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Home > News > Columnists > K Subrahmanyam

The lessons from Putin's visit

January 29, 2007

K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India's strategic affairs analysts, assesses the impact of the Russian leader's visit.

As expected, the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Delhi went off very successfully, rejuvenating the time-tested Indo-Russian strategic partnership and adding new dimensions to it.

Among other things, Russia has agreed to initiate joint development of a fifth generation combat aircraft and a multi-role transport aircraft. Further possibilities in defence R&D cooperation are being explored.

The Putin visit: complete coverage

Russia has also addressed India's concern about China supplying Pakistan with fighter aircraft with Russian engines by invoking the end user provision in its agreement with China to prevent this from happening.

Russia has also promised four more light water reactors for India once the Nuclear Suppliers Group clears India, besides collaboration in other aspects of nuclear technology. There were other agreements on energy, space cooperation, expansion of trade etc.

Despite Beijing buying more defence equipment from Moscow than Delhi does, India was chosen to jointly develop the fifth generation fighter aircraft.

In 1962, Moscow had granted India licence to produce MiG-21 aircraft while refusing it to China. But times have changed. Russia and China are founder members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the joint statement issued in Delhi refers approvingly to the SCO, of which India -- along with Pakistan -- is an observer.

Russia has an increasing defence and trade relationship with China, and is also likely to emerge as the most significant energy supplier of that country.

Russia is no longer an ideological power and is fully integrated in the international system, having accepted both democracy and market economy as basic principles of governance. And it is playing the balance of power game quite skillfully.

It is not trying to counter US influence on India on the nuclear issue through its nuclear offers, nor is it trying to counter China with its offer to India to develop new generation fighter aircraft.

Why Russia and India matter to each other

Though the Russia-Japan peace treaty has not been signed and the Kuriles Islands dispute has not been solved, Russia is negotiating a pipeline to supply oil and gas to Japan.

Already one of Europe's major energy suppliers, it is soon likely to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's largest energy exporter.

A member of the G-8 group of industrialised nations along with the US, Canada, Japan, UK, France, Germany and Italy, it is also expected to join the WTO shortly.

Russia is also a member of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and has a Founding Act relationship with NATO. A high ranking Russian general is stationed at NATO headquarters.

Russia is developing the International Space Station in collaboration with the US and hopes to discuss a coordination arrangement between its space based navigation system GLONASS and the American Global Positioning System.

It is also collaborating with the US and other advanced nations on nuclear energy technologies like the International Thermo-Nuclear Energy Research and Global Nuclear Energy Programme. It is a member of various technology control regimes such as the Nonproliferation Treaty, Missile Control Regime and Waassenaar arrangement.

An adversary of the US, Europe and Japan during the entire Cold War era, and of China too during the latter part of that war, Russia has over the last 15 years completely transformed the framework of its international relations.

In the last six years under Putin's leadership, both its standard of living and its international clout have grown. It is the only power that claims to have an uninterceptible intercontinental ballistic missile.

Putin comes to India riding on Russia's resurgence

In Asia, which is growing in importance as the economic centre of gravity of international systems, Russia is one of the four balancers of power along with China, Japan and India.

Russia has seen India as a key to Asian stability for the past 50 years, some four decades before George W Bush's team reached that conclusion.

The Soviet Union -- the predecessor of Russia -- was the first nation to have a correct assessment of India's balancing role in Asia and the world in geo-strategic terms from mid-1950s onwards.

Consequently the Indo-Soviet/Indo-Russian relationship was sustained over six decades in spite of the fact that India was a democracy and largely a market economy and the Soviet Union was neither, except for a brief duration under Boris Yeltsin, when US-oriented personalities were dominant in Moscow's decision making.

Slideshow: Ties That Bind, Part I | Part II

President Putin is a fervent Russian nationalist and has an acute understanding of geopolitics and the present day globalised world of balance of power.

Moscow no longer believes that Indo-Russian joint diplomacy has to be at the expense of either China or the US.

Since the end of the Cold War, neither Russia nor China have pursued a blind anti-American policy.They have hardly exercised their vetoes in the UN Security Council except in cases which did not challenge vital US interests -- such as the recent issue relating to Myanmar.

President Putin has also made it clear that on Iran, Moscow had a nuanced policy which does not accommodate an Iran with nuclear weapons.

Russian and Chinese policies are based on their national interests and no longer on ideology as the Iran vote shows.

Sadly, there has not been as much understanding and appreciation of geo-strategic factors in New Delhi as there has been in Moscow. Otherwise, there would have been far more interest and purposeful Indian action in the Central Asian Republics in consultation with the Russian leadership.

Moscow's example highlights to India that in a balance of power world, India has to learn to deal simultaneously with all major powers to enhance its own national interest.

The Putin visit and the Russian nuclear offer have clearly established that India is not just dealing with the US Congress on the technology denial issue, but with an international regime in which Russia and China are members.

While Russia can help India when it comes to consideration in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India has to deal with the bilateral agreement with the US administration and with the IAEA on India specific safeguards.

If India wants to take full advantage of Moscow's nuclear offer, it has to deal expeditiously with these issues first.

Unless these are negotiated, one would not know what the real hurdles will be and whether they will be insuperable.