India & Russia – Does the ‘special relationship’ still exist?

Indian Air Force MiG-25, IAF Museum, New Delhi

Are India and Russia still as thick as back in the good ‘ol days of the Cold War, or has the bonhomie petered off? Eurasia Review carries my article on Indo-Russian relations.

India and Russia attempt to put ties on an even keel
Vladimir Putin is on his way to New Delhi. But India-Russian ties don’t seem to be as strong as they once were.  A look at where the erstwhile allies stand.

For nearly half a century, there was one world capital that had immense influence in New Delhi: Moscow was where India’s government sought political and military support even as it tried to maintain a stance of non-alignment. This relationship went beyond politics, (perhaps for the simple reason of Moscow being far enough for India not to worry about becoming a vassal state) and there was ample evidence (such as India being the first export customer of the MiG-29) that both nations looked at each other through a prism of complete trust.

Even now, despite big-ticket acquisitions from the US, Israel, and France, most of India’s military hardware is of Russian origin, and Moscow continues to be, at least in public, a trusted ally of New Delhi. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union has had a seemingly deleterious effect on this relationship. With the inheritor of the Soviet empire, Russia, no longer as pre-eminent on the world stage, and India’s leadership acknowledging the need for closer links with the West, Indo-Russian ties seem to be suffering from a lack of direction.

Difficult times
The genesis of this gradual drift can be traced back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Russia no longer an undisputed world power, Moscow was forced to look West. The Boris Yeltsin years saw a realignment of Russia’s links with its erstwhile enemies, and the priorities of economic regeneration and reintegration with the world left little space for India, which itself was going through an economic transformation.

While the Yeltsin years are considered to be a nadir in Indo-Russian relations, if for the simple reason that India no longer enjoyed the spotlight, military ties continued to be on a sound footing. Weapons sales continued and India remained a trusted customer. Vladimir Putin’s nationalist platform then brought back the bonhomie and India again found itself more than an armaments customer.

However, the past few years have once again seen Indo-Russian ties go through a rough path. But just how deep is this rift?

India warms up to Washington
India’s economic reforms of 1991 (and thereafter), combined with the dissolution of the USSR, should have brought New Delhi closer to Washington, but the reality was very different. Relations during Bill Clinton’s stay in the White House saw frequent spats – over human rights, Washington’s support to Pakistan, the environment, trade, and of course, over India’s nuclear tests in 1998.

It was finally a series of tragedies – and not economics or a shared idea of democracy – that led to a thaw. The Kargil war of 1999, where the US recognized India’s restraint, followed by a major terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, and then the 9/11 attacks in the US, saw both nations wake up to a common threat – terrorism, something  New Delhi had long felt was being ignored by Washington.

George Bush’s tenure then witnessed a remarkable turnaround in relations with India. New Delhi’s impeccable nuclear proliferation record (and the prospect of reactor sales) saw it rewarded with a nuclear deal that put it at par with the nuclear weapons states in everything but name, while India looked at the US as a valuable trading partner.

The Indian Navy acquired its first US-built vessel (the INS Jalashwa, formerly the USS Trenton) and signed a deal for the Boeing P-8I, the Indian Air Force bought C-130 transports, while the Indian Army is acquiring M-4 rifles. During all this, joint training and maneuvers have now become a commonplace occurrence. The bottomline is that the US’ greater global reach vis-à-vis Russia and trade opportunities have combined to make the US the central player in India’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Israel has emerged as another major strategic partner of India, becoming India’s second-largest arms supplier (and reportedly besting Russia in 2008).

Not seeing eye-to-eye
During all this time, while India and Russia tried to keep up the appearance of a happy couple, cracks began to appear. The Indian purchase of the Russian aircraft carrier, Gorshkov, remains mired in delays, cost overruns, and quality concerns. To add to New Delhi’s discomfiture, a senior Naval officer was also alleged to have been ensnared in a Russian ‘honey trap’. Apart from this, Russian engines have appeared in Chinese JF-17 fighters operated by the Pakistani Air Force, while Moscow has publicly backed Islamabad’s bid for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Then came the results of India’s Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition. The European Eurofighter, the Swedish Gripen, The American F/A-18E and F-16, and of course, the Russian MiG-35, found themselves sidelined in favor of the French Rafale for what is one of the biggest weapons deals in recent times. While purely technical arguments have been put forth over the Rafale’s selection, it is a commonly-held belief that one of the factors going against the MiG-35 was a fear of over-reliance on Russian military hardware.

