Defence Minister AK Antony's significant Russia visit was lost in the domestic political din, yet the message he brought must cheer India. It's not just the confirmation of the delivery schedule for aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly 'Admiral Gorshkov'). New Delhi had been concerned at the delay in its delivery resulting in the escalation of cost from $1.5 bn to $2.33 bn. They also discussed the pending lease of the K-152 Nerpa nuclear multi-purpose attack submarine and licensed production and overseas maintenance of the Su-30MKI aircraft and T-90S tanks.
India remains the largest buyer of military hardware from Russia. According to Jyotsna Bakshi of the IDSA, "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, 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 co-operation programme up to 2010 is generally agreed to be around $9-10 bn."
The long-term defence deals and smoothening the friendship pathway till Vladimir Putin is finally ensconced as 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 and hence it will see at least three Chinese presidents and an equal number of Indian prime ministers. If that happens, Putin would be the longest serving Russian ruler after Joseph Stalin.
Antony formally discussed military and technology cooperation with Russia's defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, as a follow-up to the 10th meeting of the intergovernmental commission (IRIGC-MTC) held in 2010, which was organised after the 2009 agreement on military cooperation up till 2020. Russia is the only country to have such a long-lasting agreement with India on cooperation in this sphere.
Remember, 2009 was the first year of the newly elected Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after a long eight-year stint by Putin, who couldn't continue as the constitution provided a maximum of two successive terms of four years each. The 2009 military cooperation agreement was in fact drafted during Putin's regime and signed when Medvedev had taken over following a mutually agreed arrangement. Medvedev has already had the Russian constitution amended to facilitate a six-year period for the president for two successive terms.
The spectre of soon seeing a more forceful Putin, powered by an enhanced two terms of six years each, has terrified the West, which is portraying Russia under Putin-2 becoming more autocratic and militarised. But in reality, it's 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.
So far Russia has remained for India a trustworthy ally who, although extracting a heavy price for it, never ditched us at a critical time. It's such a rare virtue in the contemporary world scenario of shifting friends and changing goal posts, that India too has agreed to gulp some of the bitter experiences and remain loyal to its all-weather friend. We tried the US since independence, but may be due to historical reasons and Nehru's obsession with socialist regimes; Washington never proved itself as a reliable democratic ally. Rather, it found autocratic rulers more comfortable and put its strategic eggs in the basket of India's archenemy, Pakistan.
Indira Gandhi, as a great nationalist leader, knew it. 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, US and China. The erstwhile Soviet Union too needed India's cooperation 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 countries with our help. India's position as a genuine non-aligned country helped Moscow no end.
Having forged a contextual convergence of geo-political strategic interests, a historic 'Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation' was signed on August 9, 1971, in New Delhi. It did help us very significantly during the Bangladesh war, when the US sent its seventh Fleet to help Pakistan, and the 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'.
Though some changes began during Gorbachev's regime, who initiated the 'China first' policy, and while in the post-Soviet era the Russian federation remained committed to the friendship, small hiccups began to surface. Delayed supplies of spare parts, 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, and a repeat order for $1.5 billion was placed in early 2010 for 29 additional MiG-29Ks).
Seeing the changing scenario post-Cold War and a shift in US policy towards Pakistan coupled with a growing Russian-China cooperation, which heralds an era of bitter conflicts and distrust for each other, India too is ready to have a relook at its 'complete dependence on Moscow' situation to a healthy strategic partnership. And 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 and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which was resisted by India, may be fearing US annoyance, but now, seeing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and easing of tensions in the region, India sought full membership, which has been accepted.
Besides, Islamist terrorism, which threatens India, Russia and China, and the US geopolitics of dominance are factors 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 indigenously producing spare parts for hardware supplied by Russia.
Yeltsin reinforced Gorbachev's strategic relationship of coalition with China, 'emphasising the need for de-ideologisation of foreign policy'. Putin didn't change it. The astounding levels of Russia-China military cooperation must make India cautious. Post-Afghanistan withdrawal, Russia seems to be keen on improving relations with Pakistan.
In this context, India will be advised well to welcome Putin wholeheartedly, yet try to build up its independent capabilities. Putin has a tough guy image, his immense popularity with the masses powers him to take on the Western bloc and challenge US positions. Let him do that. India with its fragmented polity, can't hope to have the same position. Hence India must not burn its boats with the West, which remains an ideologically close bloc, as a democratic, plural, multi religious and multi-cultural region. 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 the policy. The same principle must hold true for India-Russia relations in the coming Putin era too.