Limits of partnership
Harsh V Pant
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.