Limits of partnership

As Putin’s visit starts today, there is a danger that India-Russia ties may be devoid of any substance if there is no effort to navigate tough issues.

India-Russia relationship is a unique one in the Indian foreign policy matrix that just refuses to become a marginal one and was only slightly affected by the unprecedented structural changes ushered in by the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Though there was a brief period of neglect in the 1990s, a convergence of regional and global interests soon brought the two together again.

There are few examples of a relationship between countries that has been as stable as the one between India and Russia. Despite momentous changes in the international environment after the end of the Cold War, there remains a continued convergence of interests that makes it advantageous for both India and Russia to maintain close ties.

Barring a fleeting hiccup during Boris Yeltsin’s term as Russia’s president, New Delhi and Moscow have been extraordinarily successful in nurturing a friction-free relationship that harks back to the Soviet era.

But more recently, this relationship is coming to terms with its limits more significantly than at any time in its history. Every year, the Russian leaders come to India for a few hours and go back with defence deals worth billions.

This year too, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in India for 20 odd hours with promises of setting up 20-24 nuclear plants in India and offering India stakes in oil fields. Other agreements in defence, nuclear energy, customs, banking and energy are likely to be signed.

But even Indo-Russian defence partnership is not entirely free of wrinkles. There is the issue of inordinate delays in the delivery of Russian defence systems, which result in considerable cost escalation. India paid Russia $2.34 billion for the delivery of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov compared to the original $974 million agreed to in 2004.

India was also supposed to receive an Akula II nuclear-powered submarine in 2009, but its delivery was postponed to 2011. New Delhi is anxious about the timeframe for Russia’s delivery of two major projects, the stealth Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) based on PAK-FA or Sukhoi T-50 and the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MTA) based on Il-214 - to be jointly developed with India.

Russia has agreed to further expand defence ties with India, both in content and range, and has also given its nod for cooperation in sophisticated spheres of technology that the United States and other Western nations have seemed reticent to share.

Despite these successes, Russia’s privileged position as India’s defence supplier of choice has come under pressure as India has shifted its priorities to the purchase of smart weaponry which Russia is ill-equipped to provide.

Already, India’s increasing defence ties with Israel and the gradual opening of the US arms market has diminished the appeal of Russian-made weapons systems. The Indian military has also been critical of relying too heavily on Russia for defence acquisition, especially in the light of the lengthy dispute over the Admiral Gorshkov refit.

Nevertheless, Russia remains the only state willing to share defence technology of a strategic nature with India, including aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. It is equally significant that Russia is the only major global power that has not sold defence technology to Pakistan.

Civilian nuclear energy cooperation between the two countries has also gathered momentum, highlighted by their comprehensive nuclear deal and a pact to build two power plants in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, on top of the four reactors Russia is already constructing.

The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has also been instrumental in bringing India and Russia closer in recent years. Moscow has repeatedly underlined that the situation in Afghanistan impacts the security of both India and Russia underscoring their convergence of views and interests on the matter.

Their stepped-up cooperation on Afghanistan comes at a time when India is worried about the departure of western troops from Afghanistan. As New Delhi looks at alternative policy options to secure its interests, the partnership between India and Russia is likely to strengthen.

But the two nations are not really putting in an effort in giving a momentum to this partnership and continue to evade tough issues. There was no clarification as to how the two nations plan on boosting their abysmal economic ties. Bilateral trade is struggling to cross the $10 billion mark.

Russia remains concerned about Sistema as it has 56.68 per cent stake in Shyam Sistema Teleservices (SSTL), 21 of whose 22 licences were cancelled by the Supreme Court as part of its 2G spectrum order.

N liability law
India’s nuclear liability law is also preventing greater Indo-Russian civilian nuclear energy cooperation. At the strategic level, as India has moved closer to the West, in particular the US, Russia is also making overtures to Pakistan.

A military cooperation agreement that Russia has signed with Pakistan last month throws new light of Moscow’s changing priorities in South Asia. This pact envisages arms sales, greater naval cooperation including port visits by Russian warships, increased military delegation visits, training of military staff, counternarcotics and counterterrorism cooperation.

Moscow’s growing closeness with Beijing is also troubling New Delhi which is facing an aggressive China on its borders every day. China and Russia have grown increasingly close, especially as Western criticisms of and sanctions against Russia pile up in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

China and Russia have already pledged to carry out “important military cooperation projects” in 2015 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. China’s National Petroleum Corporation and Russia’ Gazprom have signed a mammoth energy deal that will see China importing natural gas from Russia for the next 30 years, further linking the two Asian giants through their energy cooperation.

It is important these vital issues are given a serious consideration by the policy makers in New Delhi and Moscow. Unless there is some real effort from both sides to navigate these tough issues, there is a danger that India-Russia ties will soon become devoid of any substance and turn into a pale shadow of their glorious past.

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