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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

Putin comes to India riding on Russia's resurgence

January 25, 2007

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Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to India on Thursday will be a landmark event. This could be, in all probability, Putin's last State visit to India before laying down office following a momentous eight-year period in power in the Kremlin.

Putin's extraordinary legacy lies in that these eight years will be noted in the chronicles as a profoundly transformational period for Russia, indeed for the Indo-Russian strategic partnership.

And what lends enchantment to the view is that such a splendid legacy straddled an epoch of transition for the international system marked by high turbulence and imbalance.

There was never any real doubt about Russia 's re-emergence on the world scene -- its rise like a Phoenix out of the debris of the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Nor were there any two opinions about the immense intellectual reserves of the Russian people, or their civilisational assets accumulated through millennia and, least of all, their capacity for perseverance and fortitude.

Through the period of disarray in the 1990s, the country was yearning for an inspiring leadership.

Seldom in modern history has a leader achieved such remarkable success against such seemingly hopeless odds, as Putin has in marshalling the native genius of his people. The saga has few parallels -- and it filters across despite Putin's own modest, infrequent, deadpan presentation of it.

In the event, Putin has led Russia's journey back to the centre-stage of world politics as a great power. The international system will never be the same again.

But it is Putin's legacy for Indo-Russian relations that will be in focus this week. In a nutshell, during the Putin era, Indo-Russian strategic partnership has successfully adapted to globalisation.

Nothing brings this home more poignantly than the paradox that a major highlight of Putin's visit could well be the decision by the two leaderships to enter into a qualitatively new level of cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, which has become possible within the framework of the Indo-US nuclear deal.

In other words, Moscow and Delhi would be tapping the verve and swagger of the recent years' upswing in Indo-US cooperation for enriching their strategic partnership.

It signifies a new thinking that scandalises many zero-sum assumptions of the 1990s (both in Delhi and in Moscow) regarding a 'unipolar' world that would set limits to the potential for cooperation between Russia and India in the post-Soviet era.

Such a transition has become possible mainly because of the broad harmony that exists in the national priorities of the two countries in the field of their foreign policy.

There are three main pillars in the foreign policy architecture pursued by Putin's Russia. First, Putin's foreign policy is devoid of dogma, and it remains highly flexible and pragmatic.

Second, Russia is pursuing a so-called 'multi-vector' approach n foreign policy. Translated in plain terms, Russia will not act as a member of any bloc of nations but would have the freedom to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Third, the determinant of Russian foreign policy trajectories at all time will solely consist of the pursuit of Russia's national interests.

These main impulses behind Russian foreign policy have a striking similarity with India's own aspirations as an emerging power.

But beyond that lies a far more profound reality, that both Moscow and Delhi have left behind a whole lot of shibboleths in their worldview.

For Moscow, the learning curve meant a painful realisation by the second half of the 1990s that the charm offensive of the Bill Clinton administration never really meant what it appeared to the naked eye, as it never seriously made any provision for an accommodation of Boris Yeltsin's Russia as a genuine partner of the United States.

Not only that, as the renowned American scholar on Russia Stephen Cohen recently wrote, in actuality the United States was pursuing a hostile policy toward Russia, which was even harsher than its policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, as it aimed at ensuring that Russia never ever regained its influence as a great power.

Strobe Talbott's chilling narrative The Russia Hand reveals that Washington made it a point to be prescriptive toward Moscow not only in respect of how the latter must set its house in order but also how it must conduct its old friendships with countries like India.

In Cohen's estimation, the US's policy toward Russia was derived from a point of 'triumphalism' rooted on the false assumption that Washington's 'containment' strategy vis-�-vis the Soviet Union was a comprehensive success, whereas, in reality, historians away from the hurly-burly of propaganda and publicity would know that the ending of the Cold War was the result of a negotiated settlement and the disbandment of the Soviet Union was a unilateral move by Boris Yeltsin.

The Russian disenchantment with the Clinton administration was already apparent by the mid-1990s. But, in the event, it kept simmering for another half a decade.

To be sure, Russian disenchantment with Washington was far more agonising (and dramatic) than India's sober realisation that rhetoric apart, it could never really be a 'natural ally' of the United States.

Three useful lessons come out of the tortuous history of Russian-American relations in the post-Cold War era. First, the US doesn't easily brook the emergence of independent players on the world stage. Second, the US would go to any extent to make sure that its global dominance in the 21st century doesn't get challenged. Third, it is virtually impossible to expect an equitable relationship with the US.

But what Indians might make a serious note out of the unhappy experience of Boris Yeltsin's Russia is that the US has never really been in the business of making great powers out of other countries.

Putin's greatest achievement has been in purging Russian institutions and national life of the hydra-like infiltration by the US agencies during the years of anarchy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Much of Washington's wrath toward Putin stems from the fact that the vice-like grip of the US over Yeltsin's Russia does not any longer exist.

Putin uprooted it thoroughly and ruthlessly. He cleansed Russia's political economy.

In the process, he made sure that the US must negotiate with Russia. And, generally speaking, the US didn't expect that a need would ever arise to negotiate with Russia.

If a defining moment must be mentioned in the co-relation of forces in the post-Cold war era, that was the summer of 2005 -- over the Yukos affair. Even under an avalanche of condemnation from the US, very often in the nature of calumnies, Putin didn't blink.

But they must have been very lonely times for Putin. Something of a sense of the times one gets in a series of television interviews that Putin gave at that time, which also coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

Those were rare occasions when Putin was willing to speak about himself -- the hallmark of a lonely man.

The sense of frustration in the US over the Yukos affair was palpable. American oil majors had never come that close to gaining a grip on Russia's fabulous oil reserves, when Putin moved decisively.

Is Russia's consolidation helpful for India? Certainly, the development of a traditionally close and friendly power as a new global centre of influence and growth strengthens a multipolar international system. And that has great bearing for India in the pursuit of its own interests in the world order.

Like Putin's Russia, India too would firmly uphold its national interests without being confrontational. Russia's jettisoning of bloc-based, ideological motives has enabled it to take an unbiased view of international realities. That brings Russia much closer to the Indian approach to defining its interests.

Overarching all this is the unspoken affinity between Russia and India that neither of them is a status quo power. What lies ahead of them is, therefore, a vista of possibilities by way of mutually reinforcing their shared concerns and common interests in a multipolar world arrangement.

Mikhail Gorbachev wrote last week, 'During the 1990s, which were a difficult time for my country, I said that Russia's time would pass, that it would rise to its feet and forge ahead. That is what is happening now'.

It will be to Delhi's satisfaction to hear from Putin that the most difficult part of the road to recovery is already behind Russia. Nothing will suit India's interests more than Russia's resurgence, its insistence on protecting its interests and, most important, its ability to play a proper role in the world.


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