The MRCA deal, in particular, has impacted ties; one of the consequences was Russia’s cancellation of Naval and Army exercises which, while attributed to operational constraints, may have reinforced Indian perceptions that Russia could not be relied upon.

Adding to the malaise in defense ties are a slew of economic and business disputes: Russian conglomerate Sistema’s ill-fated $3.1 billion foray into the Indian telecom sector now hangs in the balance following an Indian court’s decision to revoke its operating licenses. New Delhi’s refusal to grant the Russian-built Kudankulam nuclear power plant complete exemption from its civil liability laws (The two units under construction will be exempt but any new reactors will not) is also a sore point with Moscow. Apart from this, Moscow is probably a bit bewildered at seeing India’s raucous-but-active democracy result in the plant facing delays!

Into the breach? Ukraine counts on defense and energy deals
India’s relationship with the second-largest Soviet inheritor, Ukraine, is perhaps even more complex than with Russia. Following the Orange Revolution, Ukraine tried to forge new partnerships, coming closer to Pakistan – its sale of T-80 tanks and surplus IL-78 transport aircraft was viewed with alarm in New Delhi.

However, with Viktor Yanukovych becoming president, an upswing in relations might be on the cards. On his recent visit to India, Yanukovych indicated that with him at the helm, Kiev and New Delhi could come closer. It has to be pointed out here that at the time of the USSR’s dissolution, Ukraine was home to a large chunk – around 30% – of Soviet military production capabilities. Even now, despite a ‘drift’ in ties, close military co-operation exists – Ukraine has supplied marine engines to India and is also upgrading the latter’s AN-32 transports.

Yanukovch’s India trip also saw the two sides explore areas of future co-operation: Annual trade currently stands are around $3 billion, but partnerships in the fields of oil & gas exploration, nuclear power, engineering, and agriculture could take this much higher.

Even so, despite Kiev’s hopes, it cannot realistically hope to replace Russia as India’s main defense supplier – Despite differences, and notwithstanding India’s big-ticket purchases of Western equipment, Russian designed/built armaments form the mainstay of the Indian forces.

Putin’s visit: What to expect?
Russian President Vladimir Putin will be visiting India later this month – his trip was expected to take place in November, but was rescheduled, allegedly due to ‘domestic’ reasons.

What can we expect? One thing that is worth mentioning is that despite many prickly issues, there are several bright spots – One can point to the success of the BrahMos cruise missile and INS Chakra (formerly the K-152 Nerpa) for every MRCA and Gorshkov dispute. Afghanistan is another area where they have common interests – the impending US pullout will be causing heartburn in both Delhi and Moscow over the possibility of increased meddling by Pakistan. Putin’s visit is also likely to see a push towards greater trade and military ties – It is rumored that $7 billion in defense contracts are ready to be signed – including for Su-30MKI fighters and AL-31 aircraft engines.

While outstanding commercial disputes and defense procurement delays are expected to be the main items on the agenda, it would also be naive to dismiss Indo-Russian ties on the basis of the recent rough patch. The two nations might often bicker, but there are no serious differences that could result in a major rift. Delhi and Moscow both know the other can be trusted – if not to be an ally, at least to not be overly antagonistic. At the same time, despite the public demonstrations of bonhomie and partnership than can be expected, a major realignment can be counted out – commercial considerations might just be the biggest factor going forward.

…While outstanding commercial disputes and defense procurement delays are expected to be the main items on the agenda, it would also be naive to dismiss Indo-Russian ties on the basis of the recent rough patch. The two nations might often bicker, but there are no serious differences that could result in a major rift. Delhi and Moscow both know the other can be trusted – if not to be an ally, at least to not be overly antagonistic…

 

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