in their unique cultures. Once they begin this journey, the new Russians and the new Indians will find they have more in common than they could ever imagine.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation)