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What Putin's return means for India

October 12, 2011 13:02 IST

In diplomacy, like in politics, there are no permanent friends or foes. The same principle must be true for India-Russia relations in the coming Putin era, says Tarun Vijay.

Defence Minister A K Antony's significant Russia visit was lost in the domestic political din, yet the message he brought must cheer up India.

It is not just the confirmation of the delivery schedule for the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly, the Admiral Gorshkov). Delhi had been concerned at the delay in its delivery, resulting in the escalation of the cost from $1.5 billion to $2.33 billion.

Antony also discussed the pending lease of the K-152 Nerpa nuclear multi-purpose attack submarine and licensed production and overseas maintenance of Su-30MKI aircraft and T-90S tanks.

India remains the largest buyer of military hardware from Russia.

According to Jyotsna Bakshi at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 'the major weapon systems acquired or contracted from Russia in the last five years include Su-30MKI multi-role fighter aircraft, Il-78 tanker aircraft to be used as platform for Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), Mi-17-IV military transport helicopters, R-77 air-to-air missiles, Kilo class/type 877E submarines, frigates, Ka-31 Helix airborne early warning helicopters, aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, MiG-29K, including MiG-29KUB version for use on aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, Ka-27PL (Ka-28 version) and Ka-31 helicopters; T-90 tanks, fire control radar, air and sea surveillance radar, combat radar, aircraft radar, anti-tank and anti- ship missiles, etc... The value of projects under the current long-term defence cooperation programme up to 2010 is generally agreed to be around $9 billion to $10 billion.'

The long term defence deals and smoothening the friendship pathway till Vladimir Putin is finally ensconced as Russia's president next year was more important. For us, Putin's return holds greater significance than anything else in bilateral ties.

Putin's ascendancy to the top job might be the longest one, till 2024, if all goes well. It will see at least three Chinese presidents and an equal number of Indian prime ministers. If that occurs, Putin will be the longest-serving ruler at the Kremlin after Josef Stalin.

Antony discussed military and technology cooperation with Russia's Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov as a follow-up to the 10th meeting of the intergovernmental commission held in 2010, which was organised after the 2009 agreement on military cooperation valid till 2020.

Russia is the only country to have such a long-lasting agreement with India on military cooperation.

Remember, 2009 was the first year of the newly elected Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after Putin's eight-year stint. Putin could not continue as president under the then prevailing constitutional provision providing a maximum of two successive presidential terms of four years each.

The 2009 military cooperation agreement was in fact drafted during Putin's regime and signed when Medvedev took over following a mutually agreed arrangement. Medvedev has had the Russian constitution amended, facilitating a six-year period for the president for two successive terms.

The spectre of seeing soon a more forceful Putin, powered with an enhanced two-term mandate of six years each, has terrified the West, which is portraying Russia under Putin-2 becoming more autocratic and militarised.

But in reality it is the fear of losing unchallenged Western, nay American supremacy, in a Putin era that may encourage the Russia-China-India equation overwhelming US interests and power play in this region.

Russia has remained a trustworthy ally of India so far. Though Moscow extracted a heavy price for its friendship, it never ditched New Delhi at any critical time.

It is such a rare phenomenon in the contemporary world scenario of shifting friends and changing goalposts that India too gulped some bitter experiences and remain loyal to the all weather friend.

The United States, possibly due to historical reasons and Jawaharlal Nehru's obsession with Socialist regimes, never proved a reliable democratic ally. Washington found autocratic rulers more comfortable and put its strategic eggs in the basket of India's arch enemy, Pakistan.

Indira Gandhi, as a great nationalist leader, knew this. That was the time when the US-Pakistan military nexus was in full play and Pakistan was also strategically collaborating closely with China, thus putting India on the adverse side of the two big powers, the US and China.

The erstwhile Soviet Union too needed India to contain China and Pakistan, continue its comfort levels of operations in Afghanistan and resist US plans in the region while reaching out to the Third World with our help.

India's position as a genuine non-aligned country helped Moscow no end. Having forged contextual convergence of geo-political strategic interests, the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed on August 9, 1971 in New Delhi.

The treaty helped us significantly during the war with Pakistan that winter, when the US sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India and help Pakistan. India-Soviet cooperation went much beyond military ties.

Articles 8, 9, and 10 of the Treaty commits both countries 'to abstain from providing any assistance to any third party that engages in armed conflict with the other' and 'in the event of either party being subjected to an attack or threat thereof to immediately enter into mutual consultations.'

In the post-Soviet era, the Russian Federation remained committed to friendship with India, but small hiccups began to surface.

Delayed supplies of military spare parts, frequent MiG crashes, made South Block rethink its huge military hardware orders. India had ordered 16 MiG-29Ks for $650 million in 2004, intended to fly off the Russian-built aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. A repeat order for $1.5 billion was placed in early 2010 for 29 additional MiG-29Ks.

Post the Cold War, a shift in US policy towards Pakistan, coupled with growing Russian-China cooperation, which heralds an era of bitter conflict and distrust for each other, India too is ready to have a relook at its complete dependence on Moscow.

This position is reinforced with new equations in Russia-China-India cooperation expressed through the coming together of the three major powers on economic platforms like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, which was intially resisted by India, possibly fearing American annoyance.

With the imminent US withdrawal from Afghanistan and easing of tensions in the region, India has now sought full membership of SCO, which has been accepted.

Besides Islamist terrorism, which threatens India, Russia and China, the US geo-politics of dominance is a factor that make the three giants work together. But this cooperation must be tested at every level. While cooperation is a good word, India must begin reducing its dependence on Russia and opt for producing indigenously spare parts for military hardware supplied by Russia.

The astounding levels of Russia-China military cooperation must make India cautious. Post the US withdrawal of Afghanistan, Russia also seems keen on improving relations with Pakistan.

In this context, India will be advised to welcome Putin wholeheartedly, yet build its independent capabilities. Putin has a tough guy image; his popularity powers him to take on the West and challenge American positions. Let him do that.

India with its fragmented polity cannot hope to do likewise. Hence, India must not burn its boats with the West, which remains ideologically close, as a democratic, plural, multi-religious and multi-cultural bloc.

SCO and BRICS notwithstanding, our Look East policy must also be reinvigorated and trusted democratic friends like Japan and Korea should not be isolated on our radar of foreign relations.

In diplomacy, like in politics, there are no permanent friends or foes. Only interests guide policy. The same principle must be true for India-Russia relations in the coming Putin era.

Tarun Vijay is a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament and a national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Tarun Vijay