Grab the opportunities

Grab the opportunities

It will be a mistake to reduce India-Russia ties to a ‘boutique’ partnership devolving upon defence and nuclear cooperation.

The sweet silent sessions of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Cooperation Commission are as ancient as the hills and are permeated with an old-world alchemy that is uncommon nowadays. But herein also lies a danger that they might have come to assume a ‘routine’ character.

The meeting in New Delhi last week held out the promise of new thinking, but it was mostly at Russia’s initiative. The Indian side seems to miss out something terribly important. Vladimir Putin’s new presidency in the Kremlin has just begun in May. Putin is a man of history and if Russia has risen like the Phoenix out of the ashes of the former Soviet Union, the credit largely goes to his leadership. From the Indian viewpoint too, Putin is a charismatic figure insofar as he has never hidden the primacy he attaches to relations with our country. In his first major foreign-policy speech recently at the conference of Russian ambassadors, Putin singled out India alongside China as Moscow’s two priority relationships, just a shade below Russia’s own integration with the former Soviet republics.

Putin’s thoughtful appointment of deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin as the co-chairman of the Commission with India needs to be understood. Putin handpicked Rogozin for the crucial job of modernising Russia’s defence industry. Rogozin’s focus is on innovation, high technology and the upgrade of Russia’s strategic capability. The Russian economy is doing well – European financial crisis is yet to cause much difficulty for Russia – and Moscow has earmarked $600 billion on upgrading its armed forces over the next ten years. Evidently, ‘post-Soviet’ Russia’s challenge is no more the paucity of funds but whether the country’s arms industry will be up to the task.

Rogozin has a challenge on his hands since the design and production facilities in Russia are more suited for legacy weapons rather than modern designs. The creation of a world-class machine-tool defence industry has become the topmost priority. Putin’s agenda envisages that a strong defence industry is imperative for Russia to perform optimally on the global balance of power.

Rogozin is also a nationalist politician with a definite worldview and a clear-cut conception of the role and potentials of Russian-Indian partnership in the contemporary world situation, as can be easily deduced from his previous assignment in Brussels as ambassador to Nato. In sum, India-Russia defence cooperation is at the threshold of a new phase. Unsurprisingly, Rogozin’s emphasis was on ‘joint development’ of military equipment and systems with India “with eventual sales of products and prototypes to third countries.” This is a unique Russian offer, which India won’t hear with sincerity from any quarter in the west.

Clearing house

The India-Russia commission is a ‘clearing-house’ that ensures result-oriented cooperation. From that angle, what stood out were two templates – Russia’s invitation to India to jointly work on the upgrade of the Global Navigation Satellite System and, second, Russia’s $3.4 billion credit to India for the construction of two additional reactors at Kudankulam nuclear power project.

Putin’s year end visit for the annual India-Russia summit will take place against the backdrop of a complex regional and international environment. Nothing brings this home as starkly as the fact that India found itself voting on Thursday in favour of the resolution on Syria sponsored by the west, which Russia unhesitatingly vetoed alongside China – while Pakistan abstained. A visit by Putin to Pakistan is also on the cards, which if it takes place will be the first by a Russian head of state to that country. 

The Russia-China strategic partnership today is at its highest-ever point in history. But it is a partnership that cannot transform into an alliance; indeed, neither side looks for an alliance. There is no reason for India to be wary of the Sino-Russian ties; arguably, India may even have selective use for it as it inches towards membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Again, the trajectory of Russia-Pakistan ties needs to be seen in the context of the uncertainties of the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan. Russia’s participation in energy projects with Pakistan such as the TAPI gas pipeline project can even work to India’s advantage.

All in all, therefore, India-Russia relationship is cruising along without any serious contradictions. But then, herein lies the rub. The Achilles’ heel is that it is becoming ‘routine,’ which inevitably breeds bureaucratic inertia. For example, Russia is drawing up a mammoth programme for the development of Siberia and the Far East and is talking with China, Japan and South Korea. But all that India could think up is how to provide cheap labour for those gigantic projects that enterprising Asia-Pacific businessmen create – and that too, provided Moscow could do something to moderate the harsh climate of Siberia and the Russian Far East. This theatre of the absurd betrays an unnerving lack of seriousness.

It will be a mistake to incrementally reduce India-Russia ties to a ‘boutique’ partnership devolving upon defence and nuclear cooperation. There is need to shed bureaucratic torpor and to be creative.The ground reality is that Russia’s trade with India stands at the ridiculously low figure of $9 billion while Sino-Russian trade touches $100 billion and India’s own trade with China steadily approaches the three-digit figure. Clearly, neither Russia nor India is lacking in the robust pursuit of economic diplomacy – except, it seems, when they occasionally get around to dealing with each other.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
Comments (+)