India upgrades ties with Russia, cautiously
Even though India attaches disproportionately high importance to building a close “strategic partnership” with the United States, it has begun the process of strengthening its relations with Russia, its friend from the Cold War days.
The invitation to President Vladmir Putin to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations last Friday was only the most obvious, if superficial, manifestation of this. Yet, far more important changes may be under way, which will upgrade Indo-Russian relations through greater political coordination and cooperation in respect of energy, besides closer military relations.
To start with, India and Russia have agreed to add four 1,000 megawatt reactors to a Russian-built nuclear power plant under construction at Koodankulam on the southern tip of Tamil Nadu and to build an unspecified number of nuclear reactors at new sites too.
They also announced that they would jointly develop a “fifth-generation” supersonic fighter plane, and a new medium-size transport aircraft. India will participate in “Glonass”, the Russian equivalent of a space satellite-based global positioning system (GPS). Besides these, the two signed eight agreements on a range of subjects.
Perhaps the most significant area of cooperation pertains to energy, on which President Putin and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reported having reached an “across-the-board” agreement, including oil and gas.
Development of the Sakhalin-III hydrocarbon field is probably the most important project in this regard. Indian public sector companies like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation have been eying Sakhalin with interest. Putin wants them to deal directly with Russian companies.
“The Sakhalin deal is very important from the viewpoint of India’s long-term energy security”, says K.P. Fabian, former ambassador and senior diplomat. “It shows, like the nuclear reactor agreement, that both sides are keen to scale up their relations.”
However, the keenness is tampered by caution. India is concerned not to arouse suspicion in the U.S. as regards its relations with Russia, especially on the nuclear reactor deal. So Putin and Singh did not sign a firm “inter-governmental agreement” on the Koodankulam nuclear reactors. Formally speaking, they only signed a “memorandum of intent”.
Similarly, India and Russia both emphasise that the construction of the new reactors and supply of fuel to them is conditional upon the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, a cartel of 45 nations, approving the India-U.S. nuclear deal of July 2005. But their “memorandum of intent” is likely to help secure the NSG’s approval.
In the past too, the former USSR and Russia helped India with critical nuclear supplies, when these were interrupted by sanctions and restrictions imposed by the West following India’s first nuclear test in 1974.
In 1979, the USSR sold India 250 tonnes of heavy water, of which the Indian nuclear programme was short. And last year, it rushed a consignment of highly enriched uranium for two reactors at Tarapur, near Mumbai, originally built by the U.S.
“Nevertheless, one must not look at India-Russia relations through the narrow prism of nuclear or military deals”, argues Anuradha Chenoy, a Russian studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. “The Indo-Russian relationship is a historically established and reliable relationship. It is remarkably solid and comprehensive at the political level as well.”
Adds Chenoy: “Not only has the relationship withstood the test of time; it enjoys consensual support in both countries. Even India’s Right-wing government of 1998-2004 did not tamper with it.”
Russia has traditionally supported Indian positions on a range of regional and international issues. The two governments have no clash or tension, unlike the U.S. and India do, on South Asia-related subjects, including relations with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. If Moscow supports India’s stand on Kashmir, then New Delhi too lends Russia support on its handling of the Chechnya crisis and other threats from “terrorism”.
There was a major decline and scaling down of India-Russia relations immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and former President Boris Yeltsin’s total alignment towards the West amidst a grave economic crisis which saw Russia’s GDP reduced by one-half.
However, things have been looking up since 1996, and particularly since Putin brought the state back into energy, and the economy revived. This enabled Russia to exploit the recent oil price boom, and raise its foreign exchange reserves from $12 billion in 1999 to $315 billion last year, the third largest in the world.
“There seems to be a growing recognition in Moscow that Russia’s foreign policy objectives and interests are not very different from the USSR’s, despite the changed situation after the Cold War’s end”, observes Chenoy. “Whether in West Asia, the rest of the Third World, or on trade and economic issues, Russia has more to gain by working with countries like India, China and Brazil, the constituents of the BRIC group being promoted by Goldman Sachs, rather than with the U.S. or other Western powers.”
Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated as a result of constant bullying by European Union states on energy: they want Russia to “open up” its energy resources to their companies. But Russia is keen to capitalise on its internal resources and gain leverage.
Russia will probably find it easier to deal with countries like India and China in energy matters. It has proposed a trilateral strategic relationship between them. The three governments’ representatives are likely to meet next month. They have been interacting with one another through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and other plurilateral forums.
Russia however treats its relations with India as a class apart and is particularly attentive towards India’s region-specific sensitivities. For instance, on the eve of Putin’s visit, Moscow assured New Delhi that it won’t allow China to sell to Pakistan Russian RD-93 engines for a multi-role aircraft (the JF-17 “Thunder”) being developed jointly by China and Pakistan.
Russia is at pains to demonstrate that its cooperation offers to India are considerably more generous and unconditional than India’s bargains with the West. It has offered India full, unconditional participation in its “Glanoss” GPS project – in sharp contrast to the European “Galileo” venture, which too seeks to break the U.S.’s monopoly over such systems.
Although opinion is divided in India over the need for a “fifth-generation” PAK-FA fighter aircraft, and although Russia does not allow Indian pilots to test-fly its aircraft which are under development, Moscow’s offer is significant as an indicator of its keenness to develop closer ties.
Meanwhile, the two governments have begun to address the issue of their near-stagnant mutual trade. Their economies have been recently growing at the rate of seven to nine percent a year. But bilateral trade has not even doubled over a decade. It currently stands at just $2.7 billion, in contrast to Sino-India trade (close to $20 billion, and galloping).
Another obstacle is the visa system. It is extremely difficult for Indian businessmen to get visas to visit Russia. “If the two governments resolve to sort out these and other procedural issues, their relations are likely to get stronger,” says Fabian.