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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 48

PM’s Moscow Visit And Indo-Russian Ties

No Rancour yet, but Wrinkles are Showing

Sunday 25 November 2007, by Ash Narain Roy

Indo-Russian ties have reached a point where these can be likened to a marriage in which jealousy is greater than love. The romance is long gone. The marriage is going through rough patches, but no one is contemplating a divorce. Marriage is still popular (divorce is not) as it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity. But when the marriage begins to sour, you still have the same bed, but you dream different dreams.

As the Indian economy has risen, it has taken an international flavour. With India not far from being on the international high table in the new world order, more and more countries have begun to court it. Some want India to be pro-active in global democracy promotion, others want to align with India to counter China’s growing economic and military muscles. The world has changed. So has India. But India is like a shy girl who is quite uncomfortable with the romantic advances of the US. Much less, it wants the world to call it a strange bedfellow of the US. Russia is getting jealous about New Delhi’s flirtations with Washington. Moscow is apparently worried about the burgeoning commercial and military ties between India and the US. New Delhi too is getting restive about Moscow’s sale of sophisticated weaponry to China. Ironically, Moscow and Washington and India and China are themselves moving closer to each other.

Is Indo-Russian relationship, built over the years on the strong foundations of trust, mutual understanding and continuity, facing a chill? Whether one likes it or not, the impression of the missing old charm in Indo-Russian ties is hard to dispel. When a marriage enters a rough patch, such a phase begins with the missing charm. In the past the External Affairs Ministry was never required to issue a clarification about any chill in Indo-Russian ties. This time, on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit, senior officials took pains to deny any frostiness in the ties. That itself says a lot about the current Indo-Russian relations. No amount of brave talk by National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan that “from where I stand, our relations are very warm, sometimes very hot” will dispel that impression. Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon’s assertion that “this is one relationship without wrinkles or difficulties” was at best an effort to hide the earlier embarrassment caused by Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov’s refusal to meet Pranab Mukherjee in Moscow and the Russian insistence on Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov.

No one is sure that celebrations like the “Year of Russia in India in 2008” and the “Year of India in Russia in 2009” will bring the old charm back in the relations between the old flames. Some strategic analysts are now arguing that in the changing geopolitical landscape in Eurasia, Indo-Russian ties have become marginal to the Asian balance of power. This school of thought further maintains that “for all the mutual goodwill that exists between Russia and India, there is no big political idea that now binds the two nations together”. A headline in a regional daily captured the cynicism about Indo-Russian ties. It said: “Russia open to nuke ties, on US terms”.

Some senior Indian diplomats privately main-tain that Moscow is very cut up with India’s flirtations with Washington. India will do well to read the new writings on the wall, they aver. “Russian leaders,” says an analyst, “ have raised tough bargaining and public posturing, if not blackmail, to a national art form”. Such an appraisal is of course uncharitable to a time-tested friend. India is only itself to blame for its present plight. First, it placed all its eggs in the American basket. Then it failed to get the much-hyped Indo-US nuclear deal approved. Now it expects Russia to bail it out by way of supplying fuel for Tarapur reactors. This is downright foolhardiness.

Manmohan Singh discovered to his chagrin that the road to nuclear technology is not as smooth as many of his advisers tend to believe. New Delhi was hoping that the two countries would sign an inter-governmental agreement on four more nuclear power plants at Kudankulam. But Russia preferred to play by the rule. Moscow was well within its right to argue that the earlier memorandum of intent signed with Moscow during President Putin’s last visit to India in January 2007 will have to wait till New Delhi clears the IAEA and NSG hurdles. What was, however, galling to India was an agreement signed only a week earlier with China whereby Moscow agreed to supply uranium to Beijing, enriched capacity and two new nuclear power reactors.

Some reports, however, suggest that Moscow was ready to ink the deal for more reactors for Kudankulam. It was India that decided not to sign the nuclear deal with Russia for fear of antagonising Washington. Despite the visit being the shortest in 60 years, the presence of Anil Kakodkar, the Chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy, in Moscow indicated that New Delhi was serious about the deal. Obviously it was Washington’s pressure that forced India’s hands at the last moment. The decision to upgrade the memorandum of intent on nuclear energy cooperation, signed during Putin’s last visit to India, to an inter-governmental agreement was the only face-saving formula left at that stage.

THE agreements signed by the two countries are by no means insignificant. The joint mission to the moon is a new milestone in space cooperation. The joint development and production of multi-role transport aircraft will further deepen defence ties. But in the absence of the nuclear cooperation agreement, the Prime Minister’s visit will be soon forgotten.

Defence ties continue to be the lynchpin of Indo-Russian relations. But here again strains have cropped up over high price, service delivery and technology transfer. Russia is nursing fear that India will soon start buying arms from the US. It is not even sure what to expect from India’s “mother of all deals” to buy 126 multi-role combat aircraft. Israel has already become the number two arms supplier to India. What happens if India starts buying American arms including fighter jets is anybody’s guess.

If one leaves defence and energy cooperation, Indo-Russian ties will be shorn of any substance. The way trade has stagnated for the last several years, it will soon compete with Indo-Pakistan trade in volume and substance. Despite the Indian and Russian economies booming, annual bilateral trade is at a pitiful $ 4 billion. Currently India exports to Russia around $ 1 billion which is less than one per cent of its overall exports. Russian exports to India about $ 1.2 billion worth of goods which is about 1.2 per cent of its exports. It is not that the two sides are not aware of this anomaly. In fact each time there is high level meeting, the two sides make a resolve to rectify the anomaly, but neither side seems to mind the downfall. Indian businessmen find the Russian market too risky while Russian businessmen prefer to move to Europe where their children study or work. The two countries set up a Joint Study Group in 2006 to examine measures to boost bilateral trade to

$ 10 billion by 2010 and to study the feasibility of signing a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement between the two countries. If the present sluggish trends continue, bilateral trade will not see much change.
Irritants apart, geopolitics and geo-economics will dictate closer Indo-Russian ties. Those who are going gaga about a new transformation in Indo-US relations will do well to remember that the history of Indo-US ties has been one of technological denial, sanctions and arm-twisting. In contrast, Russia has stood by India in moments of crisis. This is not to suggest that India should remain anchored in the past.

In view of India’s energy requirements, India and Russia are likely to become even more central to each other’s interests than in the past. Presently, India imports 70 per cent of its crude requirements. In 2025, this would rise to 85 per cent. Can India therefore afford to ignore or downgrade its ties with the world’s first energy superpower?

The author is an Associate Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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